There has been a lot of debate about whether Novak Djokovic’s 2015, when he won all the Grand Slam titles except Roland Garros, was better than his 2011, when he triumphed at the same three majors but not at the French championships.
This argument, at least as far as Tebbutt Tuesday is concerned, is a non-starter. There’s no doubt 2011 was superior and for two reasons.
First, he started the year ranked No. 3 behind No. 1 Rafael Nadal and No. 2 Roger Federer and overtook them both. He defeated Nadal all six times they played and was 4-1 against Federer, with the only blemish coming in the semifinals of the French Open.
Second, his record in 2011 – not counting his retirement (shoulder) in the Cincinnati final against Andy Murray nor the four times opponents retired during matches against him – was 60-1 through until the end of the US Open. In 2015 it has been 63-5.
As regards the first point, it’s hard to imagine any player any time soon so decisively surpassing (or even having the opportunity) two players of the stature of Nadal and Federer in a single season. In theory, probably only a calendar year Grand Slam sweep would trump what Djokovic did in 2011 in terms of dominating two all-time greats while both were still in their primes.
Concerning the 60-1 record in 2011 through the US Open, the lone loss came against Federer in that French Open semifinal. It probably had as much to do with Djokovic going into the match on a 41-0 winning streak (and feeling the pressure) as it did with Federer’s fine play.
Even just going by the official record, in 2011 Djokovic was 64-2 after the US Open and this year he has been 63-5. He surely doesn’t now regret his early season losses in 2015 – when he was sick to Ivo Karlovic in Doha in early January and to Federer in the Dubai final at his first tournament after winning his fifth Australian Open a few weeks earlier. That likely defused much of the winning streak pressure he may have felt four years ago going into the meat of the European spring season.
As for what happened after the US Open in 2011, Djokovic was not stellar but really by then the crux of tennis season and the tournaments that the players peak for are ancient history.
What’s probably most puzzling about the Djokovic record is how he could win three of the four Slams in 2011 and again in 2015 but only manage one a year in 2012, 2013 and 2014, especially because there were no significant injuries that we know of that affected his performance.
There has been an element of bad luck in some of the three Grand Slam defeats he suffered in each of those years. Here’s a quick resume:
French Open: Rain interrupted the final at 2-1 for Djokovic in the fourth set with the Serb on a good run but Nadal dominated the resumption the following day winning 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5.
Wimbledon: He lost 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the semifinals to Federer on a day he played almost incomprehensibly poor tennis.
US Open: He had to finish off David Ferrer in a rain-interrupted match on Sunday while Andy Murray rested. He then wound up losing in five sets – 7-6(11), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2 – the following day, giving the Scot his first Grand Slam title.
French Open: He lost 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7(3), 9-7 to Nadal in a semifinal when he famously touched the net in a rally he had won in a service game that would have put him a point from a 5-3 lead in the final set.
Wimbledon: After playing four hours and 43 minutes to defeat Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals, he looked uninspired (gassed?) two days later in losing a 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 final to Murray in the final.
US Open: A Monday night final with a Davis Cup semifinal against Canada in Belgrade looming a few days later, Djokovic couldn’t take advantage of a love-40 lead on the Nadal serve late in the third set and ultimately went down 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.
Australian Open: Djokovic lost 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7 to Stan Wawrinka in the quarter-finals as the Swiss finally turned the tables after monster five-set losses to him at the Australian and US Opens the previous year.
French Open: A temperate Roland Garros turned hot and humid – not Djokovic weather – for the final and he gradually wilted in a 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 loss to Nadal.
US Open: Hot, humid weather hit just in time for the Saturday semifinal against an in-form Kei Nishikori who outplayed Djokovic 6-4, 1-6, 7-6(4), 6-3.
There were certainly other times when Djokovic won Grand Slams when the breaks went his way – most obviously in 2011 when he saved two match points to beat Federer in the US Open semifinals before winning the final against Nadal. But there was more misfortune – principally at the French Open this year when he had to finish off an exhausting five-set semifinal against Murray and was vulnerable against eventual winner, the well-rested Stan Wawrinka, in the final. “Even Novak needs time to recuperate,” Djokovic’s coach Boris Becker would remark after the 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 loss.
Djokovic, currently on a 17-match winning streak, said after winning the recent ATP events in Beijing and Shanghai in consecutive weeks “I think in terms of two tournaments in back‑to‑back weeks, this has been the best two weeks of my career. I think I’ve played the best tennis ever in these two weeks in terms of back‑to‑back.”
There’s no question Djokovic’s level of play is now superior to 2011. But his mano a mano accomplishments that year remain truly exceptional and may never be equaled.
The WTA grand finale
The 2015 BNP Paribas WTA Finals going on this week in Singapore are missing Serena Williams, the indisputably best player in the women’s game.
That’s a huge loss for the $6.5 million (US) event, but likely not in terms of the competitive balance. Williams is a combined 61-6 against the eight players in the field. Three of the players have never beaten her, four have won once and the other, Maria Sharapova, has won twice. But the last time she accomplished that feat was 11 years ago. Williams leads their head-to-head 18-2, and is 17-0 since 2004.
In the absence of Williams, the star power of the event is concentrated in Sharapova, and in Venus Williams, who is in Singapore but only as the alternate player in case of injury. So Sharapova is carrying the freight and she did an impressive job in her opening match on Sunday – needing two hours and 47 minutes to beat Agnieszka Radwanska 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
It was quite amazing that it was the 28-year-old Russian’s first full match since her semifinal loss to Serena at Wimbledon in early July – she had to retire with a left forearm injury leading 2-1 in the third set against Barbora Strycova in Wuhan, China, in late September.
“This is my first completed match since July, so it’s a pretty big deal for me,” Sharapova said. “Coming into this event, I did everything I could to be healthy. I just didn’t quite know how my results would go.”
Current world No. 2 Simona Halep, bothered recently by an Achilles injury, won her opening match convincingly 6-0, 6-3 over Flavia Pennetta – with the 33-year-old US Open champion playing the final event of her career.
On Tuesday, Sharapova won a high-caliber contest with Halep by a 6-4, 6-4 score after letting a 5-1 lead in the second set slip away. That created a lot of drama. “Against the No. 2 player in the world, these matches don’t come easy,” an obviously thrilled Sharapova said afterward.
If Sharapova is from the old guard of players present in Singapore, Wimbledon finalist Garbiñe Muguruza, 22, is part of the new wave. She has moved ahead of Sharapova into the No. 3 spot in the rankings following her recent fine play in Asia highlighted by her victory at the Premier Mandatory tournament in Beijing.
Muguruza won her opening match 6-3, 7-6(4) over Lucie Safarova and is the fresh face at the 2015 WTA Finals the way Genie Bouchard was a year ago.
For Canadians hoping to watch the event on television, there will only be coverage on Sportsnet One of the semifinals – beginning at 3 a.m. (EDT) on Saturday and of the final starting at 5:30 a.m. on Sunday. Much more prominent on Sportsnet One this week will be the ATP 500 Swiss Indoors in Basel featuring Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Those two fan favourites cannot face each other before the final.
Tevlin Toronto event a chance for Canadians
For the second time in a little over two months, Sobeys Stadium in Toronto, site of the 2015 Rogers Cup, is hosting a professional tennis event – the $50,000 Tevlin Challenger.
Genie Bouchard is a former winner (2012) of the event and this year’s top seed, No. 74-ranked Tatjana Maria of Germany, actually beat Bouchard earlier this year at the Miami Open.
There’s quite a drop off from Maria as the second seed is No. 150-ranked Jessica Pegula of the U.S.
In opening round action on Monday, No. 7 seed Michaella Krajicek of the Netherlands (near side in picture at top) rallied from a set and 4-1 deficit to defeat Barbora Stefkova of Czech Republic 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-4. Mainly a doubles player these days, Krajicek, 26, ranks No. 182 in singles but recently won singles Challenger titles in Albuquerque, N.M., and Las Vegas.
There are seven Canadians in the main draw and two, 15-year-old qualifier Isabelle Boulais (daughter of former world No. 28 Patricia Hy and prominent Canadian coach Yves Boulais) and Francoise Abanda, 18, will play each other in the first round.
Fast-rising Canadian junior Bianca Andreescu, 15, of Mississauga, Ont, will face an opponent from the land of her ancestors – Mihaela Buzarnescu of Romania.
Sharon Fichman takes on former world No. 11 (2011) Shahar Peer in singles and, top-seeded with Maria Sanchez of the U.S, also faces the Israeli and her partner Kim-Alice Grajdek of Germany in an opening-round doubles match.
Other Canadians in the draw are junior Charlotte Robillard-Millette, 16, of Blainville, Que, and Heidi El Tabakh, 29, of Toronto.
Receiving a wild card entry is 20-year-old Carol Zhao of Richmond Hill, Ont. Zhao is taking a break from Science, Technology and Society studies at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
“I have mid-terms this week, so it’s going to be fun,” she said with a wry smile before winning a doubles match with partner Pegula on Monday.
“I’m taking them here, with a proctor.”
Asked how she got a proctor, she said, “the exam person usually handles that, there’s a process.”
Had she ever done that before? “I’ve done it before…student-athletes you’re on the road a lot and usually your coach or somebody is there when you take exams on the road. It’s part of the deal.”
Zhao had considerable success in her 2014-2015 sophomore year at Stanford, reaching the final of the Division I NCAA singles championship. That has made her No. 1 in the collegiate rankings entering the 2015-2016 season.
What exactly is the difference between college tennis and the level played by international players at an event like the Tevlin Challenger? “I guess the biggest challenge is just sustaining your level of play for a long period of time,” Zhao said. “In college sometimes, or in any lower level event, you can sort of play well for a bit and sort of run away with the match. But here you really have to sink your teeth into it and make sure you’re focused from start to finish.”
Zhao, 20, is pictured above with her mother Lily and father Ping.
Her current WTA ranking is No. 399.
Two recognizable figures
— BNP Paribas Open (@BNPPARIBASOPEN) October 23, 2015
Feature photo: Arturo Velaquez/Tennis Canada