Sunday, July 12, 2015

Djokovic Secures Status as Best Tennis Player in the World

Novak Djokovic claimed his third Wimbledon title, his third Grand Slam singles title in the past five Grand Slam events and his ninth Grand Slam singles title overall with a convincing 7-6 (1), 6-7 (10), 6-4, 6-3 win over Roger Federer. Djokovic has not only clearly established himself as the best tennis player in the world right now but he is staking a claim to be mentioned among the top players of the Open Era. His mental toughness during matches used to be questioned but Djokovic has refuted that criticism.

Federer is in an interesting stage of his career. He is in excellent physical condition and not plagued by injuries but because he is 33 years old there is a tendency to say that every new win adds to his legacy but that when he loses his age is a valid excuse. The reality is that Federer is the second ranked tennis player in the world and age had nothing to do with what happened in his match with Djokovic. In fact, prior to the Finals, none other than Bjorn Borg--arguably the greatest tennis player of the Open Era--declared that Federer was at the peak of his powers. Federer's 7-5, 7-5, 6-4 semifinal win over Andy Murray impressed Borg so much that he predicted that Federer would beat Djokovic: "That's the best I've seen him play for many years, the best for maybe 10 years. He's serving so well. It was great tennis. On Sunday, Federer will definitely be the favorite to win. He is playing well, moving well, he was doing everything he was supposed to. He is hitting the ball so cleanly and playing with a lot of confidence."

If Federer had beaten Djokovic, we would be subjected to an endless series of articles declaring that this result once again proves that Federer is the greatest tennis player of all-time. Federer's loss, though, will likely be dismissed because Djokovic is five years younger than Federer. By this way of thinking, Federer has an unbreakable hold on the greatest of all-time title: if he wins, then he further distances himself from the competition but if he loses that is no problem because he should not have been expected to win. I cannot recall any other athlete's legacy being treated this way.

Djokovic's win over Federer should be analyzed not in the context of the age difference between the players but rather in the larger context of Federer's career, which is that Federer has been remarkably durable and he has dominated lesser lights--a consistency for which he deserves credit--but he has not been dominant against the two other great players of his era, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Federer's struggles against Nadal are well documented--Nadal leads the head to head series 23-10, including 9-2 in Grand Slam matches--but Djokovic's Wimbledon triumph improved his head to head record against Federer to 20-20. Djokovic has beaten Federer two out of three times in Grand Slam Finals and 10 out of 15 times in Finals overall, meaning that when both players are at their best Djokovic has been better. Why should it be taken for granted without any discussion or analysis that Federer is better than Nadal and Djokovic, let alone the great players from previous eras?

Federer has had a remarkable career. He holds many records that testify to his longevity, including most Grand Slam singles titles (17). He is the Emmitt Smith of tennis and there is no shame in that. Emmitt Smith was a great running back who lasted long enough to set the NFL's career rushing record, eclipsing Walter Payton--but no serious NFL commentator would rank Smith ahead of Payton or Jim Brown or at least a half dozen other NFL running backs. Borg is the Jim Brown/Sandy Koufax of tennis, setting a high standard that may never be matched and then retiring at the peak of his powers. Borg's Davis Cup record is impeccable; he holds the mark for youngest player to win a Davis Cup match (15 years old) and he also won a record 33 straight Davis Cup singles matches. Borg won at least one Grand Slam title for eight straight years (a record later matched by Pete Sampras and Roger Federer before being broken by Rafael Nadal, who accomplished the feat for 10 straight years). Borg also pulled off the Wimbledon/French Open double for three years in a row (a mark that may never be equaled).

Perhaps most impressively, Borg still holds the all-time record for Grand Slam tournament winning percentage (he won 11 of the 27 Grand Slams he entered) and Grand Slam match winning percentage (89.8%). He reached the Finals in 16 of his 27 Grand Slam appearances (59.3%). To put those numbers in perspective, consider that Nadal has won 14 of the 42 Grand Slam events that he entered (33.3%), Federer has won 17 of the 65 Grand Slam events that he entered (26.2%) and Djokovic has won nine of the 43 Grand Slam events that he entered (20.9%). Nadal, Federer and Djokovic have each reached the Finals in less than 50% of the Grand Slams that they entered.

The tennis ranking system perhaps rewards durability over greatness/dominance but even in that category Federer has not established an edge over his two main rivals during the time that their careers overlapped. Federer holds the record for most overall weeks as the number one ranked player in the world (302) but he accomplished that before Nadal and Djokovic hit their primes. When those three players have been in or reasonably near their primes (from late 2008 to the present), Federer has held the number one ranking for 65 weeks but Nadal has been number one for 141 weeks and Djokovic has been number one for 154 weeks.

Federer is lauded for his tennis artistry and, subjectively, his game may be more aesthetically pleasing to some people's eyes than the games of Nadal and Djokovic--but all-time greatness should be determined based on results, not aesthetics, and by that standard Borg, Nadal and Djokovic deserve a lot of the praise that is showered in Federer's direction. Appreciating Federer's durability should not come at the expense of recognizing the accomplishments of other great tennis players.

7 comments:

The Sports Scott said...

While it is undoubtedly true that Djokovic is the best player in the world right now, I don't buy that he is better then Federer. Lost in all the hoopla over Djokovic's win is the fact that Federer, for the second straight year, dropped just one set, and one service game on his way to the Wimbledon final. Also, this marks the first time in tennis history that a male tennis player has reached a Grand Slam final 10 times. Federer. And at Wimbledon, no less.

While it's true his days as the #1 ranked player in the world are probably over, Federer finished last year ranked 2nd, not far behind Djokovic (At 32 years of age). The last tennis player to be this good at that age was Laver, who I rank higher then Borg or Sampras. Laver did not play in many slams post 1969 (The year of his second slam), so there's no telling how many more he would have won.

This year, it's worth noting that Federer has beaten Djokovic. Yet, Nadal and Murray haven't. Last year, Federer even posted a winning record vs. Djokovic, losing his two matches in deciding sets that you wouldn't bet the farm on who was going to win.

At 33, soon to be 34, for Federer to be doing this is remarkable. Borg was retired by this age. Sampras finished his last year, age 31, ranked 14. And Nadal, just past his 29th birthday, is struggling to stay in the top ten.

There are many, perhaps too many, more facts that I could list here to support the Federer, best of all time argument. But longevity, in the simplest terms, is a huge deciding factor in this. That Federer lost two Wimbledon finals the last two years does not detract from his win in 2012, age 30 (Soon to be 31) and his wins on warmups in 2013, 2014, 2015.

Djokovic and Nadal have more then just an age advantage: They have a surface advantage. As has pointed out by many, Federer still has a winning record vs. Nadal sans clay, as does he vs. Djokovic. Were there a grass court match between Federer / Nadal and Federer / Djokovic for every clay court match, would their rivalry be so one-sided? Take Nadal's last four Wimbledons into the equation, and unless you can say without hesitation that Nadal would beat Federer on grass more than 2 times out of 10, then their head-to-head is rendered irrelevant.

To win a slam, or for that matter, a tournament, it is not a matter of defeating one player. You need to win seven matches to win. Or six to make the finals. Federer also has 26 Grand Slam finals, something for Nadal and Djokovic to try and shoot for. But looking at his spread: 5 Australian Finals (More than Nadal and tied with Djokovic), Wimbledon 10 (No point in listing) US (6 compared to 3 by Nadal and 5 for Djokovic, who's lost four of them) and 5 at the French (Okay...), Federer is by far the more consistent of the three. And there is also all his semi-final appearances.

Federer should not be punished for being good on clay, it's still his worst surface. Borg and McEnroe were 7-7 lifetime, but not one match took place on clay. Imagine, for a minute, a Borg / McEnroe French Final...My money's on Borg every time. But McEnroe was 2-0 vs. Borg at the US Open (Which Borg never won, compared to five straight by Federer...) and 1-1 vs. him at Wimbledon. Does that make McEnroe a better player?

David Friedman said...

Sports Scott:

I didn't say that Djokovic is better than Federer overall. I said that Djokovic is the best player in the world right now, that Federer is somewhat overrated on the all-time list (ranking him first in the Open Era is akin to ranking Emmitt Smith as the best running back of all-time) and that the media's overly exuberant praise of Federer for the better part of the past decade comes at the expense of former and current great players whose accomplishments are overlooked or at least diminished.

I agree with you that Federer's durability is remarkable.

It is funny that Federer apologists believe that head to head records are only irrelevant when Federer is concerned (and then only regarding clay, because Federer's head to head records on grass supposedly prove his all-around greatness). In every other sport and in every other matchup, head to head records matter. Yes, there are always contextual considerations--but it is preposterous to suggest that we should throw out clay because Federer does not fare so well there but we should really, really focus on grass because that is Federer's best surface. Guess what? Borg dominated grass and clay. Borg was also a mentally tough player who wore his opponents down and rarely made mental mistakes. Federer lost the Wimbledon Final versus Djokovic largely because of a huge number of unforced errors. Federer is not the same player when he sees Nadal or Djokovic on the other side of the net. Borg did have such psychological issues versus any particular player. Borg stopped playing on the Tour because of the ridiculous rules that required him to play in Grand Slam qualifiers if he was not as active as the sport's bosses thought that he should be. After his "retirement," he played in big money non-Tour events versus McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and others and did quite well: in the 1982 Akai Gold Challenge--an event that paid a bigger purse than any of the Grand Slams that year--Borg defeated then-number one ranked McEnroe and soon to be number one ranked Lendl to claim the top prize. That event does not count in the official head to head records but it was rather significant considering the players who participated and the money that was at stake. People like Mike Lupica who perpetuate the myth that Borg had a problem facing McEnroe don't talk about that event or some other events from 1982.

McEnroe won seven Grand Slam singles titles in 45 appearances. He made it to 11 Finals. Borg won 11 Grand Slam singles titles in 27 appearances and he made it to 16 Finals. Borg had a shorter career, yet he won at least one Grand Slam in eight straight years, a record that was not matched for nearly 30 years. Considering that McEnroe could not dominate the lesser lights on the scene after Borg's premature retirement, it is fair to assume that if Borg had kept playing even for just two or three more years then Borg's Grand Slam total would have been greater and McEnroe's would have shrunk.

Ronald morissey said...

David,

I too am a great fan of BB certainly one of the top 5 payers of the Open era but to assert that you could rate him as the greatest of all Open era payers is somewhat far-fetched especially when he is compared to Roger Federer's achievements.

You have conveniently omitted that the Swede never won the US Open although playing in 4 finals. With Conners and McEnroe continue to play at a high level at Forest Hills and Ivan Lendl reaching 8 straight finals in New York, the Swede would have been hard pressed to win even one US. Also can you assume that Borg could continue to win the French Open despite Lendl and Mats Willander emerging as dominating clay-courters as the 80's progressed (both players won 3 at Roland Garros)? As well with McEnroe still at the height of his grass court prowess and Boris Becker's emergence as a 17 year old champion at Wimbledon, Borg's days of competing for championships at the All England club were numbered.

Bjorn Borg achieved a remarkable record in a relatively short career. But would he have continued to win the French and Wimbledon into the 80's? Nadal who is usually cited as the greatest clay courter of all time crashed out in the quarters at Roland Garros this year at 29. Would Borg not have been destined to a similar fate if he had continued to compete?

Roger Federer at 32 and 33 (soon to be 34) lost back to back Wimbledons to the number one player in the world and a payer who probably will be one of the all time greats before he retires. RF has won 17 GSs and reached 26 GS finals. He has won 6 year end championships. He has won 86 tournaments despite only playing tournaments on grass his best surface only twice a year.

At this time, Roger is the greatest male tennis player in the Open era.



Ron Morissey

David Friedman said...

Ron:

In Borg's final year on the Tour, he won the French Open and reached the Finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He reached the Finals in each of his last six Grand Slam appearances, winning three times. There is absolutely no indication that he was slowing down at all. As I noted in my previous comment, he won several big money non-Tour events in 1982, including the Akai Gold Challenge when he beat both McEnroe and Lendl. During that era, Lendl was terrified of Borg, to the point that he seemingly tanked in at least one double elimination event just to avoid facing Borg. If Borg had played on the Tour for, say, four more years it is very reasonable to suggest that he would have won two more Wimbledons and three more French Opens. He also likely would have taken a U.S. Open crown, considering how close he had previously come on so many other occasions. After Borg left the Tour, Arthur Ashe publicly said that Borg had several more Slam titles left in him, including a U.S. Open. Borg won 11 Grand Slam titles and reached 16 Finals in just 27 appearances. There is no reason to believe that all of a sudden in 1982 and 1983 he would have fallen off of the map--particularly considering that he actually did play in 1982 and beat the very people he would have needed to beat to win Grand Slams!

Federer's Grand Slam winning percentages are not even close to Borg's. Federer has a decisively losing record against Nadal and an even record with Djokovic. The one thing in Federer's favor is his remarkable durability. He is one of the most durable great players in tennis history. He is, without question, the Emmitt Smith of tennis. He is not, though, the Jim Brown or Sandy Koufax of tennis.

Ronald morissey said...

David,

Last word from me on this topic (with help from my son):

1. Lendl beat Borg in the finals of the Canadian and Basel in 1980.
2. In 16 events from 82-84 Bjorn won 4 times (lost 8 times to Conners).
3. Borg's winning % in The French, Wimbledon and the US is 90%. Federer's is 86%.
Would not even you concede that the longer Borg played the less likely he would be to continue at 90%? By the way Borg's winning % at the Masters event which could be equated to today's year end event in London was 70%. Federer's is 81%. Federer also won 4 Australian Opens on hard court Borg's weakest surface. The Swede never played in the event.



Was Lendl afraid of Borg? Besides winning those two finals over the Swede. Ivan lost a 5 setter to Bjorn in the French final. Conners appeared to have had Borg's number from 82-84 when the Swede would still have been in his 20's. Could Borg have realistically beaten McEnroe in his grass court prime at Wimbledon? I think not.

It is very difficult to compare two tennis players of different eras who have achieved so much. Personally, I don't like the analogies with players from team sports who can have off days and still come out winning because of the contributions of their teammates. For me, there are too many "assumptions" that would have to occur to rank Bjorn Borg a better player than Roger Federer.

David Friedman said...

1) Borg owned a 5-2 head to head advantage over Lendl on the Tour (i.e., this does not include Borg's aforementioned convincing win over Lendl in the 1982 Akai Gold Challenge). One of Lendl's victories came when Borg retired from a match due to injury. Borg defeated Lendl in their final three matches, including a straight sets win in the Finals of the 1981 ATP Tour Finals after Lendl tanked a match against Connors to avoid facing Borg earlier in the event. Three of Borg's five wins were in straight sets. Lendl's only win other than the retirement came in five sets. So, yes, it is fair to say that Lendl was afraid of Borg, considering that Borg dominated him and that Lendl blatantly tanked to avoid playing him and then subsequently lost to Borg in that event in straight sets. Lendl's winning percentage against Borg is worse than his winning percentage against any other top notch player from that era.

2) Connors had the edge early in his rivalry with Borg but Borg ended up with a 15-8 advantage on the Tour, including wins in their final 10 encounters (and 12 of their final 13). Connors enjoyed a bit of a late career resurgence in 1982 and 1983 (with Borg not on the Tour), winning three Grand Slam singles Finals after not winning a Grand Slam for three years in a row. Connors only reached one Grand Slam Final in the next eight years. Would Connors have beaten Borg in Wimbledon 1982 or 1983 if they had faced each other? Maybe, but their ATP head to head marks for the previous years suggest otherwise. Borg beat Connors in straight sets in the 1981 U.S. Open. We know Connors could not touch Borg on clay (at least after 1977), so Connors would not have been a threat to Borg in the French Open. Borg-Connors would have been interesting to see in the Wimbledons and U.S. Opens of 1982 and 1983 but after that Connors was not a threat to lesser lights, much less Borg.

David Friedman said...

Ron:

Borg played in Australia once, early in his career, and never went back. It just was not that big of an event during that era and most of the top non-Aussie pros skipped it. Borg won 11 of the 26 other Slams that he entered. Federer padded his career Slam total by winning the least important Slam four times in 16 tries; without those numbers, his career Slam total would be 13 wins in 49 attempts. Borg was much more dominant in the three most important Slams. Also, Borg was dominant from the start of his career until the end; he set several records for being the youngest winner of various important events and he was still at the top of his game when he left the Tour. There is no evidence to suggest that his winning percentages would have fallen off if he had played, say, four more years (until he was 30). There is good reason to believe that if he had played four more years he would hold the career Grand Slam singles title record plus the record for French Open titles. Federer won 12 of his 17 Grand Slam titles in 2007 or earlier, before Nadal and Djokovic hit their primes. In those 12 Finals, Federer's opponents included Philippousis, Safin, Roddick, Hewitt, Baghdadis and an aging Agassi who had not won a Slam in two years and would appear in just two more Slams before retiring. From 2008 until now, Nadal has won 11 Slams, Djokovic has won nine Slams and Federer has won four. Federer has spent the better part of his career playing third fiddle to these guys and yet he is supposed to be the greatest player of all-time. This just makes no sense.