File this under the same heading as the old “tree falls in a forest” riddle: Is it possible for a player to have a great year that’s also a disappointing year? That’s a question Novak Djokovic may find himself pondering now and then, as this year in tennis winds down.

Djokovic, almost certainly a lame duck as the present ATP No. 1, may convince you that the possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive if you read between the lines in the comments he made after losing the U.S. Open final to Rafael Nadal a few weeks ago:

“Overall, it was again very successful Grand Slam year for me. That’s something that I always try to have in the back of my mind, you know, to set my own shape for the biggest ones, for major tournaments.”

But. . .

“I mean, I wish I won at least one title more, considering the fact I played two finals. All the matches I lost, even the French Open. I had that match. I lost it again in semis. . . I wish there was another title, but it is what it is.”

Indeed. Nadal’s resurgence, and particularly his performance from the end of Wimbledon through the U.S. Open, tends to obscure what yeoman work Djokovic did, playing in three of the four Grand Slam finals and one semifinal. This was the third consecutive year in which Djokovic reached three Grand Slam finals. His overall record in Grand Slam finals is 6-6, but “just” 2-6 if you take his four Australian Open titles out of the tally (by contrast, even if you remove the eight French Open titles from Nadal’s record, he’s still 5-5 in the remaining Grand Slam finals).

This raises an interesting question that’s become vital since Djokovic’s form has slipped from such dizzying heights in 2011, and at the 2012 Australian Open: Is it really such a good thing that Djokovic can so routinely salt away that first Grand Slam title of the year, ensuring himself that, whatever else happens, he can consider his year an unqualified success?

Every player would rather win than lose every time he steps on the court. But in this era, the definition of a successful year for most players has been “any year in which I win at least one major.” Nadal himself embraces that mentality. As he said after he won the title in New York:

“I played a very bad first week at Roland Garros, then second week I played at a very high level. So after winning Roland Garros everything was done for me, I felt my season is great, anything can happen the rest of the year.”

Granted, this was no ordinary year for Nadal, who was still wondering if he would ever be able to play at 100 percent again following his knee problems. It also may be that Nadal was simply the better player than Djokovic from mid-2013 on—regardless of anything else.

But it’s possible that after Melbourne, Djokovic feels something like Nadal does after he wins Roland Garros—but since the Aussie is the first major of the year, Nole's excellence becomes something of an enemy. Yet the question lingers: Why was Nadal able to muster his full fury even after proving himself at the French Open, while Djokovic was supporting cast in Andy Murray’s win at Wimbledon and seemingly unable to find the once familiar determination to stop Rafa in New York?

It isn’t as if there wasn’t a lot at stake for Djokovic, nor that Nadal is his bugaboo. And while players like to judge the success of their year by how they performed in the majors, all of them also target the year-end No. 1 ranking. As Nadal said at the end of the U.S. Open:

“At the end of the season is when the most important thing is to be number one. That’s something that can happen now. Today I can say it, I have a positive advantage, but it’s not done yet. We have to be humble yet. That, after everything, I swear that means a lot to me.”

So let’s take a quick look at how Djokovic squandered what had seemed like an insurmountable lead in the rankings race back in the spring:


The Worst Great Year

The Worst Great Year

Last year, Djokovic lost in the semis of Indian Wells, but then he convincingly defeated Andy Murray to win the Miami Masters. This year, he won the Dubai ATP 500, but didn’t make the final of either springtime U.S. hard-court Masters event.

Djokovic looked sharp in Monte Carlo, taking out Nadal in the final. But he was a second-round loser in Madrid (to Grigor Dimitrov) and just a quarterfinalist in Rome (losing to Tomas Berdych). In Paris, he committed some terrible errors in the semifinals against Nadal, including a horrific smash late in his 9-7 in-the-fifth loss.

At Wimbledon, in the final against Murray, it appeared that the ghost of Fred Perry had a restraining hand on the head of Djokovic’s racquet. All the pressure ought to have been on the Scot, who was vying to complete a historic mission and playing before an adoring—and desperate—home crowd. But Djokovic lost in straight sets; it was as if he was the one who couldn’t handle the gravity of the moment. You have to read Djokovic’s own comments to see the extent to which the loss at Wimbledon pre-figured the failure against Nadal a few months later at Flushing Meadows:

“The bottom line is that he was a better player in decisive moments,” Djokovic said in his presser. “In both second and third sets, I was four-two up and dropped the serve in those games and just allowed him to come back for no reason. . . He played fantastic tennis, no question about it. Me, I should have played better in the decisive moments. I haven’t. I believed I could come back. I really fighted. It wasn’t my day.”

That Djokovic might have been heading for trouble in New York was apparent in the weeks after Wimbledon, when he was beaten by Nadal in the final at Montreal and a quarterfinal victim to John Isner in Cincinnati. After that latter event, Nadal barreled into New York with a full head of steam. He certainly seemed to want the U.S. Open title more than Djokovic did, so he got it.

The compelling aspect of this saga is the most difficult one to analyze or comment on with any conviction. That’s the question of Djokovic’s motivation. Other, lesser players have gotten into the zone Djokovic inhabited through 2011; Gaston Gaudio will forever be a former French Open champion. But it usually isn’t for such an extended period, so we know Djokovic’s run was no fluke. And usually when a truly great player—and Djokovic is one—hits his stride, he keeps his foot on the gas in a way that’s obvious even if he isn’t winning everything in sight. It just doesn’t look like Djokovic has the pedal to the metal.

My own feeling grows out of the fact that Djokovic has crafted a truly inspirational autobiography, emerging from a troubled, have-not tennis nation to become a towering global celebrity. He has a tremendous amount to be proud of, and he’s entitled to sit back and smell the roses, if that’s what he wants. But I don’t believe that’s really what he wants.

I also think he’s a genuinely nice guy with many of the rough edges you might expect to find sanded down. Not to get too mystical here, but it occurred to me during the Wimbledon final that some men seem destined to stand in the way of history, or to spoil what might be an enchanted moment; others gracefully yield to it with a kind of “old soul” wisdom. Djokovic, contrary to what his struggle as an outsider who rose to the top suggests, may be the latter type of man.

Djokovic obviously appears to enjoy being what you might call a man of substance, a global citizen using his visibility in his own small way to help make the world a better place. By contrast, you sense that for all the compassion and good intentions Nadal harbors—and he truly is a great guy—he is ferociously focused on winning tennis matches and titles. Nothing knocks him off that mission. Federer’s own distinction is that, like Djokovic, he was able to bask in his fame and status—but without surrendering any of the intensity required to earn those 17 major titles.

Federer’s balancing act is one that Djokovic has yet to master, and it might be something he’ll be thinking about when he loses the No. 1 ranking to Nadal and begins to lay his plans for 2014.


The Worst Great Year

The Worst Great Year

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