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Two wins from a historic Wimbledon title, Novak Djokovic's 2021 has 2011 and 2015 vibes. How do the Serb's superb seasons compare?
It depends whether you value quantity or quality.
Published Jul 07, 2021
WATCH: Novak Djokovic wins in his 50th Grand Slam quarterfinal.
Anniversaries are celebrated, in part, because of something that’s no longer there. We celebrate wedding anniversaries because the marriage only happens once. We celebrate anniversaries of achievement because the circumstances that led to that moment are ephemeral—and in sports, the skill that was required to make it happen has atrophied. Nostalgic and often poignant, anniversaries are reminders of a time passed.
But in the case of Novak Djokovic, who 10 years ago morphed from an occasionally dangerous contender to a bonafide all-court champion, he may be playing even better than he did during a season I was sure was a once-in-a-lifetime performance.
Of all the astonishing seasons put forth by Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal—and let’s also include Andy Murray’s 2016 campaign—the Serb’s 2011 is one of my favorites. He went 70-6 with 10 titles, including three Grand Slams and five Masters. He began the year 41-0, finally losing in the French Open semifinals to Federer (after having beaten Federer at the Australian Open, in Dubai and at Indian Wells). He beat Nadal, who began the season at No. 1, in six finals, including two on clay; Wimbledon; and the US Open. With his US Open win, Djokovic was a mind-blowing 64-2. He lost only one final that season, in Cincinnati, by retirement.
The week before Cincinnati, Djokovic played in Montreal and won the Rogers Cup. It was probably his least impressive title run of the season, even though he lost just one set all tournament. I was in Quebec that week, but my most memorable in-person viewing of Djokovic was how he ended 2010. His role in Serbia’s Davis Cup victory that November is regularly cited as the spark that lit a caustic fire, but seeing Djokovic test Nadal in the 2010 US Open final, up close in Arthur Ashe Stadium—a tooth-and-nail four-set loss, after having saved two match points in a shocking semifinal win over Federer—was eye-opening. Ever since that point, in totality, Djokovic has been the best tennis player in the world.
With Wednesday’s win over Marton Fucsovics, Djokovic is two wins away from a third three-Slam season (an achievement that would match Federer). There was 2011, and there was also 2015: an 82-6 campaign, including 11 titles. That year surpassed 2011 by all measures of excellence, even though I still think of the latter most fondly. (Perhaps because Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen experienced a similar, out-of-nowhere leap from talent to threat between 2019 and 2020—surprise is another element of nostalgia.)
How is this season tracking, compared to those two? Should Djokovic win Wimbledon—and then win either a gold medal at the Olympics, or complete a Grand Slam at the US Open—most fans and pundits would probably put it on top. (And if he does both, it’s a no-brainer choice.)
Looking at 2021 as a whole, Djokovic will almost certainly play fewer matches than either of his incandescent seasons. In 2011, he played 49 matches by Wimbledon’s end; he played 51 at the same stage in 2015. He’s currently played 35 matches this year.
In terms of losses, Djokovic has three so far—exactly half the number of his defeats in both 2011 and 2015. Here were those seasons’ uncommon conquerors, and when they did so:
- Federer (Roland Garros semifinals, four sets)
- Murray (Cincinnati final, two sets [ret.])
- Juan Martin del Potro (Davis Cup semifinals, two sets [ret.])
- Kei Nishikori (Basel semifinal, three sets)
- David Ferrer (ATP Finals round robin, two sets)
- Janko Tipsarevic (ATP Finals round robin, three sets)
*Djokovic also withdrew from the quarterfinals of the Paris Masters, when he was scheduled to face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
- Ivo Karlovic (Doha quarterfinals, three sets)
- Federer (Dubai final, two sets)
- Stan Wawrinka (Roland Garros final, four sets)
- Murray (Montreal final, three sets)
- Federer (Cincinnati final, two sets)
- Federer (ATP Finals round robin, two sets)
- Daniel Evans (Monte Carlo round of 16, two sets)
- Aslan Karatsev (Belgrade semifinals, three sets)
- Nadal (Rome final, three sets)
Of the players who earned a win over Djokovic in 2011 or 2015, all but Tipsarevic and Karlovic have reached a Grand Slam final (at a minimum)—and few should hold an opening-week loss to Dr. Ivo over the Serbian. Evans and Karatsev, by contrast, were relatively shocking victors. And Djokovic never lost before the round of 16 in his previous two superb seasons.
So Djokovic’s 2021 will likely be known for its quality of achievement, rather its quantity. Which makes sense for the 34-year-old, even if he’s playing like he’s 24.
The degree of achievement remains to be seen, of course. The pressure to mount another historic campaign, perhaps one of the greatest in tennis history, will only compound after each triumph. Djokovic overcame a number of slip-ups against Fucsovics—both literally, on parts of the greener lawn, and in patches of his 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory (he led the first set 5-0, but was consistently tested from that point on). An upcoming semifinal against the explosive Denis Shapovalov or Karen Khachanov should prove a greater challenge. And then there’s the hypothetical final, where his opponent would have nothing to lose—even if that opponent happens to be a 20-time Grand Slam champion.
“You always enjoy obviously hearing those stats,” Djokovic said before today’s match—his 50th appearance in a Grand Slam quarterfinal. “Again, it's a privilege to break records in the sport that I truly love. I'm devoted to this sport as much as I think anybody out there on the tour. I just try to do my best.
“Of course, they are a motivating factor. I am aware that there are many records on the line. I'm not aware of all of them. Of course, they do inspire me to play my best tennis.”
No matter how this season turns out, one thing is certain: Novak Djokovic sure knows how to celebrate an anniversary.