Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Djokovic & Serena's Legacies After the French Open

Don't look so shocked. Novak Djokovic is on course to be the greatest tennis player of all time.
By Andy Dougherty (@AndyDougherty10)

The year’s second Grand Slam concluded Sunday, and a pair of first-time French Open champions were crowned. 22-year-old Spaniard Garbiñe Muguruza upset defending champion and top seed Serena Williams 7-5, 6-4 to capture her first career major title in the women's final.

On the men's side, it took Novak Djokovic more attempts than any man in history, but he finally broke through to win the elusive title on his 12th try, defeating Andy Murray 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 in the final. With the title, Djokovic became the eighth man in history to complete the career Grand Slam by winning all four majors.

Last year Serena Williams dominated women’s tennis, completing the “Serena Slam” at Wimbledon by holding all four major titles at once. Now Djokovic has accomplished the same feat, becoming the first man to win four consecutive major titles since Rod Laver in 1969.

Roger Federer’s astonishing grace, Rafael Nadal’s unmatched tenacity, and Serena’s place as the most prominent, successful American female athlete in history have made it difficult for Djokovic to step into the same spotlight. But Djokovic – not Serena, not Roger, not Rafa – is the most dominant tennis player in the world, and perhaps the most dominant the world has ever seen.

The Serbian star has spent much of his career in the shadow of other legends, but his status as one of the greatest of all time is finally undeniable.

Last year Serena was the sport’s biggest star. She finished the season 53-3, won three Grand Slams and was named Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year. Unbeknownst to most of the public, Djokovic had an even better 2015. He also won three Grand Slams, and he reached the final of the fourth, which Serena failed to do. Serena won five total titles while Djokovic won eleven, including a record six Masters titles. Djokovic also broke records with a staggering 31 wins over top-10 players (Serena had six) and $21,646,145 in prize money earned.

Since last summer, Serena has faltered in big matches while Djokovic has managed to improve his already astronomical level of play. He became the first man since Jim Courier in 1992 to win the Australian Open and French Open in the same year, and he set an ATP record in the latest rankings with 16,950 points, 8,035 more than 2nd-place Murray.

Djokovic was the lovable loser from 2007-2010, finishing third every year as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal traded places atop the rankings. Two years ago, Nadal won the French Open for his 14th major to tie Pete Sampras for second all-time behind Federer’s 17. Djokovic, whom Nadal beat in in that 2014 final, was tied for 21st with six career major titles. He has since rocketed up to a tie for fourth with Roy Emerson, two behind Nadal and Sampras.

Not only is Djokovic having a better season than Serena, but he may well end up with a better career résumé. In an era with many mandatory events, the top players face off more than ever, yet Djokovic has the highest winning percentage in ATP history and owns a winning head-to-head record over all of his main rivals. Serena also dominates her rivals, but she has competed in a much weaker era than Djokovic. While he consistently faces the two most accomplished players ever in Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Serena’s main rivals over the last decade have been 5-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova and 2-time winner Victoria Azarenka.

Serena has enjoyed the most successful late career in women’s tennis history, but much of her success can be attributed to the declining quality of her competition. Sharapova is indefinitely suspended with a doping violation while injuries have kept Azarenka from achieving prolonged success, and few formidable players have stepped in to fill the voids.

Djokovic’s competition is also beginning to decline, demonstrated by the remarkable fact that no man under the age of 27 has won a tournament at any of the tour’s top three tiers, which encompass 14 tournaments per year (Grand Slams, World Tour Finals, and Masters). His greatest rivals have also slipped; Nadal and Federer both withdrew from the French Open due to injuries. Federer’s withdrawal broke the longest streak of consecutive majors played in ATP history.

Meanwhile, Djokovic is playing arguably the highest level of tennis anyone has ever seen, so just after turning 29, he is positioned to make a legitimate bid for Federer’s Grand Slam record.

Serena is one title away from Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 Grand Slams. But at age 34, and after consecutive losses in Grand Slam finals to first-time champions, her chances of passing Graf are suddenly not too different from Djokovic’s shot at catching Federer. The emergence of a young, promising star in Muguruza does not help her cause.

Outside of the majors, there is no comparison between Serena and Djokovic. Serena went through phases of her career with blatant disinterest for smaller tournaments, while Djokovic has won the most Masters titles in history. Lower-ranked players also trouble Serena more, even at the biggest events. Her US Open loss to Roberta Vinci last year was the biggest upset in WTA history. Other players such as Graf, Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles more consistently beat lower-ranked players, but they faced players of each other’s caliber more often than Serena does, which comparatively hurt their Grand Slam totals.

When Serena’s level of play dipped in the middle of her career, three women ascended to No. 1 without ever winning a major (Dinara Safina, Jelena Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki).

Compare those three to Andy Murray, who reached his 10th major final over the weekend, but has never ascended to No. 1 in the world. According to advanced statistical analysis from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, Andy Murray is better at his peak than Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi ever were. He beats inferior opponents at a much higher rate than they did, and he has turned into a better clay-court player than Sampras ever was. That Murray has so many fewer Grand Slam titles is a testament to the unprecedented dominance Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have sustained for more than a decade.

Murray is now Djokovic’s best competition, and while that is a step down from peak Federer or Nadal, Murray is still a stronger opponent than anyone Serena has had to face in recent years.

According to the Elo rating FiveThirtyEight popularized, Djokovic already has a strong case as the 2nd-best player of the Open Era. If he has not yet surpassed Nadal’s accomplishments, he likely will soon. On the women’s side, Serena lags behind Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova. Unlike them, her career has featured two peaks. One came with her first “Serena Slam” back in 2003. Then a dip well below Graf and Navratilova’s level was followed by an unparalleled late-career surge. If her amazing run continues, she could become the greatest, but she is finally showing signs of age, and her time at the top might be running out.

Heading into last year’s US Open, I – along with most tennis fans and experts – was ready to crown Serena as the greatest of all time. While a semifinal and two finals in her last three majors is a fantastic set of results for a 34-year-old, we have come to expect more from Serena. Passing Graf seemed like a foregone conclusion, but that is no longer the case. Though Serena has already passed Navratilova’s Grand Slam count, Martina’s 18 titles are arguably more impressive than Serena’s 21 because of the players she had to beat to win them. She defeated 18-time major champion Chris Evert in ten Grand Slam finals and Graf in two others. She also won a record 167 WTA singles titles compared to Serena’s 70.

Djokovic has further to go to catch Federer as the greatest of all time, but he has more time to do it. He has stood in the shadows of Federer, Nadal and Serena throughout his career, but by the time they retire, he is poised to emerge as the greatest of them all.

Bonus: Here are the best points of the French Open from the men, and from the women.


Matthew J. Harris said...

Djokovic is my favorite current player. I'm not ready to say he's greater than Federer or Nadal, but he's certainly on a very short list of contenders for the title of greatest ever. I do think his peak performance is arguably the greatest ever.

Fed made 10 straight Slam finals followed by another 8 in a row, giving him 18 finals in 19 Slams. That's amazing. But Federer definitely won most of his titles against a weaker field. In his 17 Slam wins, the average seed of the opponents he faced in the Finals is much lower than that of Djokovic or Nadal.

tennis software programs said...

Djokovic has been enjoying the successful career in men’s tennis history, but much of his career success can be noted to the declining qualities of his competition.