Today The Deuce Court will discuss the merits of Novak Djokovic's 2011 season, even though it isn't technically over yet.
Deuce #1: So, How Good Was His Season?
Djokovic was as succinct as could be after losing in three sets to Janko Tipsarevic today, when asked about what was missing from his game in London by a member of the media: "Freshness," was his reply, and the word spoke volumes. Of course, in tennis, there are no excuses for losing. As a result, Djokovic will have to face the fact that his mind-bending 2011 season will forever be tainted in the eyes of those special few who decide which player had the "Best Season Ever," due to this lack of freshness. How much will it be tainted? Not much at all. But, enough to place him below John McEnroe in 1984 and Roger Federer in 2006, most likely.
Deuce #2: Not So Fast
Personally, I'm not so quick to write off Djokovic's accomplishments. Look, he was running on empty in London, and that has to be taken into account. But placing too much emphasis on two uninspired matches would be a mistake, especially given the sheer brilliance of Djokovic's Grand Slam season. Novak may tap out at 70 wins and 6 losses, leaving him with a decidedly lower winning percentage than McEnroe's 96 % or Federer's 95%, but can either Federer or McEnroe say that they disrupted the most legendary duopoly in the history of the sport during their critically acclaimed seasons?
There is an element of transformation to Djokovic's ascent that makes his season even more remarkable. Who could have predicted, before the year started, that we'd be looking at a sport with a Serbian No. 1, a player who had been cast off by so many as an underachiever, as one who'd never be able to overcome his physical limitations or the otherworldliness of Federer and Nadal?
Ad In: Fine, Have it Your Way
I'm not trying to argue that we should give Djokovic a pass for not finishing his season with a flourish. But I will argue that you should take into account the following things: 1) The sheer physicality of the game is astounding these days, so it's no surprise that Djokovic played some flat tennis in London (see Nadal, Murray...) and 2) the depth of the men's field is perhaps as strong as we've ever seen it. So, if you're going to dock Djokovic's 2011 body of work for his London letdown, you should also take into the account the very tangible reasons for the lack of "freshness" that he experienced (namely, that he played off-the-wall highly inspired tennis for 9 months).
Deuce #3: It's not quite over
As I write this, David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych are warming up for the last round-robin tilt of the week. If Ferrer wins, Djokovic will face Federer in the semis. Will naysayers have a change of heart if Nole somehow rallies to take the title?
Ad Out: Summing it Up
Regardless of where Djokovic's season stands on the all-time list, it's pretty clear that the fact that we have been debating the merits of his season since early spring means that something UTTERLY AMAZING has been achieved by Djokovic in 2011. When you put everything into perspective and consider how far he had to climb, who he had to defeat and how often (6 finals over Nadal? Are you serious?) and what kind of style and verve he did it with (the match point miracle in New York? Are you serious?) you pretty much have to bow down and show respect, regardless of how his less-than-devastating performance in London might lead to criticism from the pundits.
Finally, when we think about how Djokovic's season stacks up, I think it's a good idea to realize that numbers, while telling, aren't the only way to measure a season. Can a 70-win season with six losses be as good as an 82-win season with three losses, or a 92-win season with five losses? Sure.
Now that so many are now secure in the notion that Djokovic's season, because of his performance in London, cannot be considered the best season ever, the precedent has been set. Djokovic's season, at least the way it will be perceived in the future, has dropped a notch.
I'm not so sure that's a proper thing, nor am I sure that it's warranted. I'm not a betting man, but if I was, I'd be betting that tennis doesn't see another season as remarkable as Djokovic's in the next 30 years, maybe more.