Historic seasons are usually hard to come by, but not as much in the last decade. However, Novak Djokovic's run to his first US Open title in a year when he also won the Australian Open again and grabbed his first Wimbledon crown is right up there with John McEnroe's incredible 1984 season, Roger Federer's whirlwind 2004-07 seasons (the Swiss won three Slams in 2004, 2006 and 2007) and slightly better than the three-Slam 2010 season put together by the man he vanquished, 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1, in the 2011 final, Rafael Nadal.
While it may have appeared going into the final that Djokovic had Nadal's number so firmly tucked in his pocket that year that it would be a routine victory, that was never going to be the case, as the defending champion is one of the most committed fighters of the Open Era, and despite losing to the Serbian in five finals entering the US Open finale, he promised to engage in a battle.
He did so in four hours and 10 minutes, but in the end, Djokovic's much-improved skill set won the day, as Nadal just could not find a way to push through him and win enough offensive rallies. Even though the Spaniard stood incredibly tall at the end of the third set and looked like he might be able to outlast Djokovic in five sets, the Serbian didn't waver in the fourth and hit right through him.
While there have been occasions in history when a man who has won three Grand Slams in the prior year has been overtaken by another great player in the succeeding year (think Nadal passing Federer in 2008, when he won two Slams and the Olympic gold medal), it's hard to find an instance when a 24-year-old took down a 25-year-old on six successive occasions in a season, let alone at the same time besting another player, 16-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, who is considered by many to be the greatest ever, on four occasions and in two Grand Slam semis -- the Aussie Open and the US Open.
What is particularity unique about Djokovic is that it took him three years from when he won his first Grand Slam at the 2008 Aussie Open to win his second at the 2011 Aussie Open, and he then was able to all but run the table at the majors, with his sole loss coming to Federer in the 2011 Roland Garros semis. He would talk endlessly about attempting to end the Federer-Nadal dual-opoly, but until the start of this season, he had consistently fallen at the tail end of the Slams. Take last year's US Open, when like this year, he amazingly fought off two match points against Federer in the semifinals. He had tremendous momentum going into the final, but Nadal flat out exhausted him in the final.
But this season, he put aside a number of personal distractions that were affecting him on court, changed his diet, began to believe more in his offense and stopped hoping that his opponents would err at crunch time and took it to them.
Consequently, in 2011, he has lapped two men, Federer and Nadal, who are almost surely amongst the top five greatest players ever. He managed to find a way to nullify the Swiss' never-ending variety of shots and throw enough roundhouse blows at the ultimate body-puncher Nadal to knock him out again and again.
The Spaniard does not see radical differences in his game but important ones.
“He's having less mistakes than before,” Nadal said. “He's enough confident in every moment to keep believing in one more ball, one more ball. So that's why. I think his forehand is not more painful than before; his backhand is not more painful than before; he serve the same. Don't know if he's bringing tennis to another level. For sure this season he's doing fantastic. His level is really, really high. But when one very good player stays with that confidence and winning so many matches, and the matches you have a big chance to lose you keep winning, the season is probably impossible to repeat. His level for sure is fantastic. He's doing very well mentally, everything.”
Had he fallen at the US Open to either Federer or Nadal, the view of Djokovic's season would have changed, for despite his excellent match record, plenty of notable men have won two Slams in a year. But not many have won three. So now a humorous prankster from small Serbia has joined an elite club of greats.
He's 64-2 on the year and has won 10 titles. McEnroe ended 1984 with an 82-3 record, which is still the best mark in the history of the Open Era, but he did not compete in the Aussie Open and only won two Slams -- Wimbledon and the US Open. If Djokovic only drops another match the rest of the season, his mark will have to be considered superior. After his rousing performance in New York, he seems up to the task.
“I've had an amazing year,” Djokovic said, “and it keeps going.”