Posted: Wednesday November 30, 2011 12:59PM ; Updated: Wednesday November 30, 2011 3:16PM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>TENNIS MAILBAG

Effect of Djokovic's fall slump on 'best year ever' talks, more mail

Story Highlights

Novak Djokovic is held to the standards of men's legends who played full seasons

Regardless of a depleted field, Roger Federer deserves credit for his streak

With 75 doubles titles at age 39, Daniel Nestor is still at the peak of his game

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Novak Djokovic
Despite a breakthrough year that saw 10 titles and three majors, Novak Djokovic sputtered after the U.S. Open.
Zumapress

If Novak Djokovic had pulled a Serena Williams and packed up and gone home in September, citing injuries or exhaustion or whatever, we'd be talking about his 2011 as a contender for the greatest year ever -- which can no longer be the case. It would have been easy for him to do that, and like Serena, he would have been excused in the long run. But I find his commitment to the last part of the season admirable -- particularly since he must have known that he was running on fumes and what was at stake historically. How much credit do you give him for that, and conversely, how much does it show up Serena's habit of running from competition? (Did she even pretend to be injured this autumn, or did she just not bother showing up?)
-- Alex, London

• I'm glad someone brought that up. And I think you raise a good point, Alex. All credit to Djokovic for his season. And credit him, as well, for playing out the string and meeting (most of) his commitments when he was clearly, understandably, exhausted and diminished. More generally, apart from his peerless play, I thought he handled himself exquisitely well this year and discharged his duties like a real pro.

Had Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal not set the bar so damn high, we'd be talking about Djokovic as a "leader" and a "sportsman" and the like. Ask yourself: What's the worst thing you could say about Djokovic in 2011? He once used a controversial egg contraption? He faded in the fall? His parents stopped showing up wearing those super cool T-shirts? Just a standout year in every sense.

Anyway, all that said, I'm not sure the Serena comparison is relevant. Serena might be the standard on the women's Tour. But on the ATP, the top players don't play simply when the urge strikes. They don't take off entire chunks of the year. They don't bail midway through events with dubious injuries and then show up at celebrity weddings a few days later. We can revisit Ye Olde Serena Debate. (Does she disrespect the WTA and undercut her credibility with her erratic scheduling? Is she the most shabbily managed athlete of all time? Is she smart to preserve herself? Is she admirably bold and rebellious, putting her physical and emotional interests ahead of the Tour's interest?) But, ultimately, it doesn't matter.

She is not the standard for Djokovic. Federer and Nadal are. (And before them, Pete Sampras, Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, et al.) When the other great seasons in men's tennis history have entailed a player competing year-round, you're bound to that standard. When your rivals play through November -- however absurd that may be; however much they complain while doing so -- you can't shut it down in mid-September.

If Djokovic "pulled a Serena" after the U.S. Open and was backstage at the Drake concert in New York (just hypothetically, of course) while the caravan carried on and his contemporaries were battling on indoor surfaces deep into the fall, it would militate against the "Best Year Ever" talk. In retrospect, a record of 63-2 sounds a lot better than 70-6. But -- and Djokovic can largely blame Federer for this -- it would come with an asterisk if he didn't play the full season the way the others had.

My Sportsman: Novak Djokovic

We just finished watching Roger Federer destroy Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-0. OK. Here is the good news: Roger is playing at an extremely high level. The bad news: The Grand Slam surfaces do not play nearly as fast as London and the top players will be rested in time for the Aussie. So please restrain your giddiness for your readers' sake.
-- Andrew, Omaha, Neb.

• I realize that tennis has become polarized and fans have their allegiances. But I was surprised by the volume of mail these past weeks denigrating Federer and leveling charges of Federer Slurpee-dom at anyone impressed by the results of the month.

Let's look at this objectively. Here's a decorated player who, for the first time since 2002, went a year without winning a major. In his final shot, he lost in devastating fashion to Djokovic, squandering match points on his serve in the U.S. Open semifinals. He is north of 30. In tennis years, this is tantamount to residing in an assisting living facility, needing a little extra time to make your way down the jet-bridge. Yet Federer closes the year 17-0, winning three events, waxing his historic rival and taking the year-end title for a record sixth time.

Was the rest of competition diminished, done in by injury and fatigue? Absolutely. Would Federer have traded in all those wins for winning one major? Absolutely. Will the rest of the field return at least somewhat refreshed and rejuvenated after a six-week break? Absolutely. Does Federer's smashing autumn ensure that he will win a major in 2012? Absolutely not.

But a little credit is in order here. This is a significant plot twist and a real statement by a player (too) many surmised had reached the expiration date on his greatness. I get the request for restraint. But I don't get the out-of-hand dismissal of all Federer has done this past month or so.

2012: The year Jo-Wilfried Tsonga breaks the top four? If not him, who else could do it?
-- Yves, Montreal

• I'd say he's the most likely candidate, a notch above David Ferrer and the galactically erratic (and now dome-shaved) Tomas Berdych. JW-T can play with anyone, has become a threat on virtually every surface and made some nice strides in 2011. I worry, though, about his proneness to injury. A three-month layoff really kills you in the points department.

How come you didn't mention Daniel Nestor teaming with Max Mirnyi to win the doubles title in London?
--
Tony L., Toronto

• Is there a more underrated player in tennis than Nestor? You think Federer is playing timeless tennis? At age 39, the Canadian lefty is at the peak of his game. Playing alongside Mirnyi -- a new partner this year -- Nestor defended his WTF title. The team beat the Bryans in the semis and then Polish team of Mariusz Fyrtsenberg and Marcin Matkowski in the championship match. This was Nestor's 75th title dating to 1994, encompassing a career Grand Slam (all four majors) and an Olympic gold. As long as doubles players are being afforded admission into the Hall of Fame, how do you overlook this guy?

Most talented player never to make No. 1? Gabriela Sabatini. She's got two Tour Championships, Olympic silver, one Slam title, 27 WTA titles to Svetlana Kuznetsova's 13 and lots of semifinal Slam appearances. I don't see Mary Pierce or Kuznetsova matching those numbers.
-- Paul Haskins, Wilmington, N.C.

• That's pretty good. Though I think you could make a case that two (different) Slams always trumps one. Crazy that Dinara Safina, Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic each has done a turn at No. 1 while Sabatini never did. That's what happens when you have the misfortune of having your career coincide with Steffi Graf's.

Michael Chang is Asian-American. Arthur Ashe wore an Afro. Boris Becker is red-headed. Andre Agassi had long hair. It's all good, no problem with the commercial. And I am an anti-racist social worker and educator. In fact, I wish there were more people of color in tennis. But that is another comment for another time...
-- Brent Diaz, Hollywood, Fla.

• Thanks, Brent. I'm relieved by the dozen or so of you -- of various ethnicities -- who wrote saying you found nothing offensive about the Afro wig. (I'm also relieved we live in a world of anti-racist social workers and educators.) Let's move on.

Great article on Rog's durability, but he DID once withdraw from a tournament early -- the Paris Masters in 2008 with back problems. (James Blake got a walkover. Here's the draw.)
--
Linda Walton, Lawrence, Kan.

• I was dreaming when I wrote that. Forgive me if I went astray. The ATP's Greg Sharko actually noted the same and I just whiffed. "My bad," as the kids say.

The head-to-head record between Federer and Nadal is what it is, and we've all seen how much Nadal has dominated it. But that 6-3, 6-0 dismantling indoors in London was a reminder that playing surface matters and that they have played far more times on Nadal's favorite surface than Federer's. Do you think there was a carryover effect, that losing on clay got Federer in the habit of losing elsewhere?
-- Steve Brawner

• Interesting question. I have wondered whether timing has, at least sometimes, played a role in the rivalry. In 2008, for instance, Nadal just crushes -- we're talking a comprehensive humiliation -- Federer in the French Open final. Four Sundays later, they meet in the Wimbledon final and it resulted in one of the most epic matches of the Open Era.

It's easy for both men to say, "Each match is different" or "I was just focusing on the present." But if you have cleaned my clock less than a month ago, there's no way that isn't lodged somewhere in my brain when we rematch less than a month later. Likewise, if you have smoked me recently, that has to swell your confidence when we face each other again shortly thereafter. Yes, I realize there are counterexamples. But note the heavy concentration of Nadal's wins, often on clay.

 
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