Novak Djokovic 2015 An Imperfectly Excellent Year

Djokovic

Photo courtesy of Marianne Bevis at Flickr.com (creative commons)

Novak Djokovic’s 2015 was all about, in his own words, striving for perfection and reaching excellence. It was those imperfect moments in the space between perfection and excellence- shock losses, close escapes, and some less than friendly crowds- that drove the world No.1 to put together arguably one of the most perfect tennis seasons yet. The Tennis review takes a look back at Novak Djokovic’s 2015- an excellently imperfect year. 

An Imperfect Start

After a dominant 2014 which saw Djokovic regain the world No.1 spot and win multiple slams for the second time in his career, many pundits expected great things from the Serbian in 2015.

Few however expected the excellence the Serbian would end up achieving, especially after the bumpy beginning the world No.1 had to his 2015 season

In his opening tournament in Doha, Djokovic suffered a shock three set loss at thehands of the big serving Ivo Karlovic.

The game’s huge servers (Isner, Roddick, Tsonga, Federer), or players having a career best big serving day (Nadal US Open ’10) have always troubled the Serbian but he has also, more often than not, been able to find answers to the problems they pose, his return proving a more consistent weapon than their serves at critical stages of the match.

Against Karlovic, it looked like Djokovic had found those answers once again as he took the first set 7-6(2). However, he was unable to close out a tight second set and was ultimately unable to break through the Karlovic serve as he lost the final two sets 6-7 (6), 4-6.

The History Making Begins Down Under

However, bouncing back is what Djokovic does as well as any player has on the ATP Tour, and the world No.1 more than made up for that imperfect start to the season at the Australian Open. That Doha loss only served to push him to even greater heights against big servers as he cruised through the draw, his return on form, beating both Gilles Muller and Milos Raonic in straight sets on his way to the semis.

At that stage of the event, Djokovic came unstuck against Stan Wawrinka, and was taken to five sets in an error filled match as the world No.1 was given no rhythm. The Swiss’ big serve and aggressive game had inflicted on Djokovic his sole loss down under since 2011 the previous year, but the Serbian was not going to let history repeat itself and cut down the errors when it came to the business end of things, the right thing to do against the streaky Wawrinka, and took the final set 6-0.

After such an uncharacteristically poor performance on the medium slow Melbourne courts, few thought Djokovic would produce the tennis he did in the final.

Djokovic did not have it all his own way against an in-form Murray as the two split the opening sets, but Djokovic took control of the match in the final two sets, stepped up the intensity to overwhelm the Scot and dropped just three more games.

Djokovic created history with that win as he became the first man to win five Australian Opens in the Open era.

Faster Courts and A loss in Dubai to Federer

Djokovic’s dominance down under is no surprise. The conditions are perfect for him- slow medium high bouncing hard courts that give him all the time in the world to get his ground-strokes going, get some rhythm and get his opponents where he wants them.

Those are the conditions that most ATP Courts are played under, and one of the reasons why Novak Djokovic, by the end of 2015, has held the No.1 spot for 179 weeks, and has held it for an uninterrupted 78 weeks since July 7 2014.

However, not all the courts are slow hard, and Djokovic took part in one of the fastest events of the season in Dubai. Now Djokovic is no slouch on faster hard courts- he has won Dubai four times (2009, 2010, 2011, 2013), however against an attacking player who takes away the time he needs, Djokovic struggles on faster courts, a fact perfectly illustrated in 2014 when he lost to Federer in straight sets in the semis.

In 2015, Djokovic struggled again against attacking players. He managed to get past a fighting Berdych in three sets in the semis, but was helpless against Federer in the final. Once again in Dubai, the Serbian was unable to keep the Swiss back on the baseline and put pressure on his ground-strokes on big points. Federer simply did not fall into his traps and played the perfect match, as he is prone to do versus Djokovic in Dubai-like conditions, and the Serbian was a runner up at an ATP event for only the second time since the US Open 2013 (the other time was Roland Garros 2014, both losses were to Nadal).

A Perfect U.S Spring Run

A shock loss to Karlovic, and a comprehensive defeat to Federer in Dubai, and the Australian Open Champion looked vulnerable in the best of three format as he entered the US Spring hard court swing.

Indian Wells was a good place for Djokovic to reassert himself- he was the defending champion and the courts were slow. The Serb skipped through the first two rounds and then negotiated a tough encounter with big serving John Isner.

In the semis, Djokovic crushed Andy Murray, and the final, where Federer awaited, looked to be the perfect setting for him to remind the Swiss who was No.1.

Djokovic got off to a great start, taking the first set, and then took the second set to a tiebreaker. But, he could not win the big points, Federer mounted a comeback, and the Swiss took the match to three.

Djokovic, clearly infuriated at having let the match go the distance, survived a close opening to the third, and then broke away as his consistency proved to be too much for the risk taking Swiss, and the world No.1 won his second title of the year.

That win gave him the confidence to carry over into the next ATP 1000 event in Miami where he survived three tough setters against Klizan, Dolgopolov, and then Murray in the final.

Djokovic made history with that final win as he became the first man to win Indian Wells and Miami back to back three times.

Roland Garros, the Quest for History and Tears in the Final

But the most pressing piece of history was to come – the French Open crown which would give Djokovic, who back in June had five Australian Opens, two Wimbledons and one U.S Open on his resume, the perfect slam collection in the form of the Career Grand slam.

Only four men have accomplished the Career Grand Slam in the Open Era- Laver, Agassi, Federer and Nadal. Other greats of the game have had Slams they were unable to win (Sampras, Edberg, McEnroe, and Becker could not conquer Paris and only Edberg got close with his ’89 final, Lendl could not win Wimbledon despite two finals), and the French Open was looking to be Djokovic’s as he had failed to win the title the years he was the favorite (2011, 2013, 2014).

Djokovic’s failure to complete the Slam set, like it had been for his predecessors, was understandable- the historical significance is huge. If Djokovic could compete the Career Grand Slam, he would be among the very elite of tennis and his inclusion in the Greatest of all time debate would be strengthened if he could reach 13 or 14 slams by the end of his career.

Djokovic could not have set his Roland Garros bid up more perfectly. He beat Nadal on his way to the Monte Carlo title, made the difficult decision to pull out of Madrid, and then beat Federer convincingly in the Rome final.

Djokovic continued where he left off when he arrived at Roland Garros. He swept through to the quarters where he became only the second man to beat Rafael Nadal at the French Open.

A French Open title now seemed a near certainty for Djokovic, but a tough five setter against Murray in the semis reminded us how Djokovic can struggle on the red stuff when the going gets tough.

Those struggles were, unfortunately for Djokovic, insurmountable in the final. The world No.1 came up against a confident Wawrinka in the final and after winning the first set was blown off the court 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 4-6 as Wawrinka hit 60 winners.

Wawrinka could not have played a better match than he did, defeating Djokovic with the sustained controlled attacking tennis necessary, and it was that kind of perfection that was necessary to defeat Djokovic in 2015.

And it was Djokovic’s own imperfections – his inability to be more aggressive and play riskier tennis than Wawrinka- that cost him that final that drove him on to make 2015 one of the best seasons ever for any player in the ATP Tour’s history.

Wimbledon, Federer and the Pro-Swiss Crowd

That Roland Garros loss could have destroyed many players, but it would not destroy Novak Djokovic.

The Serbian came into Wimbledon without playing a single warm up and confidently marched into the fourth round.

There he met Kevin Anderson and he could not have asked for a more thorough interrogation of his skills moving into the business end of the tournament.

Anderson’s big serve was too much for even the Djokovic return, and his ground-strokes, struck mostly from inside the court, were too well struck for Djokovic to run down.

Those assets got Anderson into a two sets to love lead, but his serve and ground-strokes did not hold up, and when his level dropped, Djokovic’s rose, and the Serbian drew level at two sets all as bad light called off play for the day.

The next day, Djokovic returned and took the fifth set.

That fight prepared Djokovic for what was to come a couple of matches later- a final match up against Roger Federer, and the Wimbledon crowd.

Federer’s performance against Andy Murray in the semis was about as perfect as a grass court match could get against a former Wimbledon champion, and put Federer in many pundits eyes as the favorite for the final.

Djokovic, though, saves his best tennis for last, and in the final he put too much pressure on Federer’s strengths- his net game and serve- and on his weaknesses- his backhand- and took the match in four sets, overcoming an inform Swiss and a pro-Federer crowd.

That pro-Federer crowd tried their best to help the Swiss, and their cheers after Federer won the second set on a tiebreak must have made the pressure Djokovic was under even greater. But Djokovic did not succumb as he might have once done. Instead, he focused, got to work, silenced the Federer fans, and gave his own supporters plenty to cheer about- a ninth slam, a third Wimbledon and his third Multiple slam year (2011, 2014).

Watch Djokovic defeat Federer in the Wimbledon final in the video below.

A Rested and Rusty Djokovic Returns to the Tour

The low of the French Open loss and the high of the Wimbledon win were followed by a month’s break from the ATP tour.

When Djokovic came back, he was rusty. In Montreal, he survived a tough three setter with Ernests Gulbis in the quarter-finals and then suffered his first loss after an eight match winning streak against Andy Murray.

Murray has a history of big wins over Djokovic on North American hard courts, and he was inspired by the conditions, slightly faster than most, the poor form of his opponent, and those circumstances gave him the confidence he play the aggressive tennis needed to defeat Djokovic.

Djokovic looked out of sorts in his next event, too, the Cincinnati Open, one of the few titles he has not won, and the missing piece of his collection of ATP 1000 titles (won 8 of 9).

Despite playing sub-par, Djokovic did not give up easily. The Serbian came back from 0-3 down in the third to David Goffin in the last 16, and fought back from a set down against Alexandr Dolgopolov in the last four.

Both those players have the flair to keep Djokovic guessing and take him to three sets, but neither were as skilled as using that flair as Djokovic’s final opponent Roger Federer, and at getting the win. The Swiss put in as good a performance on fast hard as he ever has and Djokovic was beaten in straights.

The US Open, and Another battle Against Federer and the Crowd.

The US Open is, after the French Open, the slam at which Djokovic has struggled the most. He has won one title there, in 2011, and been runner up four times (2007, 2010, 2012, 2013).

Each loss has come at the hands of the better player on the faster US Open courts on the day. In 2007, Federer was too aggressive and Djokovic too nervous, in 2010 Nadal had never served better or hit his forehand with more venom, in 2012 Murray played the aggressive fast court tennis he has in him but can rarely produce, and in 2013 Nadal’s forehand down the line was too effective and Djokovic could not chase it down and return it with interest.

In 2015, the prospect of Federer being too good for Djokovic was very, in the minds of many, real. That Cincinnati win was about as convincing as it got, and Federer defeated Wawrinka in the US Open semi-finals with similar conviction.

Djokovic was looking much better than he had been in his warm up events, but was still a little rusty as he dropped sets to Lopez and Agut, and though he crushed defending champion Cilic in the semis, Cilic was injured and Djokovic’s level was hard to assess.

Federer and the crowd were certainly out to assess Djokovic in the final, but Djokovic had peaked at the right time, and all the patchy performances from the warm up events and earlier rounds were a thing of the past as he fought past Federer, who had plenty of opportunities to take control of the match, and won his third slam of the season, and his tenth slam in total.

Once again, Djokovic did not only have to conquer a formidable opponent and his own imperfections on a faster hard court. He had to do battle with the pro-Federer crowd who went as far as trying to disturb him between serves in the crucial stages of the match. But Djokovic has gotten used to being the underdog when it comes to crowd support- it is the burden most dominant players have to carry- and he handled it with the grace he has managed to master the last few years of his career.

Djokovic

Photo courtesy of Marianne Bevis at Flickr.com

An Almost Perfect End of Season Run, Certainly an Excellent One.

There was no letdown for Djokovic in the final, and arguably his favorite, stretch of the season. Slow hard courts, both outdoors and indoors, let Djokovic showcase his skills at transitioning from defense to offense, and his general strategic smarts, and he embarked on a 16 match wining streak that took in titles in Beijing, Shanghai, and Paris, and which saw him not drop a single set until the Paris Indoors Semis.

That run came at the fine hands of Roger Federer who did everything right in his straight sets win over the world No.1  as he executed his attacking game plan from the first to the last point.

Djokovic’s flaws were ruthlessly exploited by the Swiss in that match, but when they met in the final, Djokovic never let Federer get a chance to impose himself and expose him.

The Serbian was as focused as he had been all year- an amazing feat considering the length of the season and that it was his 88th match of the season- and he dictated the terms of the match against Federer who could not compete in the mental toughness department with a man determined to end his season on a perfect note.

Djokovic’s perfect note was the end to an excellently imperfect year. There had been big losses, and he had struggled at times in his wins, but few players have learned from their mistakes as Djokovic has, and applied those lessons in the biggest moments. That quick learning, and that knack for playing his most excellent tennis in those tough, moments is what makes Djokovic about as perfect as a tennis player can get and what made his 2015 as perfect as they come.

What was Djokovic’s most perfect moment of 2015 for you? Let us know in our poll or give us more detail in the comments box below. Or do both 🙂

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.
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