Friday, June 3, 2016

Djokovic is playing for more than just the Career Grand Slam

Leading up to Roland Garros for each of the last four years, all the talk has been about Novak Djokovic looking to chase the elusive Career Grand Slam, which is an achievement made by only four male players in the Open Era.

However, this year, the world No. 1 is in search of something far more impressive than that. Djokovic is playing for the Grand Slam, which hasn't been done since 1969 by Rod Laver and is considered the greatest achievement in tennis. So why then has the story line not changed since last year? Why are we still talking about a Career Grand Slam, when Djokovic is contending for THEE Grand Slam?

Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim said "No. 1 Novak Djokovic will be going for his (cut-and-paste) elusive first French Open Title." However, this isn't a "cut-and-paste" scenario. The Serb is playing for so much more than one elusive title as he was the past three years.

In the mailbag section of Wertheim's article, he was asked more specifically about Djokovic's pursuit of history as a reader pointed out the lack of coverage for what specifically Djokovic is on the brink of achieving. He responded "Interesting point. Devil's advocate: artificial or not, there is a huge distinction between winning the calendar Slam and the wraparound Slam."

Actually, Wertheim is totally right. There is a distinction between the two slams. However, the distinction is completely artificial. Both achievements are winning four slams in a row. The only difference is the order.

There is not a single good reason why winning the four majors in one order is any more impressive than winning them in a different order. Winning four slams in a row in any order is equivalent.

There should be no distinction between winning a calendar Slam or winning the wraparound Slam. Either one is the Grand Slam. Why should Djokovic have to win six majors in a row to win the Grand Slam? Why did Serena Williams have to win five in a row to win the Grand Slam?
There are a few possible reasons. The first being that the American media wants the US Open to be the only place where the Grand Slam can be completed. It would lend more importance to their home major and especially with Williams being an American, it generates more hype for the tournament.

However, the American media isn't the only one ignoring Djokovic's pursuit of the Grand Slam. The other possible reason is a Federer bias. Djokovic's struggle to win Roland Garros is frequently likened to Federer's quest for the same title. Talk of a Grand Slam instead of chasing an elusive title would ruin that narrative and put Djokovic about Federer. Perhaps the media believes it's easier to sell the idea of Djokovic chasing Federer rather than Djokovic chasing Laver.

Whatever the reason may be, Djokovic is one win away from completing the Grand Slam, which hasn't been done in 47 years, If Djokovic defeats Murray, that final should always be remembered as the day Djokovic became the first player since Laver to win the Grand Slam,

Judging players by their worst major

The only major title missing from Novak Djokovic's shelf is the French Open, and on Sunday the Serb has a fourth chance to win that trophy. Many analysts argue that Djokovic cannot be considered among the greatest tennis players ever until he wins the French Open. In other words, the full body of work of Djokovic's career is being disregarded simply because of his performance at his worst slam, which begs a question. What if every player was judged by their performance at their worst major?
Djokovic still hasn't won Roland Garros yet, but even if he loses on Sunday, he still has the fourth most wins on the Parisian clay by any player in tournament history. However, the best way to judge a players performance is to look at the sum of the ranking points earned by the player in all the years they played the tournament.

Based on the current ranking system, Djokovic has earned 8535 ranking points in 12 years playing the tournament. Here is how other all-time greats have done at their worst slams.

*Some players decided not to participate in the Australian Open. For those players, they'll be judged on their second worst major.

1. Roger Federer 10,160 (Roland Garros)
2. Novak Djokovic 8535(Roland Garros)
3. Rafael Nadal 6840 (Australian Open)
4. Andre Agassi 6640 (Wimbledon)
5. Ivan Lendl 6605 (Wimbledon)
6. Bjorn Borg* 6285 (US Open)
7. Jimmy Connors* 4565 (Roland Garros)
8. Andy Murray 4360 (Roland Garros)
9. Ilie Nastase* 3480 (US Open)
10. Jan Kodes* 3330 (Wimbledon)
11. Ken Rosewall 3200 (Roland Garros)
12. John McEnroe* 2985 (Roland Garros)
13. Stefan Edberg 2930 (Roland Garros)
14. Boris Becker 2890 (Roland Garros)
15. Rod Laver 2180 (Australian Open)
16. Pete Sampras 2145 (Roland Garros)
17. Jim Courier 2050 (Wimbledon)

Djokovic may still be missing one title to complete the Career Grand Slam, but the Serb is still better at that slam than every single player except Roger Federer at their worst slam. In fact, Djokovic's performance at Roland Garros has been better than what Rafael Nadal has done at any other major.

Overall, what the world No. 1 has done at Roland Garros is the 25th best performance of any player at a single major. Djokovic has the most balanced grand slam results apart from Federer in tennis history. The truth is that the Serb does not need a title in Paris to be considered one of the best players the sport has ever seen, because he has already accomplished that.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Djokovic's break points problem

Throughout Novak Djokovic's career, what has made the Serb so successful has been his ability to raise his level on the most important points. However, starting with his quarterfinal against Rafael Nadal in Rome, Djokovic has had to find a way to win without winning a high percentage of break points.

This problem doesn't apply to just break points on return, but also on serve, meaning Djokovic is neither saving nor converting break points at a high rate.

In his career, Djokovic saves about 65% of all break points he faces, which is almost equal to his rate of winning non-break points on serve (67%). However, in his last seven matches, Djokovic has only saved 52.5% of all break points he has faced, which is drastically lower than how well he is doing on non-break points.

Djokovic is facing a similar problem with his return. In his career, he has converted 45% of all break points he has faced and in 2011, he won 49% of break points on hard courts. Even in 2009, which was Djokovic's worst year, he was winning 42% of break points. Yet since his match with Nadal at Rome, Djokovic has only converted 36% of break points.

Earlier this year, Djokovic won 17 of all 21 break points against Dominic Thiem to win 6-3, 6-4 despite being thoroughly outplayed on non-break points. There is a chance Thiem will play Djokovic in the semifinals and if Djokovic does not raise his level on break points, he will have no chance against the Austrian.

The way the Serb has been able to survive so far is that he is producing far more break opportunities on his return than he is facing on his serve. However, continuing to do that will become significantly more difficult in the later rounds of Roland Garros as the level of his opponents rises. In order for Djokovic to win the only major that he is lacking is to improve his level of play on the break points, which seems to be the only hole in his game of late.