Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEW YORK — In the span of a single year, one brilliant, nearly flawless year, Novak Djokovic has completely flipped the script in men’s tennis.
With his 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1 victory over Rafael Nadal in the U.S. Open final Monday night, Djokovic now sits alone atop the men’s game and has authored perhaps the greatest single season in tennis history.
The 24-year-old Serb is 64-2 on the season, with 10 titles, three Grand Slam singles crowns and six, count ’em, six, finals victories over Nadal.
“I’m going for it, I’m more aggressive, and I have just a different approach to the semifinals and finals of major events, especially when I’m playing two great champions, Rafa and Roger,” Djokovic said after beating Federer and Nadal in back-to-back matches for his first U.S. Open title and fourth career major.
Compare this paradigm to a year ago when Nadal beat Djokovic in the final for his third major of the season.
At that time, all the talk was about how Nadal was the world’s dominant player and was on track to replacing Federer as potentially the “Greatest Player of All Time.”
Consider that after last year’s U.S. Open Nadal had amassed nine major titles to Federer’s all-time record of 16. Nadal added a 10th career major at Roland Garros this year after beating Federer in the final.
But all of a sudden, here comes Djokovic, beating Nadal in the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals and putting the brakes on Nadal’s pursuit of Federer.
Djokovic pointed to last year’s Open final as a turning point in his life, and career.
“I was always kind of trying to wait for their mistakes or being out there and playing my best tennis and not really having the positive attitude and kind of believing that I can win,” he said of Federer and Nadal.
“So this has changed, I guess, and the U.S. Open 2010 was one of the turning points in my career, definitely.”
At his post-match press conference, Nadal looked for all the world like a man flustered and overwhelmed by a puzzle he just cannot solve.
He had been broken 11 times — 11! — even though Djokovic was bothered by a bad back and had to call the trainer for massages and pain pills on several occasions.
“Six straight losses, for sure that’s painful,” Nadal said. “But I’m going to work every day until that changes. So I have a goal, easy goal for me now. It’s going to be tough to change the situation. But the goal is easy to see.”
Had he beaten Djokovic, Nadal, 25, would have tied Laver and Bjorn Borg with 11 career majors, tying him for fourth all-time.
Djokovic, 24, has four Grand Slam singles crowns, and it’s not hard to imagine him winning eight or 10 or 12 before it’s all said and done.
“In the end, that’s the whole point, to win the Grand Slams,” Djokovic said. “These are the tournaments that are most important and most valuable in our sport.”
Djokovic joined Federer, Nadal, Mats Wilander, Jimmy Connors and Laver as the only men to have won at least three majors in one year.
Heady company indeed.
Laver is the last man to have won a pure Grand Slam, having done it for the second time in 1969.
Federer has won three of the four majors three times in his career.
So caught up were some media members in Djokovic’s victory, that one even asked his thoughts about potentially winning the career Grand Slam.
“Sure, why not?” he said “There is still a lot of things to prove, to myself, to the tennis world. I still want to win many more events, many more major events.
“It would be unbelievable to be able to complete the Grand Slam, to win the French Open is definitely something that is an ambition but it’s going to take time.”
Whether Djokovic joins Federer, Nadal and the others in the career Grand Slam club remains to be seen, but this much is clear.
He’s in Nadal’s head for now.
“I didn’t have free points during all the games,” Nadal said. “I didn’t have not one free point in both sets. A few moments that you are tired and the few moments you really need something, I never had these free points.”
So Nadal was left having to “settle” for winning just one major in 2011, not the three he won a year ago.
“Last year I won three Grand Slams, this year I won one,” he said. “I played three finals, and I think I played the last six, eight Grand Slams I played around semifinals.
“So for me is a fantastic result. It’s a dream result.”
Yet for all Djokovic’s recent dominance of Nadal, he still has more trouble with Federer.
It was Federer who beat him in the French Open semifinals this year for one of his two losses. (Had it not been for a shoulder problem that caused him to withdraw against Andy Murray in the finals of Cincinnati, Djokovic might have won that event, too.)
And it was Federer who took a two-sets-to-love lead on him in the semis, and held double-match point before Djokovic rocketed a crosscourt forehand return to stave off the first match point.
If Federer had held on to win the semifinal, he would’ve been an underdog against Nadal in the final.
Whereas Djokovic has Nadal’s number, Nadal has Federer’s.
Federer, meanwhile, gives Djokovic a harder time of late than does Nadal.
“It keeps changing all the time,” Djokovic said. “Obviously when you start winning more often against your opponent, whoever is across the net, you feel that you have — in next match that’s coming you have a mental advantage.
“Maybe I just know what to play, and I get into the court knowing what to do and just, you know, playing my game. Against Rafa you have to be aggressive. You know, you have to try to go for winners, because he’s the fittest player around. He’s an incredible defender.”
So here we are the end of the Grand Slam season for 2011 with a fascinating dynamic at the top of the game.
Djokovic and Nadal, both in their mid-20s, aren’t going anywhere and figure to hook up in the semis and finals of majors for several years to come.
Murray, 0-3 all-time in major finals, still carries the burden of trying to become the first Brit since Fred Perry in the 1930s to win a major.
And Federer, at 30, said he was looking forward to the Australian Open in January so he could challenge for his 17th career major.
What a fascinating time for men’s tennis, and what a paradigm shift Djokovic has authored from just a year ago.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.