Ominous: That was the word a commenter on this blog used last January to describe Novak Djokovic's form at the Hopman Cup, an exhibition just before the Australian Open. Exo or not, it was true: Djokovic, fresh off of his leading role in Serbia's Davis Cup win, looked like a new man.
Playing fast and loose Down Under, with the balance of aggression and margin that even top players search in vain to find most of the time, it seemed that the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders. By the end of the Aussie Open, after Djokovic had straight-setted three in-form players - Tomas Berdych, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray - to win the title, I was using that word, ominous, myself. It was a pretty fair description of what Djokovic must have looked like to the rest of the tour at that moment. We know what happened after that.
Now it's 12 months later, and, this being a "what have you done for me in the last two hours" kind of world, we want to know: Can Djokovic repeat, or at least approach, his three-Slam, five-Masters 2011? Since his season was so historic, and had been matched by so few, perhaps the most useful way to speculate about an answer is to look at it from an historical perspective. How did the five other men's tri-Slammers of the Open era - Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal - do in their follow-up seasons?
Going strictly by the stories of these men, we can say that it's going to be exceedingly difficult for Djokovic to repeat the trifecta; in fact, it might be tough for him to win any majors at all. Only one of those players, Federer, pulled it off back-to-back; three of them went 0-for-4 the following year; and two went 0-for-the-rest-of-their-careers. Which, if any, is the most likely direction that Djokovic will take?
The upshot of both of those things was that, over the last eight years of his career, the greatest player of his era competed in just eight of the 35 Grand Slams that were held. Roland Garros was worst of all: After winning the title in '69, he never returned.
What does this strange record tell us? First, it tells us that when you put this period together with Laver's total blackout from the Slams between 1962 and '68-he was a pro and the tournaments were amateur-only - you get a little more perspective on his career numbers and how unrepresentative they are of his ability. Laver won 11 majors while competing in them full time for just eight years.
That's obviously not something Djokovic has to worry about. This will already be his eighth Australian Open. But Laver's post-`69 strike out is useful to remember for one reason: It shows us, in an extreme form, that you never know what's coming next in any player's career. No one in the tennis universe, when the Rocket won the '69 U.S. Open and completed his Slam, could have believed that he would never even make the semis of one again.
Five years later, Jimmy Connors very nearly matched Laver's achievement. The only major he didn't win was the French Open, but he didn't lose it, either. Jimbo was also the victim of the tennis politics of the moment; he was banned from Roland Garros because he had played for a rival tour, World Team Tennis, that year. Not that he worried about it for long. Connors got his revenge by steamrolling an aging Ken Rosewall in the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals. By the end of 1974, some observers believed that the bloodthirsty Connors would win every important tournament for the next decade.
By the following Wimbledon, Connors may have believed it himself. Despite playing with a leg injury through the fortnight, he demolished Roscoe Tanner in the semifinals while strutting across Centre Court like a "miniature Tarzan," in the words of one writer. Unbeknownst to the rampaging Jimbo, though, his opponent in the final, Arthur Ashe, was watching all of it as he toweled off in the locker room. As he knew what he couldn't do against Connors: Beat him with pace, the way the "Bulletman" Tanner was trying to do.
So Ashe went in the other direction in the final, frustrating Baby Tarzan with dinks and slices, and in the process set the template for how to play Connors for the rest of his career. Manolo Orantes did the same in the 1975 U.S. Open final and didn't drop a set. One year after his three-Slam season, Jimbo had been figured out, and shut out.
This seems like an unlikely scenario for Djokovic in 2012. Although he has had his mental and physical struggles in the past, as well as issues with individual shots like the serve and forehand, he doesn't appear to be vulnerable to any one style of play. Djokovic is solid all around, from both ground-stroke wings, and with the return especially. He doesn't win with weapons as much as he does with a lack of exploitable weaknesses.
It's hard to see an Ashe-ian kryptonite on the horizon. Even Federer, who had success against Djokovic last year because he could strike first and hurt him in rallies, lost four of the five times they played. When Federer tried to go the Ashe route and use his little off-pace crosscourt backhand slice, Djokovic ate it up.
It took 14 years for another man to match Connors' feat. Mats Wilander's miracle year came in 1988, when he refined his work-in-progress backhand slice, edged Pat Cash in a five-setter in Melbourne, wore down poor Henri Leconte at the French Open, and finally passed three-time defending champ Ivan Lendl at the U.S. Open.
But as with Laver, that was it for Wilander. He said he felt like he had accomplished all of his goals that season, and was unable to muster up the desire and discipline to do it again. He partied with Keith Richards. He lounged on the couch. He lounged on the couch some more. He opened his 1989 by losing in the second round of the Aussie Open.
Over the next seven seasons, Wilander reached just one more Slam semi. His 1988, as fabulous as it was, now looks like the sport's greatest one-off. Bigger legends than Wilander - Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi - never matched what the Swede pulled off that season.
At first glance, you might think that Djokovic's 2011 could end up being something similar. Before this year, he was an entrenched third in the ATP's pecking order, with just one major to his name. Is he the Wilander of his era? I don't think so. Mats lost because he lost motivation. He had done what he came to do, proved what he needed to prove. He was never bloodthirsty or egotistical enough to think of himself as an all-time legend who needed to crush everyone in his path. Djokovic, on the other hand, was raised to believe he was going to be No. 1. He hasn't done all he came to do or proven what he needed to prove. A decline in motivation is unlikely.
The last two tri-Slammers were Djokovic's main rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. If the Serb is looking for inspiration, he should look to Federer. He followed up his first three-major year, 2004, by going 81-4 the next season. The second time that he won three, in 2006, he did it again in 2007, despite the presence of Nadal. This is the standard that Djokovic labors under in 2012.
Is he the next Federer, the next long-term dominant champion? Eighty-one and four is a lot to ask; that's an even better year, record-wise, than Djokovic had in 2011. And having to do it with both Federer and Nadal still on his heels, and Andy Murray seemingly getting closer every day, will make it triply tough. Djokovic is not Wilander, but I don't think he's going to match Federer's peak four-year run, either.
This could conceivably happen to Djokovic himself in 2012. While it's unlikely Nadal will turn the tables back around so decisively, Federer and Murray do have the games to give him fits. What seems most probable to me, though, is that the Big 4 will split up the big events on a more equitable basis than we've seen over the last two years.
It's easy to see Federer getting one back, Murray breaking through, and Rafa defending his turf in Paris. To ask Djokovic to go 12-2 against those three players again may be even more daunting than asking him to win three majors.
Then again, I belatedly caught some of Djokovic's performance at another Aussie Open exo a couple of weeks ago, in Abu Dhabi, and I have to say, he looked good. The physical problems from late 2011 were gone, as was the ambivalence about competing. Playing fast and loose, with the balance of aggression and margin that even top players find elusive much of the time, Djokovic made quick work of Federer and David Ferrer.
Yes, it was an exhibition, but he reminded me of the Nole from another exhibition event, the Hopman Cup of 2011. I think you know what I'm going to say next: If you're a member of the ATP tour, that's an ominous sight.