Novak Djokovic is one of the leading contenders for Sports Illustrated's 2015 Sportsman of the Year. You can see the full list and the entire series of essays that make the argument for each candidate here.
The case could have easily been made for Novak Djokovic as Sportsman of the Year in 2011, in what is many regard as one of the greatest seasons ever played in men's tennis. The then 24-year-old Serbian began the year with a 41-match win streak, including an Australian Open title, before finally losing to Roger Federer in four sets in the French Open semifinals in June. One month later, Djokovic recalibrated his cylinders to win his first Wimbledon title—a four set victory against then No. 1 Rafael Nadal—and then swept through the U.S. Open to finish the year with three Grand Slam victories, equaling the achievements of Nadal in 2010 and Federer in 2004 and 2006, and elevating his “Greatest Something” status in the tennis world. He finished the season with a 70–6 record, winning ten titles, including five ATP World Tour Masters championships, and set a new record for the most prize money won in a single season on Tour ($12 million). Despite his loss to Federer at Roland Garros, Djokovic beat the Swiss Maestro four times. He also beat Nadal six times, twice on the Spaniard’s beloved red clay. Said three-time Grand Slam champion Jim Courier at the time, “Novak has two guys who have won double-digit majors titles and they are both healthy, yet he’s still dominating them. That’s what’s most impressive about this season.”
Djokovic finished 2011 with his first ever No. 1 ranking, finally supplanting Nadal and finally getting tongues wagging about his legitimate spot as the third member of the Big Three. As a result, his smiles became more confident; his jokes became more daring; his swag more obvious. Off the court, he showed his humanitarian side with notable charitable efforts to Serbia’s Battle for Babies campaign, the Rally for Relief for Australian Flood victims and the Hit for Haiti earthquake fundraiser. Djokovic was a champion, a philanthropist and a comedian (even though his jokes sometimes fell flat) and yet, he still fell short of the Sportsman honor. (Seriously, what’s a guy got to do?)
But this year, at 28, Djokovic mustered up another near-flawless season to warrant Sportsman of the Year consideration.
Djokovic entered 2015 as a slightly more mythical figure than he was in 2011. Not because he wasn’t winning, but because he wasn’t getting the widespread love and adoration for his winning the way his counterparts had grown accustomed. Sure he was again No. 1 in the world and had seven Grand Slam titles, but there was still a slight uneasiness about him that gave fans pause. He was a known extrovert whose his gamesmanship, at times, had been called into question and whose on-court gestures were sometimes criticized. He wasn’t warm and fuzzy like Federer. He didn’t invoke both empathy and fear like Nadal. He hadn’t stolen the hearts of an entire kingdom like Britain’s Andy Murray. If anything it appeared Djokovic’s unrepentant winning and confidence had hindered his chances of universal glorification and fan fare.
To many tennis fans, Djokovic was too impassioned, too emotional. He won, but not always graciously. (He once ripped off his shirt and flexed to the crowd after a win, earning a chorus of boos from the crowd and no style points). His brashness, even when presented in the form of humor, was often considered off-putting, even to his fellow players on Tour. (Federer once scoffed at Djokovic’s infamous on-court impersonations, calling them childish and inappropriate.) Although Djokovic was at the top of his game, he also was beginning to make Nadal look frail, Federer look old and Murray look like a mere two-hit wonder. For everything that he was doing right with his racket, Djoker wasn’t winning any hearts.
Nevertheless, longevity and great success often produce character changes, spearheaded by a sudden life change or self-awareness that sometimes turns the tides in one’s favor. Djokovic married his wife Jelena and became a father to their son Stefan in 2014. When Djokovic took the court in 2015, he seemed to be more at ease and mature. He was less bothered by the crowds rooting against him; less likely to smash his racket; less likely to spoof opponents on the court after a win or annoy them by exceeding time limits during points. This Djokovic seemed more in tune with his station in life, and with good sportsmanship and humility. He was somehow more appealing, even though he was just as dangerous on the court, and the tennis world took notice. After being upset in this year’s French Open final by Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka, the very pro “Stan the Man” crowd gave Djokovic a rousing, 90-second standing ovation during the trophy ceremony that brought the world’s top player to tears. The French Opem is the one Slam that has eluded Djokovic, despite his three final appearances. The applause was a “Mais, Oui!” for his relentless effort. The tears were for the sudden appreciation for said effort.
Croissants and a bottle of Rothschild Bordeaux aside, Djokovic still had a stellar 2015, winning 11 titles and reaching the final in 15 of 16 tournaments. For the second time in his career he won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open during a calendar year. He also won six of the season’s nine Masters 1000 titles. Djokovic not only finished the year ranked No. 1 with an 82–6 record and just one loss to a player outside of the Top 10, but he also nearly lapped No. 2 Murray in rankings points.
This difference this year for Djokovic was consistency. He never took his foot off of the pedal. He didn’t falter or burn out towards the end of the year the way he did during his marathon 2011 season. He didn’t bail out on tournaments while recovering from the agony of defeat. He simply showed up and played with the brawn of a champion, from January to the end of November, be it indoor or outdoor, hard-court, clay or grass. There were no controversies or scandals; no fights with coaches or media, or squabbles over money. It was all just epic tennis.
“This season definitely stands out,” Djokovic said after his straight sets victory over Federer last month for his fourth consecutive ATP World Tour championship. “I can’t say I expected it, not at all. But I always gave my best, and I’m always asking from myself the most.”
Said Federer after the loss, “Winning [the Australian Open] then Wimbledon, the U.S. Open… that definitely changed the dynamics for the season, made him the player of the year.” Player of the Year? He must have misspoke. Lost in translation perhaps. Clearly he meant, Sportsman.