Mailbag: Reflecting on Novak Djokovic's 2019 Season, On and Off the Court

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• Let’s start here…a lot of you have been complaining, not wrongly, about the difficulty in finding the Mailbag. A few of you have asked to be emailed a link. If any of you want me to be added to the group, let me know.

• This week’s podcast, Jamie and I hand out off-season awards.

• Philadelphia readers, this tennis-themed play comes highly recommended.

• Another plug for Andy Murray’s “Resurfaced”. It’s that good.

Do you have change for a Federer?



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I have a question/comment for the Mailbag: What a weird year it has been for Novak Djokovic. He's been very successful obviously, winning the Australian Open and Wimbledon, but you can’t help but feel that even with all of that success, there are some significant clouds over his season. It has just ended with two losses—a fair one to Thiem which was a flip of the coin and a weird one to Federer in which he seemed very absent. The retirement from the U.S. Open was weird too because it seems like, having played the first two sets against Wawrinka, he was okay to play but not okay enough to really get his teeth into the match. Even during the Australian Open, his mental state seemed somewhat odd, particularly against Medvedev (although vs. Nadal he was insanely good). The Wimbledon final (by most accounts from what I've read) was a weird epic.

And thus far we're just talking about the tennis! We haven't even delved into the ATP politics side of things which could be the most significant aspect of his year.

What are your thoughts? I think it's a touch sad that he went out the way that he did against Federer (as sad as it can be for a 16-time Slam champ). He has seemed fatigued at several points in the season and not just at the end. Thank you!
Damian, Melbourne, Australia

• A few weeks ago, we had a similar conversation at Tennis Channel. The entry point, “What does Novak Djokovic’s year look like if Federer converts that match point at Wimbledon?”

First, let’s take a step back. In 2019, Djokovic snagged a pair of majors, three other titles, more than $11 million in prize winnings and comes within a few matches of finishing No. 1. Those are Hall of Fame credentials right there. There are thousands of other players saying, “If that qualifies as a ‘weird’ year, call me Joaquin Phoenix and sign me up!”

But, yes, it was an odd 2019 for Djokovic, especially after his dazzling January. Following the romp through Melbourne, many thought Djokovic had a real chance at THE Grand Slam. He had a quiet spring, including a pivotal loss to Nadal in Rome. He had a bizarre defeat to Thiem at the French Open. He won Wimbledon, heroically. But then stalled in the fall: a retirement at the U.S. Open, ending both the WTF (individual) and Davis Cup (collective) in disappointment.

And those were just the broad-stroke results. There was the ATP politics debacle, Djokovic supporting Justin Gimelstob—but then admirably/clumsily admitting that he was not up to speed on the details—and playing a leading role in defenestrating the CEO. (Then there was Nadal and Federer swooping in to re-join the ATP Players Council.) There was the strange interlude in Paris where Djokovic may or may not have left the grounds prematurely. In the fall he lost to a young guy (Tsitsipas), lost to an old guy (Federer) and lost the No. 1 ranking to Nadal.

We don’t exactly need to remove a monocle looking for silver lining. Djokovic—still and always the youngest of the Big Three—now heads to Australia, the event he’s dominated over the last decade. He’s healthy. Before Melbourne, he’ll be playing not just the ATP Cup but the Adelaide event. It won’t take much for him to reclaim the No. 1 ranking. For a guy who was out of the top 20 18 months (and four majors) ago, life is good.

But as to your question, yes, it was a weird year.

Davis Cup: the local crazy atmosphere around the world that half the teams enjoyed is now consigned to one team only. As a fan, that’s it for me. Of course Nadal was going to play, even if his body said no. He’s friends with Piqué! And from Spain!

• I wrote last week that Davis Cup was legitimized by the player buy-in, the emotion and conviction. Specifically, Nadal’s level of intensity and the crowd reaction to his performance. One of you asked, quite reasonably, whether this didn’t *delegitimize* the event. That is, does a world event loses credibility when the host nation wins and when the same nation will play host multiple times?

This will be a test of Davis Cup—and more immediately, this ATP Cup next month. What will the atmosphere in Madrid be when it’s not Spain in the final, but rather, say, Argentina against Canada? Likewise, when, say, Russia plays Germany in Perth, what will the vibe be?

Jon, help me settle a bet with my friend: is Stan Wawrinka a Hall of Fame player? I say yes.

• You win. So does Stan. Three majors, to be precise. Which all but makes this automatic. Long as you brought him up, let’s throw down some rose petals here. For so long time, Wawrinka was a bit of an also-ran. He was known for his thick build—“husky,” in the words of grandparents everywhere—his one-hander, and his role as Federer’s ….well what? Not a rival. Not a wingman. Sort of a little brother, but sort of not. Wawrinka tried to escape the considerable shadow of Federer and the Big Three—even westernizing his name from Stanislas to Stan—but deep into his 20s he was still a back-up vocalist.

Then two things happened. Most obviously, he discovered winning, taking out Nadal, Djokovic and Djokovic to win three majors. He also discovered social media. For all its ills and evils—and they are many—here’s an example of using social media for good. Stan (you feel like you’re on a first name basis with a guy once you’ve seen his bedroom) is a wonderful follow. Funny, self-deprecating, poignant, honest. His Twitter and Instagram enrich the tennis culture. I would submit that his online presence has helped him emerge from the Big Three as much as his personal big three (major titles that is) has.

If Venus retired today, who has the better career: her or Monica Seles? Let’s look at the numbers:

Weeks at No. 1: Seles 178 > Venus 11
Weeks at No. 2: Venus 77 > Seles 52
Weeks at No. 3: Venus 128 > Seles 64
Weeks in Top Ten: Venus 602 > Seles 463
Grand Slam Singles Titles: Seles 9 > Venus 7
Tour Singles Titles: Seles 53 > Venus 49
Doubles Prowess: Venus #1 high rank > Seles #16 high rank
Venus 22 titles > Seles 6
Venus 14 Grand Slams > Seles 0
Venus 2 Mixed GS > Seles 0
Olympic Success: Venus 1 Gold singles > Seles 1 Bronze singles
Venus 3 Gold doubles, 1 silver mixed > Seles N/A
Singles Win/Loss Record: Seles 82.98% > Venus 76.6%
Career Longevity: Venus 1994-present > Seles 1989-2003
Tour Finals: Seles 4 finals: 3 titles > Venus 3 finals: 1 title
Year End #1 Ranking: Seles 2x > Venus 0
Head to Head: Venus 9 > Seles 1
Fan Appeal: Tie
Career Earnings: Not useful

I had fun researching these stats, but overall I feel more importance goes to singles and Grand Slam success and Weeks at No. 1, so you go with Seles. Yet, I would say Venus has had the more decorated career. And of course, both careers have asterisks: Seles and the stabbing and Venus being the very best for many years... behind only her sister.
Jeff B., Dublin, Ireland

• Interesting. In some ways you could not have chosen two more different players. I’m struggling to think of two more different career arcs. Seles won eight majors in a 30-month window. Venus is the standard bearer for longevity. Seles won the French and Australian a combined seven times. Venus won neither. Venus won Wimbledon five times. Seles never won Wimbledon. In other ways, there are real similarities. Some of it is temperamental. Both wear dignity almost like it’s a fashion statement. Some of it is the fearlessness both showed in their primes. Both have tremendous origin stories, born, as they were, in circumstances that did not presage success in tennis; and—thanks in part to attentive, encouraging parents—ended up succeeding.

I would also contend that both of their careers come embroidered with asterisks, albeit very different kinds. We all know the fate that befell Seles, disrupting her trajectory and preventing her career from reaching its potential. While—again I can’t stress this enough—under a fully different set of circumstances, I would argue that we never got the full measure of Venus. She won four majors in a span of 15 months. And then her little sister hit her stride. Apart from having the misfortune—as all did—to play at the same time as Serena, Venus had the psychological issue of knowing that her little sister was throwing everyone into the shadows. In the rewriting of the Williams story, Venus and Serena’s vastly different approaches to their rivalry—that is, competing for the sport’s biggest prizes against the person with whom you once shared a bedroom—will loom large.

Anyway, back to Jeff’s thought exercise, even without the asterisks and the counterfactuals, this all reduces to your “tennis value system.” What’s preferable: a blaze like Seles—eight Majors in two years is tremendous—or a long-sustained career like Venus, which is also formidable. How much do we esteem majors won and distribution (Seles)? How much do we value doubles (Venus). Good discussion here. But it’s a discussion with a conclusion that says as much about you as it does them.

Two points for you. 1. The current GOAT debate isn't substantive because it dismisses important factors such as playing conditions, technology, and age. How many Wimbledons would Lendl have on the modern slow grass courts? How heavy would Borg's shots have been with polyester strings and modern racquets? And then the age factor...most of Roger's wins over Djokovic was when Novak was young/inexperienced. Then the tables turned when Roger was past his prime. Frankly, I think it's only safe to say that Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are members of an elite group for different reasons.

• Completely. Who was a better president: Abraham Lincoln, commander-in-chief when the U.S. population was 31 million? Or Roosevelt, when it was 130 million? These inter-era comparisons are also going to be apples or oranges. (Or mandolins to kangaroos; unlike fruit, two completely unrelated items.) But a) they can still be helpful exercises and b) they are almost an inevitable byproduct of….not just sports and fandom but the human condition. “Back in my day” versus “modern advances” goes back to the beginning of time. “I’ll take Adam over Joseph. You have to remember: all they had in Eden were fig leaves! If they had amazing technicolor dreamcoats at the time, you have to think Adam would have been immune to temptation.”

Who’s better looking, Grigor Dimitrov or Matteo Berrettini?
Oscar, Berlin

• Easy one. It’s clearly the superhot…. We’re happy to depart from hard-core tennis topics. What was it Bette Midler said? “I have my standards. They’re low but I have them.” (And thus concludes the only time we will be quoting Bette Midler.)

How in the world did Davis Cup ever elect to allow vuvuzelas? Wimbledon banned them. We just turned off the match—can’t watch with the sound on. Worse than a Sharapova/Azarenka shrieking contest, but at least they are talented players hitting hard. Vuvu-zealots are just intrusive, possibly deaf blowhards. Vuvuzelas should be shaped so that the wide end emits at the blower’s ear. Tennis is one of the few sports enjoyed by the quiet and introverted. Let us be.

• Thinking vuvuzelas are the least of the Davis Cup’s issues.