The press has not been kind to Novak Djokovic since his Vienna Open defeat, but two defeats shouldn’t change anything.
It feels unlikely that we will ever have a tennis season as unique and therefore difficult to judge than the one provided by 2020.
The calendar has been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic and players have faced more challenges than ever before.
But, through it all, there has been one constant, and his name is Novak Djokovic.
While Roger Federer has been out injured and Rafael Nadal has managed just five tournaments, Djokovic has been a beacon of consistency, both in terms of the amount he has played and how he has performed.
Right now, though, you wouldn’t necessarily think it.
There can be little doubt that Djokovic was, by his standards, exceptionally poor against Lorenzo Sonego in Vienna.
He has admitted it himself, speaking afterwards of struggles for motivation – which were understandable given he had already achieved what he travelled to Austria to do and the death that morning of a prominent religious figure in the Serbian’s life.
Djokovic’s most ardent fans have admitted it too. Indeed, it was one of the few times in recent years when the tennis community have been able to agree on anything.
And that’s perfectly fine, or at least it should be, although the coverage afforded to it has not always reflected that. Players should be allowed a bad result, and Djokovic perhaps more than anyone.
After all, his critics can’t have it both ways: they can’t condemn Djokovic for being allegedly robotic and criticise him for showing some easily forgivable human fallibility.
It highlights, in quite savage clarity, what a generally divisive figure Djokovic is, and that tends to be the breeding grounds of subjectivity. Such things are fine for fans – in fact, it is their right – but the media should not afford themselves such luxuries.
“Certainly, [Rafael Nadal] is finishing the year in better shape than the man in front of him in the rankings,” wrote Kevin Mitchell of The Guardian, although he is not alone among the assorted tennis media in this stance right now.
“Djokovic, who won the Australian Open in February to move to 17 majors, had lost only twice in 39 completed matches before last week collapsing for the second tournament in a row.
“After Nadal bagelled him on the way to winning the French Open final in three sets, the Serb collapsed again in the quarter-finals in Vienna.”
Quite a feat, one might observe, to cite a 39-3 season record – that’s a 93%-win percentage for those counting – whilst emphasising the word ‘collapse’ to the tune of twice in successive sentences.
Now, adoration for Rafael Nadal is fine. In fact, you would be crazy not to feel awe towards the Spaniard for all he has achieved, both recently and during his career as a whole, but that really isn’t the point.
That admiration needs not, and should not, come at the expense of anyone else. There should be plenty enough to go around.
Because, speaking entirely objectively, there simply isn’t a case to be made that Nadal is ‘finishing the year in better shape’ than Djokovic.
Since the US Open, Nadal has won a Grand Slam and lost in the quarterfinals of a Masters. Djokovic has won a Masters and reached a Grand Slam final. The prestige of a Grand Slam aside, Djokovic’s record garnered more rankings points. Vienna, really, is neither here nor there. As of now, Djokovic has had the better season as a whole too.
If Nadal wins Paris and the ATP Finals, then absolutely he should he hailed for a brilliant season, although it would still only be as good a season as Djokovic has produced, certainly not better.
And yet, it already feels like history is being revised against Djokovic on the back of defeats to Sonego in Vienna and Nadal at the French Open.
But surely no one should be allowing themselves to fall into the trap of believing that two defeats and, in Nadal’s own words, ‘the peak of bad luck’ at the US Open, translates into anything other than a superb season for the Serb.
It is a season in which he has added to his Grand Slam count, taken the all-time Masters record for himself, and it is finishing with him equalling Pete Sampras’ record for most year-end world number ones.
No one would accept such a season being talked down if it had Roger Federer’s or Rafael Nadal’s name attached to it, and rightly so. We shouldn’t accept it when it is Novak Djokovic either.
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