The tennis majors are done for another year.
Yes, Davis Cup semifinals await this Friday, but for most of the tennis planet, the final point of the final match of the U.S. Open brings with it a profound emotional release.
Not until January in Melbourne, and only once over the next eight months, will fans, writers and broadcasters have to put two consecutive weeks of their lives on hold for this little fuzzy yellow ball and the people who hit it. (Has it occurred to anyone else that a major is essentially an Olympic Games without the other sports or the NBC tape-delay?)
The end of a calendar year at the tennis majors is always a good time to discuss big-picture issues in tennis, because there isn’t a “next match” or a “next tournament” for fans of various players to fight about — not until the ATP World Tour Finals in London, at any rate. (Do people fight about the Shanghai Masters? Maybe a few, but the year-end championships definitely get the blood boiling to a greater degree. I digress…)
The issue which has been foremost on the minds of many tennis fans during much of 2016 is not so much an issue with the sport itself (medical timeouts, Andy Murray’s place in tennis, or injuries, though they have all received a lot of attention), but with how the press has covered it. No issue in tennis media gained more critical scrutiny than the claim that Novak Djokovic — who became just the second man in the Open Era of men’s tennis to win four straight majors (Rod Laver, 1969) — didn’t receive nearly as much credit for the feat as he should have.
Djokovic might have lost the U.S. Open final to Stan Wawrinka, but when Andy Murray “gonged out” of the tournament in the quarterfinals, Djokovic locked down the distinction of being the best ATP player at the tennis majors in 2016 (two wins to Murray’s and Wawrinka’s sole titles). This might have been Andy Murray’s best and most satisfying season compared to all his others, but Djokovic’s season at the majors was still empirically better.
The centerpiece of Nole’s achievements in 2016 was his capture of the French Open, which allowed him to be the reigning champion of all four majors at the same time, something Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have not done… and almost certainly will not ever do, their prime periods very much in the rearview mirror of tennis history.
Let’s devote some time to this question before tennis turns the page and moves to 2017, when so many new story lines will grab our collective attention.
The essential appreciation of Novak Djokovic’s game is also the foremost advancement of the claim that Djokovic’s four-straight-major-titles achievement has received far less press than it should have. Here, Joe Posnanski — a decorated American sports columnist now with NBC Sports and formerly with the Kansas City Star — lays out the case for giving Djokovic his due. Posnanski shames the media and the prevailing tennis culture for not reacting more euphorically (in the written word, and in the magnitude of appreciation) when the World No. 1 completed the Novak Slam.
(Personal disclosure: I quit my previous tennis writing job the day before the French Open men’s final. I used a friend’s blog site to post two reactions to Djokovic’s French Open win — here and here. You can evaluate my reaction to Nole’s feats on the merits. I don’t wish to hide any flaws I might have displayed. That’s part of being a critic — not ducking legitimate criticism.)
In my writing, I did not omit a mention of the Novak Slam, but I just as clearly placed more emphasis on the Career Grand Slam in the wake of Djokovic’s French Open title.
There are two essential points to make about the Novak Slam, both equally important (just in case anyone perceives a hierarchy if one point precedes the other):
- Exquisite — perhaps exquisitely unlucky — timing created the downplaying of the Novak Slam.
- Bad timing or not, the exposure of the tennis media’s failure is not so much in what it actually did say about Djokovic, but in what it has said about Federer (and to a lesser but still real extent, Nadal).
First, let’s tackle point one, starting with some historical perspective connected to women’s tennis. We’ll get to the direct answer soon enough.
It is, quite possibly, the single most underappreciated feat in the Open Era: Martina Navratilova won six straight majors in 1983 and 1984.
Remember: The Australian Open was played in December back then, making it the last major of the year. (It had been played in January in 1977, and in previous years, it occupied the final days of December and the first days of January.) The French Open was the first major of the year.
Navratilova won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian to close 1983. She then won the French, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open to start 1984, but couldn’t win the 1984 Australian to seal the true (classic, dictionary-definition) Grand Slam.
Steffi Graf won five straight majors. She also won six straight majors in which she participated (in 1995 and 1996), but that run included a no-show at an Australian Open which robbed her of a second “Steffi Slam” in addition to her “Golden Slam” of 1988.
Serena Williams has won four straight majors twice, completing the “Serena Slam.” Yet, Navratilova’s run of six straight majors exceeds both Serena and Graf. It doesn’t make Navratilova a better player, but there was no cute nickname for her feat (the “Nav Slam” or the “Martina Slam”). It’s hard to make a flat declaration of fact, but it’s just as difficult to contest the notion that in a modern context — roughly a third of a century later — Navratilova’s total dominance of women’s tennis in 1983 feels underappreciated.
It feels the same for Djokovic today.
The complicated — and complicating — part of this discussion is as follows:
As much as non-calendar-year runs of four to six majors (obviously, if one wins seven in a row, s/he has won the classic Grand Slam…) are historically under-appreciated, there is something to be said for the idea that the true (“classic”) Grand Slam is a much bigger feat.
We all got a taste of this when Serena Williams came to New York in 2015 with a shot at (a new layer of) immortality. The pressure, the buzz, the sense of enormity which filled Arthur Ashe Stadium each time Serena took the court, was a palpable, organic thing. Players who can win four straight within the calendar year have in fact done something truly remarkable — on a higher scale than those who win four in a row outside the calendar year. Remember, too, that since only one major is played in an eight-month span from mid-September through mid-May, the Australian Open exists on something of an island.
Your mileage may vary, but if a player doesn’t achieve the classic Grand Slam (Graf in 1988, Margaret Court in 1970, Laver in 1969), it is my belief that the next greatest four-major run is one in which a player wins the French, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in succession.
Winning those three majors within three and a half months is itself an astonishing feat.
Rafael Nadal did that in his massive 2010 season, capped by a U.S. Open in which he played (for my money) the best major tournament of any male player in history. Djokovic came close in 2011 and 2015, missing only the French Open. Federer also won two of the three in the same year, doing so on four occasions. He lacked the French in 2004, 2006 and 2007, missing the U.S. Open in 2009.
Yet, let’s immediately step back and re-orient ourselves here:
It is a simple fact that Djokovic won four straight majors, and Nadal and Federer never did. The immensity of the feat — while less than a classic Grand Slam — still exceeds what Nole’s legendary peers attained. It deserves an elevated place — in time, it hopefully will.
Why did it not get enough treatment at the time?
Here’s the direct and blunt answer, which fleshes out point number one in this discussion: The timing was all wrong.
Djokovic fans might see this as an excuse, instead of a reason (which is understandable), but step back for a moment:
If Djokovic had won a fourth straight non-calendar-year major at the Australian Open or at Wimbledon instead of the French (obviously, a fourth straight major at the U.S. Open means a “classic” Grand Slam has been achieved), he would not have completed his career Slam on that same occasion. Djokovic would have added to his trophy haul in Melbourne or at SW19.
The French Open was the ONLY major where Djokovic’s four straight titles could have coincided with the career Slam. It was the only major Djokovic had not yet won.
Plenty of people will disagree, but for me — and this comes through in one of my linked blog posts above — a central feature of the drama of tennis is the pursuit of the career Slam.
Without belaboring the point or repeating myself too much, these quests for completion are riveting and — moreover — long.
The way Ivan Lendl chased his Wimbledon dream for so many years; the way John McEnroe was frustrated at the French; the way Bjorn Borg desperately tried to break through in New York at the U.S. Open; the way Andre Agassi wrestled with Roland Garros — these dramas did not begin or find resolution (or lack thereof) in a 12-month sequence, which is what happened with Nole winning four straight majors. These dramas unfolded over seven or more years.
(I say seven or more years because McEnroe started playing the majors in 1977 and met his devastating heartbreak at the French in the 1984 final against Lendl. Other dramas — Borg chasing the U.S. Open, Lendl at Wimbledon, Agassi at Roland Garros — lasted longer than seven years.)
Novak Djokovic’s pursuit of the Roland Garros title did not initially seem as though it would drag on for nearly a full decade. Djokovic made his first major semifinal at the 2007 French Open. In his dominant 2011 season, Djokovic entered the Roland Garros semifinals with a 43-match winning streak. In 2012, Djokovic wasn’t ready for Nadal in his first French Open final, which obviously felt overwhelming. In 2013, Djokovic — learning from the previous year’s failure against Nadal — played better against his great Spanish foe. He led Nadal in the fifth set of the semis, only to touch the net and improbably cost himself a massive match-swinging point.
That net-touching point was a scarring, jarring moment, the kind of episode which tells a player, “You’re not meant to win this tournament.”
As though haunted by 2013, Djokovic played poorly in the 2014 final against Rafa. The best male clay-courter who has ever lived seemed destined to haunt Nole to his grave at Roland Garros… which is why, when Djokovic stepped into Court Philippe Chatrier for the 2015 final and saw Stan Wawrinka on the other side of the net, he had to feel — at least a part of him — that his long trek through the parched desert of Paris would finally, blessedly, come to an end.
We know what happened instead.
This drama, this subtext, this backstory — nine very long years of climbing the mountain, only to somehow get pushed down when so achingly close to the summit — made Djokovic’s pursuit of the French Open an epic tale, in the very real sense of what the (sometimes-overused) word “epic” actually means.
As a matter of candid self-analysis, I do think I should have done more to recognize Nole’s four straight majors. I will just as candidly say that winning the French and completing the career Slam remain the foremost aspects of Djokovic’s triumph in Paris.
We now arrive at point number two, which is where Djokovic fans are definitely and profoundly correct in their critique of the global tennis media at large: The media’s lack of (collective) effusiveness for Djokovic is not so much damning in itself or on its own terms; it can be more readily identified and measured in relationship to what the media has said — and does say — about Djokovic’s great peers, Mr. Federer and Mr. Nadal.
In my time on Twitter, and in my time as a paid tennis writer who hears from management at any outlet I’ve written for, I can only say this as plainly as possible:
When I write about Roger Federer, I get more clicks, social shares and pageviews than for anyone else.
When I write about Rafael Nadal, I get fewer clicks/shares/views than Federer, but more than for anyone else.
This is the dirty little (not-so-) secret of an online content industry [notice that I used that term and NOT journalism] in which pageviews lie at the heart of the business model and publishers’ expectations: Writers are under pressure to generate pageviews more than anything else. They are often if not always evaluated by that metric to the diminishment (and perhaps exclusion) of everything else.
This being the case in the online content industry, it makes sense as an extension of promoting job security for tennis bloggers to praise Federer and Nadal. In Great Britain, it makes sense to hype Andy Murray and get excited when Djokovic loses or is on the precipice of losing.
Djokovic is unusually and profoundly unlucky to be so stratospherically great, and yet to be third in his era if measured strictly by major championships and global popularity.
Federer — no matter what you think of him — is the New York Yankees of tennis, Nadal the Boston Red Sox. Federer and Nadal are the Celtics and Lakers, Real Madrid and Barcelona, the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. They have staked out places as the two most popular and globally recognizable entities of their time. This might not be fair, and it might not be right, but it is what it is.
It’s the fault of the online content industry that it uses pageviews as the pillar of its business model — not journalistic quality. (Side note: FanRag Sports, the company which houses this site and my columns, represents an counter-weight to that model, focusing on the quality itself. If you read our other sites, one of which I now edit, I think you’ll see that emphasis on quality emerge.)
However, when forced to operate within that flawed model, bloggers and editors — taking cues from their publishers, the people who write the checks — will preserve themselves. They’ll write the effusive pieces about Federer or the poignant pieces about Nadal.
They’ll monitor social shares. They’ll look at the analytics reports about traffic and the comments pages. They won’t write as much about Djokovic, and if they do, they’ll write about how he’s in peril, not about how remarkable he is.
Yes, Federer and Nadal fans know that the media wrote doom-and-gloom pieces about those two men at earlier points in their careers. It’s the familiar build-up-to-tear-down dynamic, creating a maximum of emotional impact to invent a manufactured form of suspense. In 2010 and 2011, Federer fans had to put up with an absurdly large number of articles about Federer’s “decline,” and in subsequent years, the idea of Federer retiring gained far more traction in the media than it ever should, given the Swiss’ stated intention to keep playing (and his ability to keep playing extremely well).
In the past few years, Nadal — while undeniably struggling in the face of injury — has met many of the same pronouncements Federer once endured: namely, that his game was in an irrevocable state of decline. Never mind that Nadal won Monte Carlo and could have put up a fight at Roland Garros this year if his wrist hadn’t suffered; so many pundits just HAD to write about a Nadalian decline instead of allowing history to run its course. Nadal and Federer fans have had legitimate complaints to make about the ways in which their players were covered in the past. The way Nadal was pounced on at the U.S. Open after his loss to Lucas Pouille shows that he’s still not given as much credit as he fully deserves.
Yet, for all the ways in which Federer and (more so) Nadal have been mistreated by the media at large, there is zero question that Djokovic has gotten much more of a raw deal over time.
The question isn’t answered by pointing to coverage of Djokovic’s French Open win; it’s best answered by asking a follow-up question: “What if Federer or Nadal had won four straight majors?”
Yes, we won’t get to actually see the reaction to that event, but any intellectually honest tennis blogger (anyone who writes about the sport for a living and has been in the trenches for any appreciable length of time) knows that Fed or Rafa winning four straight majors would have become a far bigger deal than what the world witnessed from the tennis press when Nole lifted the trophy in Paris this past June.
It is a dynamic of media analysis which is subtle and not always easy to see, but it applies here: Absence, not presence, often emerges as a central point of differentiation between or among media outlets. It’s not so much what WAS said about Djokovic; it’s what wasn’t said. More precisely, it’s not even that Djokovic wasn’t praised for what he did in Paris — he was. It’s simply that praise lacked an electricity, an effusiveness, and a sustained quality which Federer and Nadal almost certainly would have been accorded.
That’s a very frustrating thing, isn’t it? It’s not that one can point to specific words or pieces of text to back up the arguments of Djokovic fans. It’s more a matter of the fact that Djokovic isn’t the recipient of an article such as this one or this one. Djokovic simply isn’t written about as often — or in similarly reverential tones.
It might not be “wrong” to write (or to have written) about Federer so glowingly, but when one sees the absence of similar writing about Djokovic, the point becomes clearer… and yet, it still lacks that “smoking gun” characteristic which makes media critiques that much easier to nail down for all eternity.
This is a lot to digest in the world of media criticism. Don’t worry.
We have four months until the next tennis major begins in January of 2017.
Maybe by then, we’ll give Novak Djokovic more credit… yet also realize why certain achievements always exist in tension with others.
It’s complicated — even when various factions of tennis fans have legitimate points to make.