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Australian Open 2016: Don't bet against Novak Djokovic bettering an incredible 2015

Editor's note: This article was originally published on 18 January, before the Australian Open started. It is being republished ahead of the semifinal clash between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

I’ll get straight to the point: Novak Djokovic has a realistic chance of becoming only the second man in the Open Era to claim a calendar Grand Slam.

Hyperbole? Hardly.

It is a reasonable conclusion reached after a cold, hard study of the facts.

While most of us have been more concerned with Roger Federer’s quest to win one more Grand Slam title, or Rafael Nadal’s struggles to overcome serious injury, Djokovic has transformed himself into the best tennis player on the planet. In 2015, he became just the third male tennis player to reach all four Grand Slams finals in the same year in the Open Era. His record in Grand Slams was 27-1, that sole defeat coming in the French Open final to Stan Wawrinka, the latter later saying he had played the match of his life.

Novak Djokovic can better his incredible 2015. AFP

Novak Djokovic can better his incredible 2015. AFP

Djokovic reached a record 15 consecutive finals, winning 11 of them. He won a record six Masters 1000 titles and capped the year by winning the ATP’s season-ending tournament for a record fourth year in a row. He also beat his fellow top-10 players a record (yes, that word again) 31 times and finished the season with a win-loss record of 82-6, the sixth best of all-time in terms of winning percentage.

In 2016, Djokovic has already extended his finals streak to 16, thrashing Nadal 6-1, 6-2 on his way to the Qatar Open title. An awestruck Nadal described that performance as "perfection". In doing so, Djokovic broke his own ATP world record for points, pushing it to 16,790. No one, not even Federer, has reached such a lofty peak.

Such has been his dominance that Andy Murray was left wishing Djokovic would falter when asked about his chances of winning the Australian Open this year.

"You just have to keep trying to learn, watch his matches, try and see if there's any weaknesses there that you can capitalise on,” Murray told Reuters. "Maybe he has a drop-off, it's very difficult to maintain that level for such a long period.

"That's all you can do."

The problem for those, like Murray, who are looking to slow the Djokovic train is that he might not have any weaknesses. He can hit winners off both wings, returns serve better than anyone in the game currently, and just doesn’t quit back mentally (unlike earlier in his career). He might also be the physically fittest player on tour.

“When you look at match players in the history of tennis, I don’t believe that anybody can equal everything on the court that Djokovic does,” legendary tennis coach Nick Bolletieri said during Wimbledon last year. “I don’t think you can find a weakness in his game. His movement, personality, his return of serve, his serve, excellent touch, not hesitant in coming to the net, great serve. Over all, almost every player has a downfall; to me he doesn’t have one. He’s perhaps the best put-together player that I’ve seen over 60 years

The timing of Djokovic’s rise has also provided him with an opportunity history denied to the remarkable and enduring Federer, who is the only player to have made the finals of the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open in the same year three times. But twice, in 2006 and 2007, Federer ran into Rafael Nadal, the greatest clay court player of all time, in the French Open final, dashing any thoughts of a Grand Slam. In 2009, the third time he did it, Federer clinched the career Slam by winning the French, but lost the Australian and US Open finals.

Where Federer had a rising Nadal to contend with - and Nadal was strongest on Federer’s weakest surface – a quick look around the ATP tour shows no signs of looming legends surging through the ranks, no young pretenders itching to snatch the crown from Djokovic’s head.

Instead, it is the same group of challengers - Federer, Nadal, Murray, Wawrinka - and each one of them comes with baggage. Though Federer beat Djokovic three times last year and has hired a new coach in Ivan Ljubicic, who knows Djokovic’s game, age continues to be his enemy and his task of winning an 18th Grand Slam only gets harder.

Nadal is hobbled physically and hasn’t been a dominating presence since the end of 2012. Murray meanwhile has struggled to regain the form he possessed before splitting from Coach Ivan Lendl and prior to back surgery.

Djokovic also has leads the head-to-head records against all of them since 2012.

The consistent excellence of Djokovic has also led to what I like to call “Tiger Woods syndrome”. His opponents know that Djokovic isn’t going to beat himself, and they know that Djokovic knows that they know, so they put pressure on themselves to attempt the spectacular, thereby self-destructing more often than not.

The 2015 Open final is one illustration of this pattern. Federer hit 56 winners over four sets but had 54 unforced errors compared with 29 and 17 in his semi-final against Wawrinka over three sets.

Over a decade ago in 2005, Federer went 81-4 and reached all four Grand Slam finals. Then, in 2006, he somehow got even better, going 92-5 and reaching all four Grand Slam finals again.

Djokovic appears coiled and ready to do something similar after his fabulous 2015. The possibility of winning an Olympic Gold doubles provides added motivation to his desire to complete a career Grand Slam. Sure, injury could derail him or a talented opponent could play the match of his life, as Wawrinka did in last year’s French Open final. But there is a clear and present window for Djokovic to make history.

Don’t be surprised if he pulls it off.

Editor's note: This article was first published before Novak Djokovic's opening round win at the Australian Open versus Chung Hyeon, 6-3 6-2 6-4.

Updated Date: Jan 28, 2016 12:36 PM

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