In June, Novak Djokovic lost to Roger Federer in the French Open semifinals, falling just one match win short of tying John McEnroe's record start to a season of 42-0 in 1984. Since then Djokovic has won Wimbledon and the Masters event in Montreal, winning 12 straight matches and dropping just five sets. That leaves him with a remarkable winning percentage of 98.1%, better than McEnroe's season-ending percentage of 96.5% in 1984.
Does that mean that Djokovic is a good bet to exceed McEnroe's season record of 82-3? Not really — unless you believe that Djokovic this year has transcended to a new level of dominance that can't be captured by the ordinary laws of probability, which is a defensible position.
First, the cold numbers. Assuming he stays healthy and motivated, Djokovic is likely to play at least five more tournaments: the Masters that began this week in Cincinnati, the U.S. Open, Masters tournaments in the fall in Shanghai and Paris, and the year-end tour finals in London, for which he qualified back in May. Each one should feature most if not all of the world's top male players. Most are in the mix in Cincy; everyone healthy plays in majors; Shanghai and Paris are mandatory tournaments; and the tour finals typically feature the world's top eight players in a three-match round robin followed by semifinals and finals. Some players might skip Shanghai and Paris, particularly the latter, since it's the week before London. But there is another variable that will make it harder for Djokovic to match McEnroe's mark: His Serbian team is in the Davis Cup semifinals, which means he could play as many as four more singles matches in that international team competition, three of them against top-10-caliber opponents.
It's difficult to say for sure what Djokovic's chances are of winning in each event: Final entry lists aren't yet available, let alone draws. But even for a player as good as Djokovic, a sophisticated probability model gives him less than a one-third chance of winning an event featuring all of his top peers. Jeff Sackmann, a Wall Street Journal contributor and tennis-stats blogger atHeavy Topspin, has developed a ranking and forecasting algorithm that gives Djokovic a 29.6% chance of winning in Cincinnati this week. Sackmann also forecast Djokovic's chance of having won Wimbledon, based on his draw in that tournament and his current ranking strength, at about 25%. Apply that to the U.S. Open, and Djokovic's Cincy chances to Shanghai and Paris, and he has less than a 1% chance of sweeping the three Masters and the U.S. Open, compared to a 26% chance of falling short in all four events, which means he'd take on four more losses, already two more than McEnroe.
The tour final is a bit different, because a player can win it all yet emerge with a round-robin loss — or even lose three matches, by getting swept in the round-robin phase or by advancing to the knockout stage with two losses and then getting knocked out. Djokovic is the current heavy favorite in that tournament, yet Sackmann, based on the current likely tour finalists, gives Djokovic just a 17% chance of winning it undefeated — and a 4% chance of losing three matches.
Davis Cup is even tougher to forecast, because final team lineups aren't set and because Djokovic, even if he does play Serbia's semi against Argentina, could play anywhere from one to four singles matches between now and the end of the year — one if Argentina has sewn up the semifinal before his second match; four if he plays two and Serbia wins, then he plays two more in the final against Spain or France. I gave him a 50% chance of playing two matches in the semi, a 90% chance of beating Argentina's No. 2 (likely Juan Monaco, who's taken one set in four matches against Djokovic) an 80% chance of beating Argentina's No. 1 (likely Juan Martín del Potro, who also has just one set won in four matches against Djokovic), a 60% chance that Serbia advances to the final, a 50% chance of playing two matches in the final, a 70% chance of beating the opposing No. 2 singles player and a 60% chance against the opposing No. 1 in the final. These may seem generous to Djokovic, but all matches will be played in Serbia, on a surface that suits him — unless France reaches the final, in which case Djokovic avoids world No. 2 Rafael Nadal and will far outmatch the best France can throw at him. Still, even with all those favorable assumptions, Djokovic has a 40% chance of taking at least one loss in Davis Cup play.
This all adds up to less than a 1% chance Djokovic loses no more than one more match this season, to better McEnroe's feat; about a 5% chance he'll lose exactly twice and match McEnroe, and an 84% chance he'll lose three matches or more.
Even if he does, Djokovic has a chance to match or exceed McEnroe in respects other than won-loss record, which is, after all, rarely considered the determinant of tennis greatness. If he wins the U.S. Open, the tour finals and Davis Cup he'll have matched McEnroe in majors and tour finals while one-upping him in Davis Cup, where McEnroe's U.S. team lost to Sweden in the finals in part because he lost in straight sets in his opening singles match.
And Djokovic in some respects already has exceededRoger Federer's 2005 season in which he finished 81-4 after going up two sets in his final match with a chance to equal McEnroe's 82-3 but then losing three straight sets to David Nalbandian. Federer that year reached just two major finals, winning them both, which Djokovicalready has matched heading into the U.S. Open. Federer also entered just five of the nine Masters events, winning four and losing in Monte Carlo in the quarterfinals; Cincinnati is Djokovic's sixth, and he's already won five, a record total. Federer's Swiss Davis Cup team wasn't in the World Group, the top tier of the competition that Serbia is contesting this year. Federer's squandering of that two-set lead in the tour finals meant he didn't hold that title, still within reach for Djokovic. And Federer was 15-2 against Top 10 opponents. Djokovic is 16-1, meaning he's already won more against top competition than Federer did, with many big tournaments left to play.
But before I write off DJokovic's chances of beating 82-3, there are some important caveats: First, he's defied probability already this season with his improbable run, and hasn't needed a lot of luck in most of his wins. Just nine have gone to a deciding set, and in just four of those was the deciding set close. Also, he could catch some lucky breaks along the way: For instance, some top players might skip Paris; or top potential singles opponents on his Davis Cup rival teams might get injured or skip the tournament. And Djokovic can help himself by skipping one of the later Masters tournaments — particularly if he's won the U.S. Open by then, he'll have little to prove. He'll have the world's best players gunning for him, but they have been all season and have consistently fallen short.Courtesy: Wall Street Journal