Searching For a Standard of Greatness: Roger Federer’s 2006 season versus Novak Djokovic’s 2015 season
Benchmarks are pretty useful tools. They help give added meaning to things that we see in the present by comparing them to something amazing that happened in the past. However, in terms of setting a standard for greatness in a men’s tennis season, judging the past becomes quite tricky. Try as hard as they might, the ATP can’t really sell the idea that the tour we know and love today existed before 1990. You can read all about it here and here (make sure to follow the links about the MIPTC, the Grand Prix circuit and the WCT). The reality back then was so wildly different from today’s unified structure that it makes comparisons quite complicated, or downright impossible. This is why Grand Slam titles are often seen as the only true benchmark, but even the four mighty ones have their oddities in the past (*cough* Australian Open before the 90s *cough*).
What is the benchmark for a truly great season in men’s tennis? People often equate that question with winning percentage, and thus John McEnroe’s famous 1984 season tends to come up (Mac’s record was 82–3 that year). However, that fantastic season is firmly in the jurisdiction of pre-1990 weirdness; McEnroe won “only” 2 Slams (he made the final in another, but didn’t bother to fly out to Australia), and the Masters 1000s didn’t exist as a concept/structure. When Novak Djokovic was wiping the floor with the ATP tour in 2011, McEnroe already went on record saying that what he was seeing then as a commentator was more impressive than what he did as a player back in 1984.
At any rate, winning percentage seems like a simplistic and myopic way to judge a tennis season, given that not all matches are the same, and players don’t play the same number of matches. You have Grand Slam matches, Masters 1000 matches, ATP 500 matches, and finally, ATP 250 matches. Winning percentage might work better for situations when all things are equal (say, success rate at Masters 1000 events), than wins and losses during the chaotic worldwide trek that is a professional tennis season.
If we are to try and establish what is the benchmark for a great season in modern men’s tennis, and we agree that starting in 1990 makes the most sense (that’s the year the ATP tour was actually born and the Masters 1000 structure appeared), there are a few candidates for what a truly great season should look like. These are:
- Federer’s 2004 season
- Federer’s 2005 season
- Federer’s 2006 season
- Federer’s 2007 season
- Nadal’s 2010 season
- Djokovic’s 2011 season
- Nadal’s 2013 season
- Djokovic’s 2015 season
With eight candidates, a simple filter to narrow the field would be useful. Say, only seasons with 3 slam titles make the cut. This leaves us with:
- Federer’s 2004 season
- Federer’s 2006 season
- Federer’s 2007 season
- Nadal’s 2010 season
- Djokovic’s 2011 season
- Djokovic’s 2015 season
How about seasons where all four Slam finals were reached?
- Federer’s 2006 season
- Federer’s 2007 season
- Djokovic’s 2015 season
Since no more Slam filters can be used, let’s go to the next level: Masters 1000 titles. Let’s establish 4 titles at this level as the minimum:
- Federer’s 2006 season
- Djokovic’s 2015 season
We now have just two candidates, and the great thing about having these two specific seasons as the final two is that we can actually compare them side by side without much wrangling. There actually are some differences in terms of how the ATP Tour worked in 2006 as compared to last year, so let’s list them before we delve into the in-depth comparison:
- Not only was the points system different in 2006 than it is right now (following the 2009 changes), but the tournament structure is different. Back then, it wasn’t super clear to identify tournaments below the Masters 1000 level (kind of how the WTA Premier system intentionally works). You had the International Series Gold (which became the ATP 500s) and the International Series (which became the ATP 250s). However, the point difference between these two tiers wasn’t all that significant, there wasn’t a mandatory requirement to play any of them (like how players of a certain ranking nowadays have to play 4 ATP 500s, with one of them being after the US Open), and tournaments from the same tier even offered different amounts of points. It was a mess that was efficiently fixed with the 2009 reorganization, which added the points offered to the winner to the tournament tier: Masters 1000, ATP 500, and ATP 250.
- Another big difference back then was the lack of byes at at 5 of the 9 Masters 1000 events for the top seeds. This basically means that even the very elite (aka, the World Number 1) had to win 6 matches in order to lift a Masters 1000 title at 7 of the 9 events. While this still holds true for Indian Wells and Miami, players had to deal with that extra match at Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome, Canada and Cincinnati. All of these events now give first round byes to the top 8 seeds, limiting the amount of matches someone like Federer or Djokovic has to win to 5. For 2006 Federer, this meant that he had to play an extra match to win Canada and Madrid than he would have needed today, and he played an extra match in order to reach the Monte Carlo and Rome finals. As an added bit of trivia, Federer only lost 1 set in those 4 extra matches: to 19 year-old Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo (then ranked No. 67). That was the first of their 44-and-counting meetings.
- Another slight difference was that 7 of the 9 Masters 1000 events had best of 5 set finals back in 2006 (Canada and Cincinnati did not). The last Masters 1000 final to be played in that format was the 2007 Miami final. So Federer had to win an extra set in the Miami, Indian Wells, and Madrid finals. He also needed to take an extra set from Rafael Nadal in the Monte Carlo and Rome finals in order to win.
With this out of the way, let’s start this bizantine in-depth comparison of what we can safely consider the two greatest seasons in modern men’s tennis.
Phase One: Achievements
The case for Federer’s 2006 season
This was simply an outstanding season. Federer played 17 events, and won 12 of them. He played an outrageous 97 matches (winning 92). Here’s what his year looks like (with points adjusted using the 2009 structure):
A few things:
- Federer failed to make a final in just 1 event (Cincinnati). This is nuts.
- Federer won 3 Slams, 4 Masters 1000 titles, and the World Tour Finals for a total of 8 “big” titles. What does “big” mean? In simple terms, the tournaments with the most points, the most (upfront) money, but also the ones that require top players to participate, hence producing the strongest fields. This is why the 500s and 250s don’t count as “big” tournaments.
- Federer chose to play only 7 of the 9 Masters 1000 events that season. Hamburg was skipped due to the epic final vs Rafael Nadal in Rome the week before (back in 2006, Rome and Hamburg were played on consecutive weeks, and the Rome final was a best of 5 affair — this 2006 final was one of the big reasons why all Masters 1000 events cut out the best of 5 finals format), whereas Paris was skipped due to “fatigue.” Federer chose to play his hometown event in Basel (then the equivalent of an ATP 250) the week before, and in that year, the Madrid Masters (which Federer won), Basel, and Paris were scheduled for consecutive weeks. For most players, this wouldn’t present a dilemma, since Madrid and Paris are mandatory, whereas Basel — now a 500 but back then the equivalent of a 250 — is not. However, Basel is Federer’s hometown, and even after dominating the tour for 3 straight years, he hadn’t managed to win the event where he was a ballboy as a kid (Federer missed Basel due to injury the previous two years, too). Hence, Federer chose to play Madrid and Basel back to back, rest for two weeks, and then play the World Tour Finals. Any elite tennis player hailing from Basel would’ve likely done the same thing.
There is one thing that doesn’t pop up immediately from the table above: Federer didn’t win a single clay title that year. He played just 3 events on the dirt, made the final in all of them, but lost to the same (young) man in all three: Rafael Nadal was just 19 years old when he beat Federer in the Monte Carlo and Rome finals, and he turned 20 just around the time he beat him in the French Open final. Regardless, of Federer’s 12 titles, 2 were won on grass, 2 on indoor hard, 1 on indoor carpet (this classic indoor surface would be banished from the tour shortly after) and 7 on outdoor hard courts.
Nadal is the focus of the other problem with Federer’s 2006 season: the lefty finished with 4–2 head-to-head record that year versus his significantly more experienced and dominant rival. On top of taking all three clay meetings, Nadal also beat Federer in the Dubai final on hard courts (an event Federer had won the past 3 seasons), while Federer took their World Tour Finals meeting, as well as their Wimbledon bout. More on this in Phase Three.
Regardless, Federer’s season has been the easy (and correct) pick as the greatest modern season in men’s tennis since it happened. It slightly towers over Djokovic’s 2011 season (1 more Slam final, a World Tour Finals title, more finals reached out of all events played, which narrowly compensate for Djokovic’s extra Masters 1000 title and superior record versus everyone he played that year).
Now let’s look at the season we just witnessed.
The case for Djokovic’s 2015 season
Novak Djokovic’s 2015 campaign looks remarkably similar to Federer’s 2006:
- Like Federer in 2006, Djokovic made all Slam finals, and lost the same one (albeit to a different player, though both Rafael Nadal in 2006 and Stan Wawrinka in 2015 had previously won all of 1 Slam title up to that point).
- Like Federer, Djokovic failed to make only one final out of the 16 events he played. Curiously, it happened in the opening week of the season, at the smallest event he would play that season: the Doha 250. This means he made 15 straight finals, which is an Open Era record.
- Like Federer, he ended the year by winning the last 5 events he played.
- Djokovic entered 13 “big” events (4 Slams, 8 Masters 1000 events, and the World Tour Finals). He made the final in all of them, and won 10 of those titles. That is just outrageous. The only big event he missed was Madrid, which he decided to skip in order to better prepare for the French Open (Madrid and Rome are played on back to back weeks, and Djokovic preferred to play Rome, which he ended up winning).
- Djokovic created two records at the Masters 1000 level: making 8 finals in a season, and winning 6 titles at that level. He co-owned the previous marks in both (6 finals reached, with Nadal and Federer, and 5 titles won, with Nadal).
- Djokovic managed to win titles on all surfaces and environments: 6 on outdoor hard, 2 on indoor hard, 1 on grass, and 2 on clay. There are no events held on carpet anymore. :(
- Djokovic’s main rival in 2015 was Roger Federer, and he finished with a 5–3 head-to-head record against the man who is 6 years his senior. While that doesn’t seem that dominant at first glance, consider that Djokovic won the 4 of the 5 “big” finals they played (Wimbledon, US Open, World Tour Finals, Indian Wells). Federer triumphed in Cincinnati, Dubai, and a round-robin match at the World Tour Finals that was more or less deemed inconsequential by Djokovic’s eventual victory over Federer in the final of the same tournament.
Phase One Recap
- Novak Djokovic won more big events in 2015 than Roger Federer in 2006, even though both won the same number of Slams plus the World Tour Finals. Djokovic won two more Masters 1000 events, which is not a small margin. Lleyton Hewitt, winner of two Grand Slam titles and former World Number 1, won two Masters 1000 events in his whole career. Same goes for cult favorite David Nalbandián. The big-hitting trio of Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic, and Juan Martín del Potro combine for 4 Slams…and one Masters 1000 title.
- Federer won one more title, and won 10 more matches. However, this was mostly due to Federer playing 2 more 250s than Djokovic, and winning 12 more matches at the lowest level of the tour.
- Djokovic won titles on all surfaces (and all were of the “big” variety). Federer did not.
- Federer only lost 5 times. Djokovic lost 6 times. As I mentioned above, one of Djokovic’s losses could be seen as irrelevant, given that it didn’t stop him from winning the tournament where he lost said match (the World Tour Finals). Both Federer and Djokovic were eliminated from the same number of tournaments in their stellar seasons (5).
- Djokovic finished the season with winning records over all his main rivals. Federer did not.
- As you can see when we normalize the points Federer got in 2006 using the 2009 system currently in place, Djokovic earned a little over 1000 more points than Federer. Is that a significant margin? If Djokovic handed me those extra points, I would start 2016 as the World No. 42, just ahead of Tommy Robredo.
Still, there are other fascinating elements that come out when you dig deeper into this comparison. For example: what kind of competition did both men face?
Phase Two: The Obstacles
Part One: Career Achievements for the 2006 and 2015 Top-10s
Here is what the 2006 Year-End Top-10 looked like in terms of career achievements up to that point:
A few observations:
- This is a young Top-10, with an average age of 24 years old. The oldest guys there are James Blake and Ivan Ljubicic, both 27. As we will see in the 2015 Top-10, only Kei Nishikori would be younger than 2006 Blake and Ljubicic.
- Not only is this Top-10 young: it’s not very experienced. For 4 of these men, 2006 was the first time they finished the season among the very best. Only 3 guys (Federer, Roddick, and Nalbandián) had finished the season in the elite grouping more than twice.
- Just four guys had won more than 8 titles of any kind in their career.
- The experience gap is glaring when we look at the biggest stages of the sport. Only 4 guys in the 2006 Top-10 had made a Grand Slam final appearance, and only 5 of them had lifted a Masters 1000 trophy.
- It’s easy to notice how most of the elite achievements in this group were cornered by the Top-2: Federer and Nadal account for 11 of the 12 Slam titles in this Top-10 (92%), and 18 out of the 23 Masters 1000 trophies (78%).
Now here’s what the 2015 Top-10 looks like:
- Notice how the average age is over five years higher. And even though just nine years have gone by between 2006 and 2015, only two people remain in both groups of players (Federer and Nadal). Nishikori at 25 years old is the youngest top-tenner by 3 full years. In 2006, he would have been slightly older than the average.
- This is a more mature, stable Top-10, and age is not the only indicator. Notice that all of these guys have won at least 11 titles in their careers, and finished in the Top-10 for at least 2 seasons.
- Only Richard Gasquet has failed to make an appearance in a Slam final, and only he and Nishikori have failed to win a Masters 1000 title.
- The Slam titles are concentrated in the Top-5: they account for all 45 of those. However, the Top-2 only account for 12 of the 45 (27%). Same goes for the Masters 1000s, where the Top-2 only account for 37 of the 93 total titles (40%).
- Four guys are in double digits in terms of Masters 1000 titles, with the Holy Triad of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic nabbing a ridiculous 77 of those titles, which is more than three times the amount of the entire 2006 Top-10.
Now, an obvious question: how did each men do against the very best opponents of their hallowed seasons?
- In 2006, Federer played the Top-5 12 times, and went 8–4 in those matches (all 4 losses to Nadal).
- Federer was 19–4 against the Top-10. Another way of seeing this is that he was 17–0 against top-tenners not named Rafael Nadal…and 2–4 against the guy with that actual name.
- Against the Top-20, Federer was 30–4, which again, can be seen as going 28–0 against people not named Rafael Nadal.
- Overall in 2006, Federer faced opponents whose average rank was 63.7. However, since the occasional wildcard opponent can throw off an average, let’s mention that the median rank of Federer’s opponents that year was 35.
Now Djokovic, and how his numbers stack up to Federer’s:
- In 2015, Djokovic played the Top-5 an astounding 20 times, and he went 16–4 vs the very crème de la crème. That’s twice as many wins than Federer, with the same number of losses.
- Djokovic’s record against the Top-10 is even crazier: 31–5. No one has ever managed that many wins against the Top-10. Ever. The losses, as we know, were to Federer (3 times), Andy Murray (once), and Stan Wawrinka (once). This means Djokovic had 12 more wins vs the elite than Federer, with only an additional loss.
- Against the Top-20, Djokovic went 41–5, which makes one realize that half of his overall wins for the season were against the Top-20 guys in the world. For Federer, that number is less than a third.
- Overall in 2015, Djokovic faced foes with an average rank of 46.5 and a median rank of 20.5.
Naturally, no player can actually pick the ranking of his or her opponents (unless one considers scheduling choices, like playing smaller events instead of bigger ones). But it’s pretty astounding that Djokovic played 12 more Top-10 guys when he made only 2 more big finals than Federer back in the day. Why is this? Well, as we saw, the 2015 Top-10 is far more experienced than their 2006 counterparts. This results in more consistency, meaning tournaments see the top seeds advance more often than not, and you end up with Djokovic’s astronomical number of matches against the Top-5, Top-10, and Top-20 in 2015.
Here’s a summary table, just because:
Phase Two — Part One Recap
- When comparing the 2006 and 2015 Top-10 it’s not hard to observe the Grand Canyon-like chasm in experience and achievements between the two sets of players. Some of the numbers are downright comical in favor of the 2015 group: 62 more combined appearances in Slam finals, and 120 more combined appearances in Masters 1000 finals. There is also the 206 title gap between the two groups, and the 45 more combined Top-10 seasons.
- Given that it’s reasonable to assert that playing higher ranked players is harder than playing lower ranked players, we can safely say Djokovic faced significantly tougher opposition during this stellar season than Federer did back in 2006, and did so more often. Again, this is not a knock on Federer, since probably the only thing he could have done to add Top-10 wins was to play Paris instead of Basel, though the difference might have been minimal: he ended up beating top-tenner Fernando González in the Basel final anyway. As an added bit of trivia, that was the only top-10 opponent Federer faced in the 15 matches he played at the ATP 250 level.
Part Two: Season Achievements for the 2006 and 2015 Top-10
Here is how the 2006 Top-10 fared in that particular season:
And here are some more numbers for them:
- It’s pretty amazing that Federer didn’t even play the most matches that year: that honor went to World No. 3 Nikolay Davydenko, who played over 30 events. Isn’t that insane? Back then Davydenko had the reputation of the guy who will play every week, no matter the size of the event. However, only 26 of his 69 wins came at the Grand Slam or Masters 1000 level. And while Davydenko did collect his first Masters 1000 title of his career in Paris that year, half of the Top-10 (including Federer and Nadal) didn’t enter the draw.
- Notice that Federer won 7 more titles than anyone else. He was one of 4 men to win at least 5 titles that year.
- Federer and Nadal won 6 of the 7 Masters 1000 events they entered, and 12 of the 13 big events they took part in. Andy Roddick won Cincinnati without having to beat either man, given that both lost early in the event.
- 2006 saw someone make a Slam final and a Slam semifinal (en route to a decent 13–4 record at the Grand Slam level), but somehow finish outside the Top-10. That was Marcos Baghdatis, who did manage to win a title (Beijing, a 250), but was utterly mediocre at the Masters 1000 level (went 7–7). It was also problematic for Baghdatis that he only managed to win one more match in 2006 after taking the Beijing title.
- 2006 also saw 4 players outside the Top-10 reach a Masters 1000 final. They were: Radek Stepanek (Hamburg), Richard Gasquet (Canada), Juan Carlos Ferrero (Cincinnati), and Dominik Hrbaty (Paris). Notice that two of these surprise finalists appeared in the two big tournaments the top duo skipped.
- All but one player won at least 49 ATP matches, which is impressive, and only Fernando González failed to win a title (though he did make a Masters 1000 final).
- Notice that only Federer won more than 20 Grand Slam matches, and only he and Nadal won more than 15 Grand Slam matches.
- Only Federer managed more than 30 Masters 1000 wins, and only he, Nadal and somehow, González, managed more than 20 Masters 1000 wins. Why did González finish the year ranked so low, then? He went 5–4 in Grand Slam play, and couldn’t win a title of any kind.
- The difference in Dominance Ratio (% of return points won divided by % of service points lost) between Federer (1.40) the next highest number (Roddick’s 1.28) is not exactly small, given what we’ll see for the 2015 Top-15.
Here is the same information for the 2015 Top-10:
And some more numbers:
- Everybody in this Top-10 won at least one title, but only 3 players (as compared to 4 in 2006) won at least 5 titles. However, as a group, the 2015 Top-10 won 5 more titles (41 to 36) than their 2006 counterparts, even though their Top-2 won 2 fewer titles than the 2006 Top-2.
- All the Slam finals and all the Masters 1000 finals were contested by members of the Top-10. As I mentioned above, Novak Djokovic made every big final but one (he didn’t enter Madrid). The final in that tournament? Andy Murray vs Rafael Nadal.
- Notice that all but 2 players managed at least 54 ATP tour wins. That’s two more than the 2006 Top-10.
- 2015 does have the lowest (by far) ATP match wins mark for either Top-10: Jo-Willy Tsonga’s 32 wins. How did he even make it into the Top-10? He was 15–8 in Masters 1000 play, and 11–3 in Grand Slam play. Take note, 2006 Marcos Baghdatis.
- Two men won more than 20 Grand Slam matches (one more than in 2006), with two others winning at least 18 of those matches. Nadal, who had the second most Slam match wins in 2006, would have finished 5th when compared to the 2015 Top-10.
- As a group, the 2015 Top-10 managed 25 more match wins at the Grand Slam level than the 2006 bunch.
- At the Masters 1000 level, 2015 saw two men reach the 30 match win mark (and Djokovic was one Bernie Tomic withdrawal away from his 40th win at this level), which is one more than the 2006 group. Two others won at least 21 matches at this level.
- As a group, the 2015 Top-10 managed 9 more match wins at the Masters 1000 level than the 2006 bunch, which is significant, since the Top-8 guys in the 2015 group had to play 1 fewer match at 5 of the 9 events of the series than their 2006 counterparts.
- Notice the apparently small but significant difference in average and median Dominance Ratios for both the 2015 and the 2006 groups. Another way of looking at it is that only one person in the 2015 Top-10 ended with a Dominance Ratio under 1.20 (and that person, Stan Wawrinka, won a Slam beating Djokovic in the final), whereas only 4 players in the 2006 Top-10 managed to finish the season with a Dominance Ratio above 1.20. Also, the difference between Djokovic and the next highest Dominance Ratio was just 0.03, compared with the 0.12 between Federer and Roddick in 2006.
Phase Two Recap
It’s really no shock that the younger, more inexperienced Top-10 accomplished less in the season currently under the microscope. It’s also no shock that there were better performers at the big events in the more experienced Top-10.
It should also be no surprise either that in terms of just pure ability to win points — I’m talking about the Dominance Ratio number — the 2015 Top-10 fared better.
What jumped out to me while I was compiling these numbers is the idea that the 2006 Top-10 was akin to the teenage years of the era that is now in full bloom in 2015. The life cycle of a tennis era, if you will. What is astounding is that a player can be so utterly and emphatically as dominant as Djokovic was in 2015 when, theoretically, maturity should have brought on more parity.
Oh, and there’s also this:
Phase Three: The Main Opponent
For 2006 Federer: Rafael Nadal
Among the elite, Federer played Rafael Nadal 6 times in 2006, and three other players 4 times (James Blake, David Nalbandián, Fernando González). As we know, there is a five year age difference between Nadal and Federer, so while the former turned just 20 years old in May of 2006, the latter turned 25 in August of that year.
2006 was just the second year of Nadal’s long stay in the Top-10, which continues up to this day. He broke through in 2005, going from the 51st spot in the rankings all the way to the number 2 slot he would occupy until the midway point of the 2008 season, when he finally took over the No. 1 slot. Nadal’s 2005 season is astounding, given how he burst through the ranks like a supernova: a 79–10 match record, 11 titles, including a first Grand Slam trophy and 4 Masters 1000 shields as well (out of 5 finals). Nadal also picked up 3 ATP 500 trophies, and 3 ATP 250s. He went 11–1 in finals, taking 8 of his titles on clay, 2 on outdoor hard, and 1 on indoor hard courts. If there is a blemish on this extraordinary season it’s that Nadal managed to go past the fourth round at just one Major that year (you can guess which one).
However, the stress of an extremely busy breakthrough season saw Nadal miss the final act, and also the 2006 Australian Open due to a foot injury that almost threatened his entire career.
Thus, 2006 started in February for Nadal. True to the form that has frequently seen him bounce back in style after long spells on the sidelines, Nadal won just his second event back, beating Federer in Dubai. The spring North American hard court was good, though not great, but that mattered little when Nadal arrived on his beloved clay. He would go 26–0 on the surface, with a Dominance Ratio on that stretch of 1.35 (which is lower than the 1.41 Nadal achieved on clay in 2005, when he went 50–2 on the surface).
Compared to 2005, 2006 was not in the same vicinity as a great season for Nadal. He won 20 fewer matches (finished the season with a 59–12 record), won 2 fewer Masters 1000 titles (out of 3 fewer finals than the previous year), and finished the year with just 5 titles, four of them on clay, and only Dubai on outdoor hard. Still, Nadal did improve his 2005 results at Majors, by defending his French Open crown, making the Wimbledon final for the first time, while also reaching the Quarterfinals of the US Open.
In terms of a statistical measure of how Nadal was playing points that year, his Dominance Ratio in 2006 was 1.24, which was a step down from his 1.33 from the previous year. Not only that, but Nadal’s 2006 Dominance Ratio would be the lowest of his post-breakthrough career until the 2015 season (1.22).
With all of that being said, Nadal surely excelled at beating Roger Federer in 2006, even though it was arguably Federer’s best season ever. After meeting his nemesis just twice in 2005, Nadal would get 3 more wins over Federer as a teenager before nabbing the fourth (and most important one) as a 20 year old in Paris. However, given the Dominance Ratio numbers (which on clay were as low as it would get for Nadal until 2009), you could argue that 2006 represented Federer’s best shot at beating Nadal in three of the events where the Spaniard has established legendary records: Monte Carlo, Rome, and the French Open. Federer, who was at the peak of his powers while Nadal clearly wasn’t, came the closest in Rome, where he had two match points in the fifth set. Nadal won the Monte Carlo and French Open matches in four sets, and Federer to this day hasn’t come any closer to vanquishing Nadal at either of his three clay domains.
Still, while Nadal was extremely young, and even though he didn’t come close to replicating the form of 2005, he showed the kind of extraordinary maturity in terms of holding his own, defending three out of five big trophies (something he had to do for the first time in his career), and even improving his performance at Slams. In short, he didn’t play like a normal, volatile 20 year old.
For 2015 Novak Djokovic: Roger Federer
Novak Djokovic ended up playing the other members of the Top-3 a remarkable 15 times in 2015, which speaks to the consistency of both Andy Murray and Roger Federer. While No. 2 Murray met Djokovic 7 times, he only managed to take one of those meetings, a tight encounter in the Canada Masters 1000 final. Both Murray and Federer met Djokovic twice in Slams, with three out of the four meetings taking place in finals (the other was the French Open semifinal). Since Federer managed to go 3–5 against Djokovic instead of Murray’s 1–6 mark, he gets the nod for main foe.
Just like Nadal wasn’t a normal 20 year-old in 2006, Federer surely wasn’t a normal 34 year old in 2015. After all, 34 year olds don’t typically go 63–11 in match wins, reach 11 tour finals, including two Slam finals, and go toe to toe with a 28 year-old at the height of his powers.
Similarly to Nadal and Federer in 2006, there is a 6 year age difference between Djokovic and Federer. However, 2015 saw the younger side of the rivalry turn 28 years old, unlike Nadal in 2006, who turned 20 that year. This continues the trend of 2006 (a younger Top-10) and 2015 (an older Top-10).
Even without mentioning his age, Federer had a phenomenal season. He made 11 finals out of 17 events, winning 6 titles, something that he hadn’t done since 2012, and remains the highest mark since 2007 (8). Federer won titles on all surfaces and environments, too: three came on outdoor hard (including the Cincinnati Masters 1000, his biggest title), one came on outdoor clay, one on grass, and one on indoor hard. He collected 1 Masters 1000 title out of 3 finals, and reached multiple Slam finals in one year for the first time since 2009.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Federer’s 2015 season was his Dominance Ratio number of 1.40. That matched his highest ever mark in that statistical category, achieved in 2004, and — you guessed it, 2006. This was mostly aided by Federer’s extraordinary run of form from Halle until the end of the US Open, when he reached 4 finals out of 4 events entered, and only lost narrowly to Djokovic in both Slam finals. During this stretch, Federer went 22–2, got 35% of his total match wins for the season, a third of his titles (including his biggest one), reached 36% of his 2015 finals, and achieved a an utterly ridiculous 1.52 Dominance Ratio.
This Halle-to-US Open stretch also included back-to-back wins over Murray and Djokovic in Cincinnati, where Federer denied the two best returners of serve on the planet even the chance to create a single break point. Federer arrived to the Wimbledon final having lost just one set, and improved on that by reaching the US Open final with an impeccable 18–0 record in sets played.
Phase Three Recap
It’s pretty tempting to give the young Nadal the edge, given that we now know him as the greatest clay court player of all time. Hence, “young Nadal on clay” becomes the default option.
However, as I mentioned above, Nadal on clay in 2006 was far from his historical best (or even the level shown the year before). And it’s understandable. It was the case of a very young player trying to nervously back up what he did the year before.
Naturally, Nadal’s 2006 wasn’t too much of a slump. The Slam won the year before was defended, and so were his strongholds in Monte Carlo, Rome and Barcelona. The drop-off from 2005 was significant, but nobody would dare classify 2006 as a bad season.
Federer in 2015 did things that we just haven’t seen before from someone of his age. At his best, from Halle to the end of the US Open, he was just as dominant as we’ve ever seen him on a tennis court. As I mentioned above, his Dominance Ratio for that period (over 24 matches) was an insane 1.52. Nadal’s Dominance Ratio during the clay season in 2006 (over 26 matches)? 1.35. That is not a small difference.
Both Nadal in 2006 and Federer in 2015 faced their dominant nemesis at places where they have been historically great: 2006 Nadal on clay, 2015 Federer at Wimbledon, Cincinnati, and the US Open. From the paragraph above we can gather than 2015 Federer did so while playing at a ridiculously high level. Yet while Nadal found a way to take those 3 clay meetings from Federer while not reaching the highs of the previous year or the years to come, Djokovic did overcome Federer’s challenge in the Wimbledon and US Open finals while Federer was riding a way of extraordinary form.
Phase Four: Deep Statistical Dive
If you’ve made it this far…congratulations! You’ve already endured around 7000 words, so how about some more about match stats that don’t really interest a whole lot of tennis fans? Follow me down the rabbit hole!
I’ll explain my methodology for this Phase: I took all 3 sets of stats from tennisabstract.com — serve, return, and raw — plugged them in a spreadsheet, and derived a few simple stats based on the many categories available on that very helpful website.
What was I looking for? I guess I was trying to see what pure, absolute dominance looks like in terms of the few official match stats that tennis offers. Again, we’re looking to establish a benchmark here. I was also very curious about how the dominant numbers would describe Federer and Djokovic, given that they’re two very different players, with very different strengths and weaknesses. They both approach the game from radically different places, so I wanted to know how the numbers looked for each one, knowing that, the numbers would be as good as tennis can get in terms of excellence.
Before we start, a small caveat: Federer’s 2006 numbers don’t include two Davis Cup matches he won rather easily in straight sets (one of which was against Djokovic). Djokovic’s 2015 numbers don’t include one match that he also won easily in straights. Why? The ITF doesn’t keep match stats. Is this stupid? Of course it is. But that’s a rant for another day. Does this alter the numbers meaningfully? 2 matches for 2006 Federer represent 2% of the total. Djokovic lost all of 9 games against No. 158 Mate Delic, while Federer lost a combined 15 games against No. 21 Djokovic and No. 92 Tipsarevic. I’d be more worried if we lost match stats for Top-10 matches, or even more crucially, a loss. Thankfully, that’s not the case.
Below are tables where I’ve plugged in a few stats you might be familiar with, and others that I derived/compiled to get a better sense of things. I highlighted in green the season that fared better in a given category, which doesn’t always mean that the higher number is best. For example, while having a higher Ace Rate is better, having a lower Double Fault Rate is obviously preferable. You get the idea.
- Djokovic’s season-long 1.43 Dominance ratio for 2015 is the highest I could find for any single season in men’s tennis. As you probably know, official match stats only started being kept by the ATP since 1991. Why? Because the ATP tour as we know it today didn’t exist until 1990! Crazy, isn’t it?
- Notice how minuscule the difference is for percentage of total points won. 0.4%.
- Over the years we’ve heard so much about how Roger Federer is the epitome of efficiency, and how the way he plays the game has allowed him the extraordinary longevity he enjoys. I have nothing to say against that — Roger Federer is indeed an extremely efficient player. However, we haven’t really thought of Novak Djokovic as a brutally efficient foe. Naturally, we don’t have cool Hawk-Eye data to see how much ground each guy covered in their immortal seasons, or how many times they hit the ball. But we do have the most granular of units in the sport: points. And here you see that 2015 Djokovic managed to play fewer points per set than 2006 Federer.
- Obviously, the Dominance Ratio should have clued us in on this dynamic. After all, Dominance Ratio is simply Percentage of Return Points Won divided by Percentage of Service Points lost. If 2015 Djokovic has a higher Dominance Ratio than 2006 RF, it’s probably likely that he’d have played fewer points per set and per match.
- It’s interesting to note that RF won a higher percentage of his matches in straight sets. However, we can also identify a bit of inefficiency for 2006 RF: he played a ton of tiebreakers! As we know, tiebreak sets can be brutally long, and 2006 Federer played 25 more than 2015 Djokovic. Of all the sets Federer played in 2006, almost one out of five ended up in a breaker. For Djokovic that number was a little over one in ten. Why did this happen? We’ll see in the stats below.
- Absolutely shocking that Federer takes most of the serve categories, right? However, I do find it fascinating that 2015 Djokovic managed to win just 0.14% fewer of his service points than 2006 Federer. That’s as slight an edge as you can find. Again, Djokovic’s serve often gets overshadowed by his monstrous returning abilities, but the fact of the matter is, you don’t put together a crazy season like he did by excelling at just one aspect of the game.
- Notice the way more significant edges Federer enjoys in terms of Aces per match — 1.5 more free points per match — and double faults — a third fewer per match.
- How can Djokovic come that close to Federer’s overall success rate in service points? His substantial lead in percentage of points played on his first serve is a big reason why. It’s always better to play points with your first delivery.
- Some might be surprised to see that 2015 Djokovic won a higher percentage of points played with his second serve than 2006 Federer. After all, Federer’s second serve has received its fair share of praise from commentators (it is excellent, no doubt about it), whereas Djokovic’s second delivery gets relatively less press. What both men do extremely well is use second serves that allow them to start a rally on their terms most of the time (and both are pretty good at rallying). Sure, someone will get hot from time to time and punish those second serves. But Federer and Djokovic always find ways to overcome those brief moments of duress.
- It might not come as a surprise that Federer saves a higher percentage of the break points he faced, but it sure might seem a surprise to see that Djokovic faces fewer break points, both per match and per set. The difference is minimal, and maybe that’s enough for it to be a surprise. Again, we don’t think of Novak Djokovic as a dominant server, though we probably should at least consider that he’s pretty darn good at it. Naturally, Djokovic comes about these positive outcomes in ways that are not super obvious (not a whole lot of aces), and again, we don’t have detailed rally stats to see how many balls he has to hit on average to hold serve. But no matter how he does it, the results are quite remarkable.
- Here we basically see where the edge in Dominance Ratio comes from. Federer’s lead in percentage of service points won was just 0.14%. Djokovic’s lead in return points won is 1.10%. Not surprising.
- There are surprises in this category, though. 2006 Federer was significantly harder to ace than Djokovic. This dovetails nicely with the stat just under it: that 2006 Federer did better against first serves than arguably the greatest returner of serve in history. Like with Djokovic and his very impressive stats, we sometimes forget that Federer is actually extremely good against first serves. His problem, rather inexplicably, lies in second serve returns.
- The 3% difference between Djokovic and Federer in second serve return points won pretty much tips the scale in the overall categories. It’s disproportionately bigger than the others, which were razor thin. It’s also kind of bizarre, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be actually harder to be good at winning points off of people’s first serves than against their second serves? But here lies one of the deep contradictions of Roger Federer’s game, one that he continually tweaks (as we saw last summer).
- Also significant is the difference in Djokovic’s favor in terms of percentage of break points converted, though few Federer fans will be surprised.
- It’s a bit surprising, though, that Federer in 2006 created more or less the same amount of break points per match than Djokovic in 2015. Though if you think about it, most players serve a majority of first serves during a match, and Federer did fare better against those than Djokovic. Not converting those break points might have a hand in Federer playing so many tiebreakers in that year, though, given that he was pretty good at saving break points.
Phase Four Recap
Not much is left to be said, other than we probably need to acknowledge Djokovic as a very efficient and effective server at the very highest level, and Federer as a supremely good returner of first serves — also at the highest level.
Djokovic ends up looking better in more of these categories, and the numbers do a good job of illustrating just how much of a two-way tyrant Djokovic has become. He’s the closest thing we’ve seen to what Serena Wiliams is to the women (though still far away). Serena, probably the most talented tennis player ever, dominates on both sides of the ball, to use a fun basketball term: she has the greatest serve in women’s tennis history, and is easily one of the two or three best returners ever.
Djokovic obviously isn’t at that exalted level (really, who is, other than Serena?), but his returning arguably the best we’ve seen, and his serving is way better than just good enough. I mean, he’s at No. 11 in all time (read: since 1991) percentage of service games won. That’s just 5 spots off of Federer himself. Whereas on the other side of the ball, Djokovic is No. 5 in all-time return games won, while Federer can be found in the 41st spot.
Of course, for Djokovic the challenge throughout his career has been to get his serving to the level it is now. He briefly lost that essential part of his arsenal back in 2010, when he famously served more double-faults than aces for the entire season. But ever since then, it’s been steady and noticeable improvement in that area, culminating in his iconic 2015 season.
You should get a t-shirt for making it this far. The overriding feeling after going through all these numbers, all this history, and all the memories of both seasons is that we’re incredibly privileged tennis fans. In a span of just 9 years, we saw easily the two greatest seasons modern men’s tennis has produced (along with plenty others, as you saw in the first page of this monolith). We actually get to have this argument, and that is just amazing. It’s tempting to say that we’re not likely to see another great season like these two again, except for the fact that Novak Djokovic is still just 28 years old, and even beyond him, it’s just dangerous to predict the future.
After all, Federer’s 2006 season seemed unassailable…until Djokovic produced his legendary 2011 season, and now his 2015 campaign. Pete Sampras retired thinking nobody would come close to his 14 Slams, and it took Federer less than 7 years to not only tie Pete’s record, but break it. Adding insult to injury, Pete is not even alone in second place: Rafael Nadal tied him with 14 Slams in 2014.
Things have been moving pretty quickly in men’s tennis, and even though there are signs that the bonanza is ending (everything does eventually), we can safely say that we have some pretty incredible benchmarks for the future. It will be amazing if someone ends up going 92–5 again, or making all the big finals in a season. It would blow my mind if someone ends up making 8 Masters 1000 finals in one calendar year, or notching 31 Top-10 wins. But, records are meant to be broken.
As to which season I think is the correct benchmark we should use for future examination of great campaigns, the answer has been clear to me since Djokovic hoisted the World Tour Finals trophy last November. 10 big titles in a season is just bonkers, and it’s two more than the 2006 mark. The number of top-10 wins is staggering. The 15 straight finals (including the craziness of making the final in every big tournament he entered) is nuts. Titles on all surfaces. Superior head to head against every major rival. Over 1000 more ATP points the 2006 benchmark. A higher season-long Dominance Ratio that doubles as the best we’ve ever seen. And all of that against more seasoned, experienced, and accomplished opposition, not to mention significantly higher ranked opponents.
Yet we shouldn’t forget what Federer did back in 2006. More than a template, it seemed like an Olympus of sorts: an achievement reserved for the immortal. It really should have survived longer than nine years as the benchmark for excellence in modern men’s tennis.
However, like the great Rubén Blades likes to sing: life gives you surprises.