Novak Djokovic and his quest to be the best

No one in tennis today holds the line like Novak Djokovic.

"I think most of the players are trying to protect the baseline, trying [to] own the baseline and trying to dictate the play," he told the press last Sunday in Paris. "It's a little bit of play of cat and mouse, who can stay on the line more."

Djokovic dispatched Andy Murray 6-2, 6-4 in the BNP Paribas Masters final, a charming little appetizer before next week's anticipated year-end entrée that is the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Murray is the sport's second-best baseliner, but Djokovic won two-thirds of their baseline points.

That's how big the gap is.

Djokovic's ludicrous vision and hand-eye coordination, combined with a now fully developed tenacity, allow him to control the court from that defining line of demarcation, taking time away from opponents and pushing them backward.

Djokovic's forward-spinning 2015 season, by a broad consensus, has been his best and, as a result, one of the greatest in Open era history. Here's what he's produced:

• A record of 78-5 (.940) and $16.7 million in prize money.

• 10 titles, including three majors and a record six Masters.

• A current winning streak of 22 matches.

"It's been one of the all-time greats," said Paul Annacone, a former player, coach of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer and an analyst for Tennis Channel. "You can compare it to John McEnroe's 1984 and Roger's 2006. It's right in that conversation with the best ones I can think of.

"Look at all Novak's accolades, pick the piece of candy you like the best."

At 28, Djokovic, like the protagonist of Tom Wolfe's 1998 novel, finally is "A Man in Full."

"I think in terms of physical and mental ability, I reached my peak experience-wise," Djokovic explained in Paris. "This season, everything got together.

"I'm still determined to improve, to get better. Nobody can be perfect, but if you are going for the perfection, you might reach excellence. That's the kind of mindset I have."

In retrospect, it's clear Serena Williams' breathtaking season went a long way toward overshadowing Djokovic's accomplishments. At age 33, she won the year's first three majors and her first five matches in New York, before a stunning semifinals defeat to Roberta Vinci. Djokovic, however, finished with a record of 27-1 in Grand Slam singles matches, compared with 26-1 for Serena.

Brad Gilbert, who coached Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray, loves crunching the numbers that great seasons create.

"Jimmy Connors won three in '74 but didn't win the French," said Gilbert, now an ESPN analyst. "John McEnroe got to three finals in 1984 but didn't play the Aussie. Fed had an amazing year in 2006, winning three majors, but was down 2-4 head-to-head against Rafa.

"Then Rafa in 2010, Djokovic in 2011 -- they both won three, but this might be better. I'd argue that in the Open era, this is right there. I'll give it a co-No. 1."

One 'major' slip

After losing to Rafael Nadal six straight times at Roland Garros, Djokovic finally changed the karma this spring. He hammered a depleted Rafa in the quarterfinals and, after a win against Murray, entered the final as an overwhelming favorite against Stan Wawrinka.

"Ironically, he was probably playing his best tennis in the spring on clay," said Todd Martin, a former professional who signed on this year as the CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. "He just ran into a guy who took a swing at him and made contact."

Indeed, after winning the first set, Djokovic was swept aside in four by a dialed-in Wawrinka. It would be Djokovic's only Grand Slam singles loss of the year.

"Going 27-1 in majors is just spectacular," Martin said. "Roger did it in 2006 and also 2007, losing the French Open final to Rafa both times. And McEnroe had a match point against [Ivan] Lendl at the French Open in 1984 and won the next two.

"If Stan hadn't played that great match in Paris, it would have been interesting to see how the US Open would have played out."

Pam Shriver, who won 21 Grand Slam doubles, the second-highest total of the Open era, agrees with Martin.

"The French Open is the first half of the calendar-year Grand Slam," said Shriver, an ESPN analyst. "If he'd won the French, he might have felt more pressure at Wimbledon and, even if he won Wimbledon, he'd have felt the pressure at the US Open. So there's no assumption he would have won Wimbledon if he had won the French."

Gilbert said he was most impressed with Djokovic's ability to regroup after that crushing defeat in Paris.

"I mean, he was just a smidge away from a look at a Grand Slam," Gilbert said. "What a major disappointment he doesn't win the French. A lot of players, even great ones, might have struggled for a few months after that.

"The natural tendency, since it's the one you're missing, might be to have a letdown after that. He said, 'No thank you.' I think it was one of greatest efforts ever to win Wimbledon. I was blown away how quickly he put French behind him."

How many more?

In early January, Djokovic lost in the Doha, Qatar, quarterfinals to Ivo Karlovic. Karlovic, who is 6-foot-11, scorched 21 aces and did not face a break point. He converted only one against Djokovic, but it was just enough in a three-set match that featured two tiebreakers.

In the intervening 10 months, Djokovic has played 13 tournaments and reached the final of each. In addition to the losses to Karlovic and Wawrinka, Djokovic lost twice to Federer, in Dubai and Cincinnati, and to Murray the week before in Montreal.

Five losses in 83 matches. Djokovic's previous best was six in 2011.

Djokovic's dominance against his most talented peers is unnerving. This season, he's put together a 27-4 record against top-10 opponents. And look how he's fared against the very best: Federer (4-2), Wawrinka (3-1), Murray (6-1) and Nadal (3-0).

"He was on an amazing roll in 2011, but he's a better tennis player now," Darren Cahill, who helped coach Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber this season, explained via email. "He's a better athlete and a more mature person to be able to handle everything that comes from winning so much.

"Coming back to win Wimbledon and the US Open showed remarkable mental resolve and determination. He's already an all-time great in my book, and who knows how many majors he can rack up in the next few years if he stays healthy."

In the short term, the coast seems to be clear for Djokovic.

The triple-major has been orchestrated six times in the past 12 years, but the only other two men to do it, Federer and Nadal, are on the downside of their careers.

In terms of pure numbers, Federer's 2006 season stands out: 12 titles and a record of 92-5 (.948). Even if he wins out, Djokovic can't match that. In 2010, Nadal was 71-10 and won seven titles. Djokovic's 2011 season featured 10 titles and a 70-6 mark.

"If you look at Novak, he's really devoid of weakness now," Martin said. "You add to that the supreme level of confidence, the self-belief from having been there and done that so many times. You look at the simplicity with which he plays, hit it right, hit it left, hit it right, hit it left. The guy always has his opponent moving. He returns better than any other human being has dreamed of returning."

Djokovic comes into London with that supreme feeling. He's won the year-end event the past three years running.

"I look forward to it, especially because of the fact that I have had a season that I have had and the way that I'm feeling confidently," Djokovic said in Paris. "Hopefully I can finish off the season with another great win."

As Justin Gimelstob, a former professional and now coaching John Isner, pointed out, Djokovic actually seems to be getting better.

"He's in his prime," Gimelstob said. "There's no reason he can't maintain this for the foreseeable future."

Which is?

"The next three years," Gimelstob said. "If he wins in Australia, it will be his 11th major. The best argument for him is that his dominant years have come in an era when the game is undisputedly at the highest level. I think that's the greatest compliment to him."

Exactly how many more does Djokovic have in him?

We turned to the numerologist, who not surprisingly, had already given the matter a great deal of thought.

"The next two, three years I feel like we're entering Djoker's prime," Gilbert said. "The next 10 majors, he's got to feel like he can win half of them. I'd probably set the over at 5.5.

"Maybe these guys, [Kei] Nishikori and [Grigor] Dimitrov, can jump up there. But I'm getting the feeling the next one is going to come from the guys who are 18 right now. Djoker is really hitting his stride right now."

Shriver has it right.

"Comparing Federer's greatest years with Rafa's best, and now Djokovic's 2015, they're all so close," she said. "It just points to how amazing it is that they're all playing at the same time.

"How lucky are we?"