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By Chris Oddo / Tuesday, December 17, 2013

 

Novak Djokovic started the year on fire, but a series of heartbreaking losses brought him back to earth in 2013.

Photo credit: Rob Newell / CameraSport

Now that the 2013 tennis season is officially in the books, we'll be looking back at the seasons of some of the game's most compelling players. Check back each day as we choose a new player to review.

2013 in Review: See the complete list of players

2013 in Review: Novak Djokovic

Record: 74-9

Titles: Australian Open, Dubai, Monte Carlo, Beijing, Shanghai, Paris, ATP World Tour Finals

Highlights:

Won his sixth career Grand Slam at the Australian Open. Also became the first player in the Open Era to three-peat at Melbourne.

Became the 40th man to break through the 500-win plateau at the French Open when he defeated Grigor Dimitrov in the third round; Became the 15th ATP player to reach the 40-title plateau when he defeated David Ferrer for the Paris title.

Snapped Rafael Nadal's 46-match Monte Carlo winning streak and became the first man to beat Nadal in three different clay-court finals while winning his 14th Masters 1000 title at Monte Carlo.

Defeated Juan Martin del Potro in the longest semifinal in Wimbledon history, before dropping the final to Andy Murray.

Reached his 12th career Grand Slam final at the U.S. Open, a four-set loss to Nadal.

Defended his ATP World Tour Finals title in London, winning the event for the third time by defeating Nadal in the final.

Went 7-0 in Davis Cup singles matches, helping Serbia reach its second final.




Lowlights:

Could not protect a 4-2 lead in the fifth set of his Roland Garros semifinal against Nadal.

Dropped to 6-6 in Grand Slam finals with his loss to Nadal at the U.S. Open.

Failed to become the first player in history to win all nine Masters 1000 titles when he fell to John Isner in the Cincinnati quarterfinals.

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Novak Djokovic was a victim of fate in 2013, in that his fate was intertwined with the fate of his rivals, two of whom (Nadal and Murray) were destined to achieve career-defining milestones and epic achievements this season.

Where did that leave Djokovic? Painfully close to another colossal season, but when all was said and done, slightly disappointed, on the outside looking in.

Serendipity also played a pivotal role in Djokovic's season, and while there were moments on court where he achieved the same sublime, jaw-dropping tennis that made him a global sensation in 2011, in the end the Serb's sense of timing was just a tad out of sync, and that was enough to open the door for his inspired rivals at the final three Grand Slams of 2013.

If Del Potro hadn't pushed Djokovic to five sets at the Wimbledon semis, might he have been able to resist the fury in Murray's game better in the final?

If Djokovic hadn't started his U.S. Open semifinal in sleepwalk mode against Stan Wawrinka, might he have been able to mount a bigger push against Rafael Nadal in the U.S. Open final?

Questions abound, but in the end it's water under the bridge. 2013 was Nadal's year, and Wimbledon 2013 was Andy Murray's Wimbledon. Djokovic was put in the unenviable position of trying to come between two possessed players and their scheduled appointments with history. He couldn't do it and there's certainly no shame in that.

What started out looking like a potential calendar-year Grand Slam ended as a bitter reminder of just how thin the margins are when one is talking about the rarefied air of the Grand Slam final in this the era of multiple tennis icons.

After netting his sixth Grand Slam title in Melbourne, Djokovic was suddenly being considered as a shoe-in to get to double-digit Grand Slams and to finally win the French Open title he has coveted for so long. With Rafael Nadal's future in doubt due to injury and Murray still under Djokovic's thumb (see 2013 Australian final, which to many signified a reversion to the mean for Murray), most viewed Djokovic as tennis' top dog by a wide margin, especially after he thumped Nadal in Monte Carlo to break the Spaniard's 46-match winning streak in the principality and become the first player in history to own three victories over Nadal in clay-court finals.

Slowly, however, the tides began to turn. What had started as Djokovic's year gradually morphed into Nadal's year, then Murray's, then Nadal's again. All the while Djokovic battled, worked for his opportunities, and got his chances, but couldn't take them when he got them.

The Serb went 74-9 with seven titles (commendable to say the least), but he fell in the biggest matches on the biggest stages not because he lacked the ability to win but rather because he seemed to not sense or respond to the urgency at critical junctures of the biggest matches. Case in point: at Roland Garros, Djokovic inexplicably and infamously opened the door for Nadal to climb back into the fifth set of their epic semifinal when he touched the net while attempting an easy put-away volley.


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It was just one hiccup, but in many ways it was a symbol that represented the tiniest crack in Djokovic's armor, one that was miniscule, but nevertheless more than large enough for the opportunistic Nadal to take advantage of.

At Wimbledon Djokovic attempted to right the ship, and he very nearly did, but in the final he ran into an electrically charged adversary by the name of Andy Murray, and there was simply very little that Djokovic could do to curtail the sway of history as all of Great Britain urged the Scot to his monumental triumph. At times it felt like Murray's emotionally tinged Wimbledon was a huge, swelling wave that was destined to gather up anything and everything that got in its way. Djokovic, an innocent bystander, was once again thwarted at the precipice of greatness.

Still, Djokovic should not hang his head or curse his fate. The margins really were very thin, and Djokovic, who continues to hold tennis' longest Grand Slam quarterfinal and semifinal streak (and thus is a picture of consistency like no other player), was closer than many realize to dominating the sport in 2013. If it hadn't of been for the colossal achievements of Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, the Serb might have found himself playing for the first calendar-year Grand Slam since 1969 when he arrived at the U.S. Open in New York in August.

Instead he found himself playing second-fiddle to Nadal's fantastic, triumphant season, and Murray's crowning, curse-shattering achievement at Wimbledon. Instead of chasing the ghosts of the all-time greats, Djokovic was forced to contemplate a bitter reality: that more Grand Slam titles are not a given in this highly competitive era. In spite of playing some brilliant tennis in 2013, Djokovic must spend the winter thinking about what might have been rather than what is.

That he finished the season by running the table in Asia and repeating as the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals champion is a great sign for the 26-year-old. Rather than hang his head and lament his near misses, he sent a strong message across the bow of all who hope to compete for Grand Slam glory in 2014.

Having already proven himself to be the only player capable of rising to the challenge of a soaring Nadal, Djokovic will once again be seeking to be that player in 2014. If the ball bounces his way, there's really no reason why he can't ascend to the top of the game again, especially if Nadal suffers any type of hangover from his transcendent 2013.

No matter how it turns out, the opportunities are sure to be there for Djokovic. If the net touch at Roland Garros was the symbol of his struggles in 2013, maybe a similar play will go in his favor in 2014, and be the symbol of his rise back to glory.

Stranger things have certainly happened.

 

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