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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

1984: John McEnroe’s invincible season, well, almost

That year, the American won 82 matches and lost just thrice, a feat that remains the best-ever single-season record by a male tennis player

The tennis world is agog with talk about Novak Djokovic’s current reign over the men’s side of the sport. He has dominated his rivals in the top 10 for months, he has won four of the past five Grand Slam titles, last year he racked up one of the most remarkable seasons tennis has seen... well, you can choose your own measure of his greatness.

One that makes a good case for Djokovic is that he is the third player from among his contemporaries in the game who has been spoken of as the Greatest of All Time. The earlier two being, of course, his peers Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Those two have also had long periods of dominance during which they were regularly mentioned, and deservedly, as candidates for the GOAT label. Now, it’s Djokovic. In particular, he’s regularly beating those two as well. If you are doing that to two all-time greats, you have got to be seriously great yourself.

Still, there are other measures, of course. Most Grand Slam titles? Federer has 17; Djokovic is at 11 and probably counting. Winning all four Slams at least once? Only Nadal and Federer among contemporary players have done so, as did Andre Agassi before them—but before that, the last man to achieve the feat was Rod Laver.

And then there’s a measure I have always liked: how good were you at your peak? That is, take a player’s best season and check how dominant he was that year.

I alluded to this above, when I mentioned Djokovic’s 2015 season. He won three of the four Slams, and lost only six matches while winning 82. This actually outshone his already stellar 2011 season, when he also won three of the four Slams and also lost only six matches all year—but won “only" 70.

The Djokovic-as-GOAT talk probably started in 2011, though generally with the adjective “premature" also tacked on. But during and after his 2015 season—and now that he has sustained his level through the first half of 2016—“premature" no longer applies. Any debate about the best tennis players in history now must include him.

For me, all this brings back vivid memories of 1984, another year that inspired plenty of GOAT discussion. While the man I am thinking of had been one of the world’s top players for several years by then, 1984 saw him at his best. He didn’t play the Australian Open and lost the final of the French Open to Ivan Lendl (famously, after winning the first two sets easily and then losing his temper).

He lost only twice more all year—once to a Swede called Hendrik Sundstrom in the Davis Cup and once to an Indian called Vijay Amritraj at the Cincinnati ATP Championships. (As an intriguing aside, Amritraj promptly lost his next match in that tournament... to an Indian called Ramesh Krishnan).

But apart from those blips, in 1984, John McEnroe won both Wimbledon (handing another GOAT contender, Jimmy Connors, a thorough thrashing) and the US Open (getting his revenge on Lendl via one more thorough thrashing). Those two Slam titles were part of the 82 wins he piled up that year. That 82-3 record remains the best-ever single-season record by a man.

It didn’t happen by chance, either. In his biography You Cannot Be Serious, McEnroe writes of his thinking as he began that season: “I was about to turn twenty-five, middle-aged for a tennis player. It was time to seize the moment. Something in me clicked then, and I went into the new year ready to take on the world."

Which he did. And it wasn’t just numbers that spoke of his dominance. In 1984, McEnroe played tennis at a level nobody had seen for years. The ease with which he beat Connors and Lendl in those two Slam finals was, at times, almost ethereal: it was as if they were bumbling amateurs and here was this seasoned pro toying with them.

All year, his opponents’ skills only seemed to feed his own marvellous talent, his feel for the game. In fact, even the loss to Lendl at the French Open began in that vein. Had he kept his cool and played the incandescent tennis of his first two sets, he would have won in three straight sets.

“That’s the best I ever played," McEnroe told the press after that Wimbledon destruction of Connors. It really was.

Watching him through 1984, even long-time followers of the sport realized that nobody before had played this sublime, ferocious, devastating and always elegant brand of tennis. In fact, it was hard to think anybody else would ever play like this, would ever approach the bar he set that year.

We fans of the game had little doubt: McEnroe was better than Bill Tilden and Rene Lacoste, John Newcombe and Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors and Guillermo Vilas. This is, we thought, the greatest male player tennis has ever seen, period.

So, it was hard not to think that McEnroe, at just 25, had in him several more years at the top and would win several more Slams. In Lendl’s and Connors’s eyes after their Slam losses, you could almost see them uneasily contemplating that future too. How were they ever going to compete with this man?

But, of course, things changed fast. That lonely peak seemed to drain McEnroe. Remarkably, he never won another Slam. In fact, he only ever reached one more Slam final, at the 1985 US Open. He lost that match to Lendl, and rather tamely too. He remained a fine player into the 1990s, but that 1984 season was by far the finest moment of his career.

And because he never matched it again, he’s now rarely mentioned in GOAT discussions.

It hardly matters, I suppose. But for fans like me who were fortunate enough to follow it, that one year of McEnroe at his absolute best remains a favourite memory.

Call it the greatest tennis feast of all time. I will take that.

PS: And one of these days, we will need to talk about Martina Navratilova’s 1983 season. That’s when she piled up an 86-1 record.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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