Careful not to tarnish your season, Djoker

Imagine for a moment that you are a New England Patriot (if you can stand that), and you just went 14-2 in the regular season and knocked off the Pittsburgh Steelers and defending champion Green Bay Packers to win the Super Bowl.

"OK," Bill Belichick tells you in the locker room right after the big game. "Don't let this win distract you. You've got the Colts next week, and you can't take them lightly."

That's roughly the position Novak Djokovic is in as he rounds the turn and comes into the home stretch of the tennis year. He's done all the heavy lifting -- he won three of the four Grand Slam titles (the only titles that matter to the general sports audience), a feat surpassed in a single year by only two men in tennis history, Don Budge and Rod Laver.

Djokovic also ripped the No. 1 ranking out of Rafael Nadal's hands. He amassed one of the longest winning streaks ever (43 matches), and his winning percentage for the year is right up among the all-time best. Did I mention that he's 10-1 against the only two men (Nadal and some guy named Federer) who have held the No. 1 ranking since Andy Roddick finished on top in 2003?

But the year isn't done yet, and some of the luster of his 2011 might be dimmed should Djokovic do poorly or even merely well in his final three events: Basel (where he's through two rounds), the Paris Indoors Masters and the ATP World Tour Finals -- the last event on the ATP calendar.

You could hardly blame Djokovic if he's walking around muttering, "What more do I need to do?" It must seem like that absurdly brief offseason that begins in early December is light years away. And on top of that, he's playing his way back into form because a back injury (which he's described as the worst of his career) has kept him from playing a competitive match since mid-September.

Back injuries tend to be momentum stoppers, but I bet you knew that.

You can say that all the players among the elite who have posted .900 or better winning percentages in a single year (John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and Roger Federer -- pretty good company for Djokovic) have faced and surmounted the same challenge. Djokovic should have to do it, too, if he wants to be talked about in the same breath.

True enough, which is why it's going to be interesting to see if the No. 1 from Serbia can make a final push this year. I don't believe any of his peers in that .900 club took as long a break as Djokovic has since back problems accounted for the most recent loss in his exceptional 64-3 record of 2011 (that was in the Davis Cup semifinals, the weekend after Djokovic won the U.S. Open).

Djokovic looked rusty in his first match in Basel the other day, but he righted himself Wednesday with a comprehensive beatdown of Poland's Lukasz Kubot -- the ATP equivalent of the 2011 Indianapolis Colts.
But some considerably more menacing rivals await, and many of them will be hoping to exact a little payback. I imagine that Nadal, against whom Djokovic was 6-0 this year, is at the head of that long line. Although they couldn't meet until the ATP World Tour Finals after Nadal pulled out of Paris.

It must seem like an entirely different year for Djokovic, or like he's just awakened from a dream, instead of merely a dream year that ought to be over.