Novak Djoković has just won his 17th Grand Slam title in his career, beating Dominic Thiem in a four-hour final, coming back from 2-1 deficit in sets. This win meant he is only two away from Nadal’s 19 and three away from Federer’s record of 20 singles’ Grand Slams!
I have been a part of many ”Greatest of All-Time” (GOAT in future reference) debates for many sports throughout my relatively short period of being a journalist. After every major record broken or a championship, a question would arose if someone is the one. For example, when LeBron-led Cavs came back from a 3-1 deficit to the team with most regular season wins in NBA history, the question was is he the one to overtake Michael Jordan for that status. Moreover, in the last decade and a half almost, we have witnessed the incredible back and forth between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo with both breaking records left and right and after every Balon d’Or and every Champions League title the narrative would always be if one of them is the greatest of all-time. The thing I realized is that a lot of sports fans like to compare generations of athletes, even if the style of play, rules and competition can rarely be put in the same basket.
But today, contrary to my personal belief of letting every great’s career play out until the end to comment on his definite spot on the all-time rankings, I will make an exception because of one reason only. Tennis has its top 3 players in history playing in the same era! Yes, an argument can be made for at least five more players to be in the all-time standings but the results say it otherwise. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djoković are currently top three players in history with most Grand Slam wins, with them winning 56 slams. How much is that you may ask? Well, imagine only three players winning all four of the Grand Slams for 14 years straight! That is just ridiculous!
Before I start going into arguments on why I see Novak as the GOAT when it’s all said and done, I firstly want to state that, personally, the GOAT in tennis is determined by the number of Slams, mainly because those are the tournaments made to push you to your physical limits and are made to distinguish the best of the best. That means Novak is currently ranked third in my personal all-time list, behind Roger and Rafa.
Now, let’s dive into arguments:
When we take a look at the most talked about criteria when we compare who is the greatest tennis players, we have to say that Novak’s accolades speak for themselves and may even be the greatest already by overall titles!
ATP has recently made a ‘Big Title Kings’ list comparing Roger, Rafa and Novak by their Grand Slam, ATP Finals and ATP Masters wins. Djoković is the current leader with 56 wins, against Roger and Rafa’s 54. He is also the leader when it comes down wins per ”big” tournament played, with 3.3, compared to Nadal’s 3.4.
Also, Novak is the only one of two players to win 9 ATP Masters events, along with Ivan Lendl, compared to Federer’s 8 and Nadal’s 7 different Masters wins. In 2018, Djoković accomplished career ATP Masters 1000 with winning Cincinnati. Djoković is also the leader in: Most ATP Masters tournaments won in one season, Most finals reached in one season, Most consecutive matches won, and is only one behind Nadal in all-time wins.
How do they match up at the end-of-the-season’s ATP Finals? Novak is currently the second of all-time, trailing Roger Federer by only one. Rafael Nadal has, for example, never won the ATP Finals in his career, what most analysts see as the biggest flaw in his overall legacy.
Now, for the National Team competitions. Nadal is an absolute stud when we talk about Davis Cup! He has won five titles, four with being the absolute best player on the team. Compared to him, both Roger and Novak have only one. Novak is also the only one not to win the gold at the Olympics, even though Federer won it with Wawrinka in doubles, not singles. His resume was, however, improved this January by besting Rafa-led Spain in the pilot edition of ATP Cup!
Talking about Grand Slams again would be useless, because we all know what Novak needs to do to get the biggest recognition as far as this conversation is concerned. To be the best you have to beat out the best’s record! But just to get into how impressive Novak is at Grand Slams, I will point out two facts. First, he is one of only two players to top Rafael Nadal at the French Open (2015) and is currently 3-1 against Federer in Wimbledon!
When comparing who is greater between two players, you will often see their records against each other to make that assumption. For example, Messi and Ronaldo, LeBron and Kobe, Brady and Rodgers. The question is, why is this argument almost invalid when discussing who is the greater of the Big Three?
Novak’s head to head against two of his fiercest competitors is positive in both cases, leading Federer 27-23 and leading Nadal 29-26! Nadal hasn’t managed to take a set from Djoković in their last 9 encounters on hard court! That is absolutely ridiculous! And when we dive in a bit deep and compare their tournament final matches, Djoković is career 13-6 against Federer and 15-11 against Nadal!
Djoković is outplaying Roger on both hard courts and grass courts (all four matches played at Roger’s forte – Wimbledon), and Rafa on hard courts by an impressive margin – 20:7!
Experts often say this is the thing that differentiates a top 100 player to a top 10 player, and then a top 10 player to an all-time level tennis player. In my opinion, mentality and ability to focus in key moments have been Novak’s most important asset in his quest for the greatest of all-time.
The first time this was visible is the beginning of Novak’s prime, which I believe is the period after winning Davis Cup in 2010 with Serbian National Team. After the win, he went on to win 4 out of the next 5 Grand Slam tournaments, beating Nadal three times and Andy Murray once, but his prime will be evaluated in detail below.
I have taken four matches from Novak Djoković’s career to support his unmatched mentality in the world of tennis, all of them coming against his top rivals:
Now back to Novak’s prime. If you were to comment on this topic ten years ago, the answer of who had the best prime in Open era history, would be undoubtedly Roger Federer’s span of dominance from 2004-2007, where Fedex managed to win 11 out of 16 total Grand Slams in the four years! We can agree that Novak has never had that dominant of a stint, but his 2011 and 2015-2016 campaigns must be held accountable.
Yes, Roger seemed invincible during that four-year period, but what was his competition? Federer beat Nadal twice, when he was 20 and 21 in Wimbledon, Andy Roddick three times, a very solid player during that period and a former World No. 1, and then Marat Safin, Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, Marcos Baghdatis and Fernando Gonzalez, with the 20-year-old Djoković being the last in line, once. Compare that to Novak’s reign, where in 10 Grand Slams (finishing the list with French Open 2016), Djoković won 8 slams! Those finals wins came against, in order, Murray, then three times against Rafa, Murray again, Federer twice and Murray twice more!
With all seriousness, none of the players Federer has beaten from his generation (mid-2000s) was even close to being in the GOAT discussion, ever! On the other hand, Novak has managed to out-do two of the greatest tennis players to ever live and Andy Murray, who would be the generational player of any other era in tennis!
Finally, when all is said and done, the GOAT status will never be reserved exclusively for the most accomplished, mostly because more often than not, accolades are compared quite subjectively in this regard, there will be other elements to contribute to the success of an athlete in the eyes of the fans, such as popularity, impact, likability, etc. And even though Novak might not be the most popular guy on the Tour, the fact of the matter is that his achievements can not be questioned and if I can say objectively, I firmly believe that Novak will become the greatest tennis player that has ever lived by the time he decides to retire!