He may not cover the court with the grace of Roger Federer, compete with the doggedness of Rafael Nadal, or hold the uncompromising humility of Rod Laver, but Novak Djokovic’s French Open victory on the weekend has made him the greatest tennis player of all time.
Djokovic’s maiden French Open victory has seen his Grand Slam match-winning streak extend to 28, and he’s become the third man in tennis history to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time – the first man to do so since Laver in 1969.
He’s the eighth player, and only the fourth in the Open Era (1968 onwards), to have won every Grand Slam at least once.
He holds the single largest rankings lead in tennis history, sitting at 16,950 points, as opposed to second-ranked Murray’s 8915 and Federer’s 6655.
Murray and Federer could combine their rankings points and still fall short of Djokovic. To put this lead into perspective, Djokovic would likely remain at the top of the rankings even if he lost in the first round at Wimbledon and the US Open and Andy Murray won both.
It is a dominance of the field we have never seen before, and may never see again.
The Greatest versus The Greatest
Federer is one of, if not the first to be raised in the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) debate. Compare Djokovic’s best with Federer’s, seen in Federer’s barnstorming 2006 season, and Djokovic looks to be superior.
2006 Federer finished with a 92-5 record, including 12 titles. Djokovic finished 2015 at 82-6, with 11 titles, and a record six Masters 1000 titles (the next best tournaments after Grand Slam), compared to Federer’s four Masters 1000 titles and two finals.
Both won the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open in those years. So far, it seems pretty even, and Federer may possibly have the edge.
However, Djokovic’s record against the top ten is incredible when stacked against the Federer of 2006. While Federer went 19-4 in 2006 against the top ten, Djokovic went a remarkable 31-5. Djokovic had to play 41 per cent of his matches against the top ten, while Federer only had to face them 24 per cent of the time.
Going further and looking at these records from a top 20 perspective, Djokovic had to face its members 52 per cent of the time, compared to Federer’s 35 per cent. Lastly, Djokovic had a 16-4 record against the top five while Federer went 8-4.
To be fair, you can only beat who’s in front of you, but Djokovic’s encounters with the top 20 suggest his was a much more level playing field than Federer’s.
If you’re still not convinced of Djokovic’s credentials outweighing those of Federer, consider the following.
Djokovic sits at 44-3 this year, with the Australian and French Open titles under his belt, something Federer did not have at this stage in 2006. Given his absolute dominance of the tour at the moment, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility he could win Gold at the Rio Olympics this year, along with the Wimbledon and US Open titles he is tasked with defending.
Should he do so, he would attain a Golden Slam, which is to win all four majors and a gold medal in the same year. Steffi Graf on the women’s side, back in 1988, is the only player to ever achieve the feat.
The best of the best
What makes Djokovic’s dominance all the more extraordinary is that he’s had to do it during the ‘Golden Age’ of tennis, with the ‘Big Three’ of Federer, Nadal, and Murray (or more recently Stan Wawrinka) leaders of that pack.
Against such formidable opposition, Djokovic has what no other player can claim: a winning record over all four of those players, besting Federer (23-22), Nadal (26-23), Murray (24-10) and Wawrinka (19-4).
Sure, many will contend Djokovic is now beating versions of Federer and Nadal that are past their prime, but the same can be said of Federer and Nadal when they constantly beat Djokovic while he played third fiddle in the rankings to the two of them. The final result shows who the outright winner is.
Where Laver had to only play on grass and clay, Djokovic had to achieve his success on those two and hardcourts as well, and had arguably the greatest grass-courter of all time in Federer, and the greatest clay-courter of all time in Nadal, constantly standing in his way.
No crowd, no worries
From a support standpoint, I’ve never been one to look too much into it as a measuring stick for greatness, but it warrants mention here, given how stark the differences are between Djokovic and the rest of those competing for the title of GOAT.
Laver was and is revered, arguably now more than ever. Nadal captures the hearts of many, who support him and feed off his animalistic passion for the contest. Roger Federer, well… he’s in a league of his own. There has arguably never been someone in world sports more revered than Federer.
In 2011, Djokovic’s breakout year, Roger Federer finished a global study as the second most respected, admired, and trusted individual in the world, behind only Nelson Mandela. Yep, that popular.
In contrast to all three of the above, particularly Federer, Djokovic has seldom played in front of a crowd even remotely on his side. There was, for a time, a genuine hatred for the man, and though it has gradually died down, there is still a palpable disliking for the Serb. Many have taken exception to his antics.
Key among them is his mother’s comment “The King is dead” in reference to Federer, and his early tendency to bounce the ball an extraordinary amount of times before a serve.
His shirt-tearing celebration after coming out on top in a mammoth 2012 Australian Open final against Nadal was criticised and his impressions of other players irked some viewers, and even some of the players.
Despite his efforts on and off court (in 2012 he won the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year award for his role as a UNICEF ambassador), Djokovic remains despised by many on the tennis tour.
Perhaps timing is his worst enemy. Serving as the gatecrasher of the dominance of the two most beloved tennis players of all time, Djokovic was effectively on the back foot from the start.
Still, when 99 per cent of the matches you play are in front of sold out crowds rooting for your failure, it makes your success all the more notable. Tennis has and always will be a solitary sport, but when you can draw on the roar of thousands in the crowd and the support of millions watching around the globe, it makes on-court burdens easier to bear.
That Djokoivc has succeeded with not only a lack of said support, but a notable desire for him to fail, leaves his triumphs that little bit more remarkable.
(For reference, take the 2011 US Open semi-final against Federer, where the cheers for Djokovic’s errors were like war cries when compared to the reception he got for hitting one of the greatest returns in recent memory… on match point no less.)
Aesthetically, Djokovic will always fall short of his competitors. He doesn’t have the finesse of Federer, who hits every shot as if it could be frozen in time and splashed across an oil painting canvass.
He doesn’t have the atomic forehand of Nadal, which has more spin than a political speech writer, or the sweat that drips unrelentingly from Nadal’s brow, each drop a testament to the unmatched ferocity with which he approaches every point.
He doesn’t have the sledgehammer-like left arm of Rod Laver.
Instead, his is a game that is beautiful because of what it doesn’t have, rather than what it does. Quite simply, Novak Djokovic has no weakness. Where his serve was once paltry, it’s now as reliable as any on tour. Where his forehand was once sporadic, it’s now as powerful and precise as there is. Where his backhand slice was once a mule of a shot, it now stands up against the best.
Djokovic’s brilliance is more subtle. It appears in flashes every now and again, be it through the impossibly smooth slide across a hardcourt, or the strike of a backhand down the line with the precision of a sniper.
For the most part, the joy in watching him comes from his systematic breakdown of every opponent he faces, finding angles and shots that no other player has ever had a right to.
It’s this sort of strength that doesn’t stand out as much as a Federer, Nadal, or Laver, and for that reason he has not been rated as highly as them, but it shouldn’t make his game or success any less formidable.
Novak Djokovic will never be the crowd favourite everywhere he goes, his crowd favouritism in Sunday’s final against Andy Murray perhaps a rare one-off for him.
Still, no amount of jeers for Djokovic, or admiration for the feats of Federer, Nadal and Laver, can change the fact that Djokovic has, with his French Open victory on Sunday, become the greatest tennis player this world has ever seen.
And with the final piece of the puzzle finally acquired, and the Olympics and the final two grand slams of the year ahead, there’s every chance he’ll bolster his now unmatched legacy.