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Opinion

The GOAT debate has become a Djoke

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2nd February, 2020
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Novak Djokovic has just won his 17th grand slam title, with a record eighth triumph at Melbourne Park.

That’s as many Wimbledons as Roger Federer has won. This takes the grand slam tally to Federer on 20, Rafael Nadal on 19, and Djokovic on 17. This is where the tennis GOAT debate starts, but for those in denial, not where it ends.

The grand slam tally is clearly the most important factor. This is because they are the four most coveted prizes in the sport, and therefore the most difficult to win. The reality of the debate, however, is that the average tennis fan does not live in reality, and the average tennis fan is a Federer fan.

The most frustrating aspect of this debate is the propensity for argument favouring the intangible. These range from the likes of “but Roger is 38” or “the French Open is played on a specialist surface” to “but Novak ripped his shirt off those times”.

I’d like to ground the debate in reality, so bias does not take over here. I’ll preface this by saying Nadal is my favourite of the three, but I suspect Djokovic is the greatest.

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So Federer currently holds the most slams – a record that has to be beaten before he can truly be dethroned. But you can already hear the collective nonsense of the more illogical of his supporter base, echoing in the breeze, just like the memory of when he was capable of beating Djokovic in a tight contest, or heaven forbid, a tie-break.

“Fed is classier”, you can hear them say, or “how can Fed beat him, he’s 38 now”. These are valid arguments, but only if you’re having a different debate. There was a time, of course, when Federer was younger, and dominating the tour, before Djokovic and Nadal joined him. Federer fans are only too happy to dismiss the “but he won all those slams before he had any competition” debate without a second thought.

Well, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. If age matters now, it mattered when Djokovic was yet to register on the collective consciousness of the tennis public.

Novak Djokovic plays a backhand

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

As for the class thing, what absolute nonsense. How about his reaction to beating Dominic Thiem despite being down after three sets, and playing in front of a crowd who refuses to like him no matter how many times he’s won there? A little smile, then another little smile and a yell towards his coaches. No matter, I’m sure his shorts were too white, or perhaps his shirt was too green.

Federer fans also love to talk about the times Djokovic didn’t deal with the heat as proof he lacks class, as if winning the Australian Open eight times suggests he can’t dig deep in heat.

They never seem to bring up last year’s Wimbledon final though, when Djokovic was on the back foot for the entire contest, and had to face the Federer-adoring crowd as he always does when the two meet, and a vintage Federer at full flight. After somehow winning the almost impossible against Federer, like only Djokovic can, he smiled and nodded at the crowd, then said how much Federer inspires him in his post-match interview. Not exactly the actions of an arrogant, classless inferior.

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But I understand this will not convince anyone. Because anyone who uses those as arguments does so because of the impending reality they don’t wish to face: that when Fed’s two great rivals go past him on the actual achievement side of things, they’ll have to make up something else.

Novak Djokovic with the 2019 Wimbledon trophy.

(Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

As of this moment in history, Federer is the greatest. He has the most slams, and the most overall titles, for whatever that’s worth.

But I pose a question to all you deniers. If when all is said and done in this golden era of men’s tennis, and Federer has fewer grand slam titles than both Djokovic and Nadal, and an inferior head-to-head record against both of them both overall and in grand slam matches, which is looking almost certain, how can you logically mount a case that he is the greatest of the three?

If your answer is along the lines of “he’s just the best” or “he’s the classiest” then you haven’t answered the question. All you’ve done is stated that he’s your favourite, which we already knew.

So I suspect last year’s costly Wimbledon final will ultimately prove to be the beginning of the end for Federer’s chances of retaining GOAT status, and Thursday’s comfortable semi-final defeat will begin the final stage of Djokovic’s campaign to chase him down.

None of this will ultimately make Fed any less great than he is, but it will mean the Serbian shirt-ripper is even greater, should he overtake Federer’s record. No amount of pretending he lacks class will make that any less true, nor will it make you any less infuriated when it happens.