Novak Djokovic, the best tennis player in the world, turned to his wife and pointed at his heart. He had just won the US Open with no help from the crowd, who vivaciously cheered for his opponent, booing Djokovic, yelling during his service toss, and actively cheering when he double-faulted. Unlike Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, those legends of our time who have enjoyed overwhelming support throughout their careers at virtually every tournament, Djokovic had to summon something from the inside. In the end, it just might make him the better player.
Novak Djokovic is the villain of the tennis world, so much so that his self-embraced nickname is “The Djoker,” a combination of Batman’s archenemy and Djokovic’s own early-career reputation for performing impersonations of other top players on tour. USA Today summarized it with the hysterically eloquent and simple headline, “No one likes Novak Djokovic.” By defeating Federer in the semifinals of the 2008 Australian Open, he ended a storied period of tennis that saw either Federer or Nadal in every Grand Slam final for three straight years (sometimes competing against each other). Djokovic would go on to win his first Grand Slam title at that Australian Open, but for the next three seasons, he continued to play third wheel to the dominance of Fed and Nadal. No one disagreed that he was one of the best players on tour, he just wasn’t at the level of the two players above him, with some seeing his first major title as nothing more than a one-time fluke. Federer and Nadal played their historic Wimbledon final later in 2008, and continued to dominate at every Major, with one of the two players winning every Grand Slam through the rest of 2008, 2009, and 2010 — the lone exception being Juan Martin Del Potro’s upset of Federer in the final of the 2009 US Open.
Then something clicked. Many attribute Djokovic’s breakout 2011 season to a gluten-free diet and an increased emphasis on conditioning, but there was something more compelling and unnerving about the way he played the game. His shot-making was magnificent. His mental toughness exceeded that of both Federer and Nadal on crucial points. He stretched for every inch, and seemed to push himself harder than two players that many considered the greatest of all time. In 2011, he won three of four Grand Slam tournaments and ascended to World No. 1 for the first time in his career. Altogether, since the beginning of 2011, Novak Djokovic has appeared in 15 Grand Slam finals, winning 9 titles, and bringing his overall total to 10. He has now held the World No.1 spot for 162 weeks, and has captured eight ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Series titles (and needs only to win the Cincinnati Open to become the first player to win all nine). A few elements of his game, including his return of service, two-handed backhand, and court coverage, are considered by many tennis experts to be the greatest of all time. Every component of his game is considered nearly flawless. Tennis coach Nick Bollettieri summarized by saying, “When you look at match players in the history of tennis, I don’t believe that anybody can equal everything on the court that Djokovic does. I don’t think you can find a weakness in his game. His movement, personality, his return of serve, his serve, excellent touch, not hesitant in coming to the net, great serve. Overall, almost every player has a downfall; to me he doesn’t have one. He’s perhaps the best put-together player that I’ve seen over 60 years.”
And yet, he remains hated by many in the tennis community, so much so that the the New York Times simply had to ask, “Why can’t Novak Djokovic get some respect?” The answer, of course, lies within the personal rivalries of the greatest players of his generation, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. As Djokovic told The Times, “At the beginning of my career, I was observed as a rebel, somebody who comes in the mix and starts to challenge the two guys that were so dominant. ‘Who is this guy from Serbia, small country, comes from nowhere and starts saying he can beat the top guys and become No. 1? Obviously, I understand the people’s reaction to that, but I felt that the only way for me to get out there was to show that I deserved to be there.”
This attitude, while making him a stronger competitor, unfortunately landed Djokovic with a “Lebron complex,” whereby people root against you, not only because you are currently the best, but because they feel your success is being measured against a beloved champion of the past. The only difference in tennis is that the “Michael Jordan” and “Lebron James” of this scenario have overlapping careers in which they have played each other 42 times, gotten into shouting matches with each other’s guest boxes in the stands, and generally don’t like each other’s company. The crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium during Sunday night’s US Open final seemed to represent a microcosm of the tennis world, with most spectators hoping for the Michael Jordan of tennis to defy age and win that elusive 18th Grand Slam.
Instead, Djokovic won in 4 sets, in an environment that must have amounted to the closest thing a tennis player can experience to a road game. And much to the dismay of the crowd, he did it by simply being a better tennis player; one who, in 2015, appeared in all four Grand Slam finals, winning three, while very quietly putting together one of the most remarkable tennis seasons of the Open Era. At 28 years old, Djokovic is there; and whether you like it or not, “there” does not simply mean competing with Federer and Nadal — “There” means stopping legacies in their tracks, and possibly, dethroning the greatest of all time.
So why should Djokovic be in the conversation for greatest tennis player of all time?
For starters, we need to shed ourselves of the common notion that simply holding the most Grand Slam titles makes one the greatest, while holding the second most makes one the second greatest, and so on. While Grand Slam titles are still a solid indicator of career success, they’e not the only indicator. Jimmy Connors, for example, only won 8 Grand Slam titles (“only” being a very relative term here), but still holds Open Era records for overall singles titles (109 — still far in first place) and match wins (1254). Perhaps most famously, Ricardo “Pancho” Gonzalez, who played before the Open Era (when professionals were not allowed to play in traditional Grand Slam tournaments) only won 2 Grand Slams before turning professional, but then won an additional 15 Pro Slams while being ranked as the World No. 1 for a mind-boggling eight straight years. While certainly the case for many players before the Open Era, it is often thought that Pancho Gonzalez in particular would have won numerous Grand Slam tournaments had he been allowed to compete, with some estimates as high as 20.
The point being, we cannot say Federer is best, Nadal is the second best, and Djokovic is the third best based solely on their Slam counts (17, 14, and 10 respectively), especially while all three are still active players. There are a myriad of components to look at when considering the greatest, and their potential for future success is a key element of that analysis.
For now, it’s important to note that Novak Djokovic being ranked as the greatest player of all time is not a new concept. Currently, tennis ELO rankings, which factor in games, sets, and matches won against the rankings of a player’s competition to determine the best player at their peak, have Novak Djokovic in 2015 as the greatest player of all time, with Federer in 2007 ranked second.
As you can see, this model is somewhat flawed, as it only seeks to tell us who the best player was at their absolute peak, without looking at their career as a whole. This is why a 2009 Juan Martin Del Potro, for beating Roger Federer in his prime at the US Open, is ranked ahead of Andre Agassi. Del Potro is a great player and US Open Champion, but few will argue that the achievements of his career surpass that of Andre Agassi, arguably the biggest star the sport has ever produced. However, this is just one model, and it currently ranks Djokovic’s game as the greatest of all time right now, in this moment. It’s not the most efficient system, but it shouldn’t be dismissed.
Another important element of this debate is a player’s competition throughout their whole career (not just a specific time in their career, which the model above shows). Andre Agassi, for one, believes Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Noval Djokovic are the three greatest players ever, simply because they have to play each other. However, when taking a close look at their records, this is also the exact reason why I believe Novak Djokovic is absolutely better than Roger Federer.
Before you throw something at me, let me explain…
While I respect the hell out of Federer, and I do consider him to be one of the top 5 players ever, I am of the opinion that his Grand Slam count is bloated and misleading in the GOAT debate (this is usually the moment when a Federer fan throws a chair at me). To understand this at a basic level, let’s look just at records in Grand Slam finals.
Roger Federer — 27 Finals — Record: 17–10
Rafael Nadal — 20 Finals — Record: 14–6
Novak Djokovic: 18 Finals — Record: 10–8
Roger Federer has obviously been to and won the most Grand Slam finals, and that can’t be argued. Nadal has the best win percentage in Grand Slam finals, though this stat is slightly skewed due to Nadal’s overwhelming dominance on clay (9 of his 14 wins are at the French Open, and he’s never lost a final there). Djokovic has the worst win percentage of the three, though you’ll see why in a moment. Let’s take a look at those exact same stats after we remove every other player on tour and compare their finals records just against each other.
Roger Federer — 12 Finals — Record: 3–9
Rafael Nadal — 15 Finals — Record: 10–5
Novak Djokovic: 11 Finals — Record: 6–5
As you can see, things have changed considerably. Nadal still looks dominant, having played in the most finals against the other two opponents, with the most wins and the best win percentage. Djokovic moves down slightly in this model, though he still maintains a winning record against the best players of his era.
As you can see, the player profile that completely changes is that of Roger Federer. Fed’s Slam final count gets reduced by more than half, while his record morphs into a losing scenario that is essentially a blowout. Consider this: All three of his wins against Djokovic or Nadal came before 2008, meaning he has not beat either player in a Grand Slam final in eight seasons. One of the arguments people quickly employ to defend Federer is that he is so much older than Djokovic and Nadal, and those players are beating up on him in the twilight of his career, but Fed’s struggle against them started when he was 26…..
Roger Federer’s Grand Slam count is bloated and misleading, because he won a majority of his trophies in a transitional period in tennis when the competition was weaker. For example, four of his Majors came from wins over Andy Roddick, who, by his own admission, is the worst player to ever hold the World No. 1 ranking. In addition, two more Federer Grand Slam finals were won against players who never achieved a career high ranking greater than World No. 8 — Mark Philippoussis at Wimbledon 2003, and Marcos Baghdatis at Australian Open 2006 (and if anyone says they have heard of either of those players, they’re lying). He defeated Fernando Gonzalez at the 2007 Australian Open, who never achieved a ranking higher than World No. 5, and whose primary accomplishment is winning the silver medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. If we include the 2009 US Open against Juan Martin Del Potro, which Federer lost, three of the players he faced in Grand Slam finals literally never made it to another Grand Slam final. His Career Grand Slam is intact only because he played Robin Soderling in the 2009 French Open final while managing to avoid Nadal, who succumbed to an injury-induced upset earlier in the tournament. Even his 2005 US Open title is slightly misleading — He beat Andre Agassi, certainly an all time great, but one who was 35 years old at the time and would retire from tennis by the next year.
I’m not trying to pick on Roger Federer. As is said time and again in all sports, you have to play the opponent in front of you, and Federer did that in dominating fashion for years. It’s not his fault that he came of age during this transitional period, but he did, and the moment his opponents began to approach his talent level, Federer’s dominance slowly dwindled. He has now won only one Grand Slam tournament in the last five years, and has lost his last three finals to Novak Djokovic.
Comparing Djokovic to Rafael Nadal is a little trickier, and relies more on a general consensus of where their careers are headed and their potential for more Grand Slams. I think most will agree, if Djokovic or Nadal had been facing similar opponents in the early part of their careers as Roger Federer, their Slam count would far exceed the numbers they are at now. Instead, they are contemporaries who have played each other in Grand Slams while fending off the sometimes brilliant Andy Murray (also 28 years old), who took at least two Slams away from Djokovic when he was playing at his peak from the Summer Olympics of 2012 to Wimbledon 2013. Djokovic and Nadal have both also lost a Grand Slam final to Stan Wawrinka, the 30 year old Swiss who has emerged as a top 5 threat later in his career. If being the greatest truly were about Grand Slams and Grand Slams only, the road for Nadal and Djokovic has been much harder.
As it currently stands on paper, Nadal has the superior resume, so much so that some analysts, using the argument above about Federer’s weaker competition, already see Rafael Nadal as the greatest player of all time. He is second on the Grand Slam list with 14 (tied with Pete Sampras), and has absolutely dominated Federer from the start. Their Grand Slam final record is 6–2 in Nadal’s favor, and their overall record stands at a staggering 23–10 in Nadal’s favor. Putting aside all arguments about Federer’s early competition, some don’t see Fed as the greatest of all time because there has been at least one player who has been consistently better than him his whole career.
Conversely, Nadal and Djokovic are not only evenly matched, but their rivalry has provided the largest sample size of any in the Open Era. They have played each other a record 44 times, with 13 of these matches in Grand Slam tournaments, including 7 Grand Slam finals. Currently, the rivalry dips slightly in Nadal’s favor at 23–21 overall, 9–4 in Grand Slam tournaments, and 4–3 in Grand Slam finals. Their matches produce notoriously high-caliber tennis, with John McEnroe commenting that the 2012 Australian Open final and 2013 French Open semi-final are the greatest matches ever played on a hard court and clay court, respectively.
To consider Djokovic the greatest of all time, he will have to fill a glaring hole in his resume; one that Rafael Nadal has almost single handily prevented — The French Open, and by extension, the Career Grand Slam. 7 of the 13 Nadal-Djokovic Grand Slam meetings have been at the French Open, where Nadal maintains a lopsided record, 6–1. Nadal, of course, is the greatest clay court player in history, has won 9 titles at Roland Garros, and lost only two matches at the tournament his whole career. However, one of those two matches was his last one in 2015, which he lost to Novak Djokovic.
The greatest hurdle to Djokovic’s argument for GOAT is beating Nadal at the French Open and winning the title. He completed step one in 2015, but still lost in the final to Stan Wawrinka. Djokovic though, is the best clay court player in the world right now, and if he can start consistently beating Nadal on clay, which he has shown he can do, there is no doubt he will eventually capture the title at Roland Garros.
Ultimately, the entire argument for Djokovic’s greatness falls squarely on his potential as a tennis player and athlete, as well as the current status of his best competition. Roger Federer, though playing remarkably this late in his career, is likely going to age out of the sport, and Djokovic has shown plainly that he can consistently beat Federer when it matters most at this point in their careers. Nadal, on the other hand, has a history of injury-proneness that is well documented (There are literally too many articles to link to for this; just google “Nadal injury-prone”). Many have argued that his aggressive style of play will weaken his body over time, and his career will not maintain the longevity of his opponents — an occurrence we are already watching. He did not win a Grand Slam in 2015 (his first year without a Grand Slam win since 2004), and his ranking has slipped to World No. 8.
Meanwhile, Djokovic has maintained a reputation as the fittest athlete in the world. Though Nadal found earlier success, especially on clay courts, his body seems to be giving out at the same time that Djokovic is finding new levels of energy. In 2015, he handed Nadal his second loss at the French Open, beat Federer in two Grand Slam finals, and was one win away from a Calender Grand Slam. His ATP points are so high that he could literally skip the entire fall indoor hard court season and still finish the year as World No. 1. Though a Calender Golden Slam seems unfathomable in today’s game, Djokovic will likely be the number 1 seed in every tournament he plays next year. If Nadal’s career slide continues, Djokovic will be the overwhelming favorite for all four Grand Slam tournaments, plus the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
So, now we play the hypothetical game…..
Let’s assume, as many tennis analysts do, that Roger Federer is done winning Grand Slams, and his record mark will remain at 17. As I’ve argued, I think that number is misleading, and in my mind Djokovic doesn’t have to better it to be considered the greatest ever, but let’s say that’s his goal. Some have asked if Nadal is also done, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume he wins 2–3 more and possibly equals Federer’s mark. That means Djokovic has to win 8 more Slams and hold a World No. 1 ranking for approximately 140 more weeks to pass Federer (he has already held the World No. 1 spot longer than Nadal). To do this, Djokovic needs to win two slams a year for four more years, until he is 32. That seems plausible, but as Federer has shown, even great players can have a dramatic drop-off after 30. While I do think Djokovic is in better shape and will be able to play at a higher level longer, I think he will need to accumulate the bulk of these Slams in the next two years. In that case, he’ll need to win 3 Slams a year for the next two years, and then just win two more slams after 30. At the level he is currently playing, it’s not hard to imagine him doing just that; but asking someone to win three Grand Slam tournaments a year for three straight years (including his completed 2015 season) is a lot to put on someone, even the best player in the world.
There are a few other things Djokovic can do during this time to earn the title of “Greatest of all time.” He has already beaten the greatest clay court player ever at the French Open, which Federer could never do. If he wins the 2016 French Open, that will make him the 8th man in history to capture the Career Grand Slam, and just the fourth to do so on three different surfaces (along with Agassi, Nadal, and Federer). If he can follow that up with a win at the 2016 Summer Olympics, that will give him the Career Golden Slam, which Federer never achieved. At that point, depending on what happens at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, he could have 11–13 Grand Slam titles, plus the Career Golden Slam.
From there, it becomes a matter of just how high he can go. If he wins two French Opens, that will give him the Career Double Slam (winning all fours Grand Slam tournaments at least twice), which hasn’t been accomplished since Rod Laver completed his Double Slam in 1969. Assuming he continues to win at his 2015 rate, and his World No.1 ranking remains intact, it’s not outrageous to discuss the possibilities of a Career Grand Slam, a Career Golden Slam, or a Career Double Slam, (though highly unlikely, if he accomplishes a Calendar Golden Slam in 2016, I’ll call him the greatest player of all time with no hesitation).
The beautiful thing about tennis is that nothing is guaranteed, and probably the greatest aspect of the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic “trivalry” is that any one of them can beat the other on any given day. Last month, at the Cincinnati Open, I watched in person as Roger Federer walked over the competition and demolished Novak Djokovic in the final without allowing the greatest service returner in history a break point. At the time, it seemed like Federer had found a new level and simply couldn’t be beat. Then he ran into Djokovic again.
Novak Djokovic could sustain an injury; he could lose his focus; he could go through personal issues, or just plain lack the motivation to do the things I’ve discussed. Rafael Nadal could experience a career resurgence and show us all how dominate he once was. Andy Murray could reignite his desire and challenge them both while increasing his own Slam count. Other top 10 threats could rise to the occasion and pull upsets — David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin Del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga — all Grand Slam finalists who are more than capable of winning big matches. And yes, until he retires, there is no one on Earth who believes that Roger Federer doesn’t have it in him to win one more Grand Slam.
Novak Djokovic doesn’t get the respect he deserves, and for now, he seems to be okay with that. But as soon as one year from today, there could be a major shift in the GOAT debate, and the crowds of Arthur Ashe stadium may find themselves regretting their contempt for a man who has already altered the history of tennis . After Djokovic was accused of faking injuries early in his career, Roger Federer publicly stated, “I think he’s a joke.” That “joke” has now actively halted Roger Federer’s legacy-building, and has made it clear he has the talent to make history of his own.
In the end, the Djoker just might have the last laugh…