Like it or not, Novak Djokovic is set to be the best men’s tennis player ever

Fans don’t warm to Serb like they did Nadal or Federer but the numbers can’t be denied

Defending champion Novak Djokovic will face 19-year-old Jack Draper at Wimbledon. File photograph: Cati Cladera/EPA

Defending champion Novak Djokovic will face 19-year-old Jack Draper at Wimbledon. File photograph: Cati Cladera/EPA

 

Everybody loves a winner, except of course when they don’t, something Novak Djokovic knows about all too well. If it is the Serb’s lot to be respected rather than loved then the financial insulation that comes from his remarkable success must ease the sting. But struggling to warm to probably the greatest men’s player ever is a tricky one for the tennis public.

Djokovic begins his defence of the Wimbledon title on Monday as an odds-on favourite. Should he live up to expectations a sixth Wimbledon will bring him level with the other members of the ‘Big Three’ in men’s tennis, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, on 20 Grand Slam titles each.

It would also leave him on-track to become just the third man to complete a calendar Grand Slam.

Don Budge and Rod Laver are the only players to have ever swept all four majors in the same year. Except Djokovic has an opportunity to supplant even them with a ‘Golden Slam’ should he also pick up Olympic gold in Tokyo. Steffi Graf accomplished that feat in 1988 when ‘Fraulein Forehand’ was exerting dominance over both her opponents and public affection.

It is a combination that has conspicuously eluded the supreme male player of the last decade. His accomplishments on the court only underline ambivalence towards him off it, something that risks deflecting proper appreciation from the judgement that he probably is the best the game has ever seen.

No argument

Because boiled down, there is no ‘Big Three’ anymore. There is Djokovic and the rest. Statistically there can be no argument. In the last decade he has won 18 Slams. Federer and Nadal combined have won 15 in that period. ‘The Djoker’ has a success rate that trumps everyone.

When he pulled off another seemingly impossible retrieval mission to win at Roland Garros earlier this month, Djokovic became the first man to have won all four Slams at least twice. He has been world number one longer than anyone else ever.

His head to head record is superior to both Federer (27-23) and Nadal (30-28) both of whose claims to ‘Greatest-of-all-Time’ status are fading in the face of overwhelming evidence that their beloved rivalry has been supplanted by sport’s ultimate third wheel.

Rafaek Nadal celebrates his epic 2008 Wimbledon final win over Roger Federer. Photograph: Ian Walton/Getty
Rafaek Nadal celebrates his epic 2008 Wimbledon final win over Roger Federer. Photograph: Ian Walton/Getty

Daring to disrupt the Federer-Nadal show was always likely to get some fans noses out of joint.

There was a symmetry to ‘Fedal.’ The elegant Swiss artist and the powerhouse Spaniard pushed each other to rewrite the record books. It didn’t need anyone else, something reflected in the overwhelming regard both men are still held in. Needed or not though, it got him and a lot of fans seem to be still wrestling with that.

The triumph of will required to barge into a party exclusive to two such overwhelming talents and supersede them can hardly be exaggerated. These were the greatest standards the game had seen and a kid from Belgrade who had grown up in conflict not only dared to exceed them but has plainly done so.

Where he hasn’t matched his old rivals is in burrowing his way into public affection with any number of theories put forward as to why.

Long before last year’s stupid decision to organise an exhibition tour in the midst of a pandemic, as well as his controversial views on vaccination, not to mention inadvertently hitting an umpire with a ball and being thrown out of last year’s US Open, there was a disconnect between player and large swathes of the public.

Some of it is tennis related. Djokovic has neither Federer’s aesthetic appeal or Nadal’s rampant muscularity. His game is reactive in comparison to the Swiss in particular. His outstanding shot is the return of serve. But there’s obviously more than that going on.

Relentless new-age Californian jargon about ‘energy’ probably doesn’t help although boredom is hardly a sin. Sometimes he seems to open his mouth to change feet but on subjects like player welfare it is often with an altruistic motive, as in relation to the new Professional Tennis Players Association he has helped set up which aims for better prizemoney for lower-ranked players.

Prejudice

It’s unpleasant to consider but there’s probably an element of prejudice too given how Serbia is hardly Jamaica in any global popularity table.

Perhaps some of it is bound up too in abundant evidence that the disconnect bothers the hell out of him. The ‘Cup of Love’ celebration he performs might be from him to the crowd but it smacks of convoluted pleading for some back and needy is never a good look. Not trying so hard might counter-intuitively yield a lot better results.

But Djokovic’s critics might in turn acknowledge how quibbling with style is a minor distraction from the substance of a career built on a supreme effort of will. It doesn’t prompt giddy religious connotations of the sort David Foster Wallace ascribed to Federer back in the day but not recognising the flesh and blood experience between the lines is surely a failure of imagination.

Novak Djokovic with the Wimbledon trophy after his 2019 final win over Roger Federer. Photograph: Ben Stansall/Getty/AFP
Novak Djokovic with the Wimbledon trophy after his 2019 final win over Roger Federer. Photograph: Ben Stansall/Getty/AFP

The last match he played at Wimbledon was the longest men’s singles final there in 2019.

In four hours and 57 minutes Federer played as well as he has ever played. Djokovic was dreadful. He made 52 unforced errors and nine double-faults, many of them cheered by the Centre Court crowd. Federer had two match points on his own serve in the final set. And he still lost. Djokovic refused to be beaten. It’s a different kind of beauty but surely beautiful in its own way.

Afterwards Djokovic said he tricked himself into thinking the crowd were shouting ‘Novak’ when they were chanting ‘Roger’ in what must be the most plaintive thing ever uttered by a Centre Court champion.

Nadal won’t be in action over the coming fortnight. Federer, finally, is starting to look his age. The next generation have been next for a long time. Djokovic is supreme and on his way towards becoming the undisputed best. Failure to fully appreciate that is starting to look like a self-inflicted injury.

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