Tennis’ uncomfortable truth: Djokovic might be greatest of them all

He may never be loved like Nadal and Federer but he’s closing in on them

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic has now reached 18 Grand Slams to Nadal and Federer’s 20. Photograph: AP

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic has now reached 18 Grand Slams to Nadal and Federer’s 20. Photograph: AP

 

When Roger Federer lost to Rafael Nadal in the Wimbledon final in 2008, some thought that Federer would pack it in a few years later when his legs went, with his money and his legacy secure.

Yet fast forward 13 years and Federer is still looking ahead to what he hopes will be a profitable summer with Wimbledon and the Tokyo Olympics ahead, with no obvious retirement date on the horizon. The Swiss star, who is 40 in August, would say he still competes because of a “love of the game”. But what will primarily be on his mind is his once seemingly safe legacy as the greatest men’s player ever is under considerable threat, and not from who he, or tennis fans, would have expected.

In 2008, Nadal seemed Federer’s only realistic rival to the crown. A young Novak Djokovic had shown his talent in winning the Australian Open that year but had just lost in straight sets to Marat Safin in the second round of Wimbledon.

Nadal was the perfect rival for Federer, the contrast of power and finesse was the perfect narrative on which to shape a rivalry. Djokovic’s talents were less obvious, more like Nadal but not the same brute force; a certain elegance to his movement but he could never strike the ball with Federer’s flair. He was meant to settle alongside Andy Murray - a world-class player, but a class below the greatest.

Yet after Sunday’s victory in the Australian Open, Djokovic has now reached 18 Grand Slams to Nadal and Federer’s 20. The Serb is almost six years younger than Federer and a year younger than Nadal. Nadal with 13 French Opens, is highly likely to pick up a few more at Roland Garros. But that is one of only four possible Grand Slams in any given year, and Nadal has only won two of the other three Grand Slams in the past six years.

Meanwhile Djokovic has won six of the last 10 Slams and doesn’t look like stopping anytime soon. In an era of Covid graphs and projections, there is little sign of crushing Djokovic’s exponential curve to the top.

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic won the tournament despite playing with a tear in his right oblique abdominal muscle. Photograph: Getty Images
Serbia’s Novak Djokovic won the tournament despite playing with a tear in his right oblique abdominal muscle. Photograph: Getty Images

Tennis faces the uncomfortable truth that Djokovic, a player that many tennis fans love to hate, is actually the greatest men’s tennis player of them all. Djokovic in the past year has assumed a pantomime villain figure on and off the court. In the past year, he has admitted to being skeptical about vaccinations, has organised a tournament during the coronavirus pandemic (and then getting the virus himself), pushed for a breakaway tour that divided the tennis community, and got disqualified from the US Open for accidentally hitting a lineswoman during a match.

Even heading into this year’s Australian Open, he was a figure of mockery in Australia and across the world for demanding he be exempt from certain conditions of Australia’s strict lockdown rules. But in typical Djokovic fashion, it made no impact on his brilliance in the tournament. The Serb crushed Medvedev in the final in straight sets and it meant a ninth Australian Open crown. He has never lost an Australian Open semi-final or final in his career.

Comparison

When comparing to the beloved figures of Nadal and Federer, the Serb leads in head-to-head against both players, not bad considering Nadal and Federer both won five of their first six matches against him when he started on Tour. Djokovic leads Federer 27-23, while he leads Nadal 29-27. In Grand Slam matches, Djokovic has now beaten Federer 11 times out of 17 attempts.

In terms of highest peak performance, Djokovic in 2011 had perhaps the greatest season of all-time. Some of his achievements included a 10-1 record against Nadal and Federer; a 41-match winning streak, not losing a single match until June; 10 tournament wins, three of them Grand Slams (Australian, Wimbledon, US Open); winning 70 matches and losing only six.

There is an unrelenting brilliance about the Serb – from the depth of his groundstrokes to his incredible flexibility and agility to his peerless returning

In 2015, he reached every Grand Slam final, winning three of them. He won six Masters 1000 tournaments; reached 16 consecutive finals; won 31 times against top 10 players, including a 4-0 record against Nadal, 6-1 against Murray and 5-3 against Federer. In 2016, he became the only player in history to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time on different surfaces. All of this was achieved in one of the strongest eras of tennis history where two of the best players ever have also played, and Murray and Stan Wawrinka were no mugs either.

It is also the nature of his victories that makes them so impressive. The first sign Djokovic showed he would be the ultimate pressure player came at the 2010 US Open semi-final, when he saved two match points against Federer, pulling off amazing winners to save the match, before taking the last two sets. When a similar situation came up in the 2019 Wimbledon final against the same opponent, out came the nerveless cross-court shot, leaving Federer aghast at Djokovic’s will to survive.

That final felt like all-time legacies were at stake, Federer played close to his best possible tennis, winning more points and games than Djokovic and having two match points in the fifth set. Yet there he stood with the plate in his hands rather than the trophy, scratching his head once more. Memories of the 2015 US Open final would have come flooding back, where Federer had 23 break points, but took just four as Djokovic won in four sets.

Federer knew he needed to win because 21 v 15 would have left Djokovic with a tough task to catch his records. He also knew it meant he had lost three times in finals to Djokovic on his favourite court, the grass of Centre Court at Wimbledon, an unavoidable blot in his career copybook.

Popularity contest

Djokovic will never win a popularity contest and contrary to popular belief, he does care about that aspect. When speaking after the Australian Open about criticism he received before the tournament, he said: “It happened so many times in my life, in my career. It will probably not be the last one.

“Of course, it hurts. I’m a human being like anybody else. I have emotions. I don’t enjoy when somebody attacks me in the media openly and stuff. I cannot say I don’t care about it. Of course, it does, I have to be honest.”

Djokovic might lack the intangibles that have made Federer “Mr Tennis” in terms of cultural impact, playing style and personality. Djokovic will never inspire a 10,000-word New York Times piece on watching him play as a religious experience from a writer like David Foster Wallace. In fact, America has never warmed to him at all.

To read a report in the Guardian from that US Open match in 2010: “With all due respect to Djokovic, his deserved win spiked the near-universal hunger for a Nadal-Federer final, a showdown that would have gone a long way to settling the debate about who deserved to be called the greatest of all time.”

This hunger for the natural Federer-Nadal narrative to be fulfilled and the idea that Djokovic came too late to the party for the public’s affection has meant that Djokovic has always been an outsider. As a young player, Djokovic was quite expressive on the court and was known for some funny impressions of other Tour players. As he got older, he became more reserved on the court, but winning matches didn’t bring with it the hearts of the public.

It has reared its ugly head at times, particularly at Wimbledon and the US Open against Federer and Nadal. Djokovic often has to deal with the crowd cheering his double faults and booing his queries to the umpire.

Yet it is Djokovic who continually lets his tennis do the talking for him. There is an unrelenting brilliance about the Serb – from the depth of his groundstrokes to his incredible flexibility and agility to his peerless returning. Djokovic at his best has no clear weaknesses. He may never be loved, but maybe fans might at least respect that they may be watching the best male’s tennis player of all-time.

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