— Novak Djokovic, not Federer, is not only the greatest ever male tennis player, he is also challenging our very idea of what is possible —
[Warning/disclaimer: The following contains tennis statistics and sustained enthusiasm about sporting activities. While every attempt has been made not to include irrelevant facts and figures, by reading this blog post, the reader accepts full responsibility for any mishap or injury that could result from spontaneous loss of consciousness.]
If you watch tennis a lot, not just Wimbledon, and not just the other three Grand Slams, but also the other important tournaments in between – in other words, if you’re a bit obsessed with tennis – then you’ll know that the rise of Novak Djokovic has lead to a lot of talk about who is the GOAT, in the men’s game. Trying to determine the Greatest Of All Time is a worthwhile activity, I think. If you happen to follow any sport, why would it not be a reasonable thing to do, to assess who stands at its apex, not just today, but taking the history of the sport as a whole? Achievement at the very highest level in any sport is no easy thing. Yes, you are showered with money; yes, you have the biggest and most beautiful houses; you spend your time doing what you love; you cavort with super-models and Hollywood actors; you are known to hundreds of millions of people and are looked up to by many; and you are as fit and healthy as a butcher’s dog.
There is, of course, luck and natural ability involved. But it also needs a great deal of work, coupled with effective support, unwavering dedication and supreme confidence. Yet to rise above even that, takes something very special, a level of performance and consistency the achievement of which is in fact quite hard to comprehend. So to muse on who’s the greatest is not a bad thing to do in an idle moment or two. Among tennis punters and pundits alike, at the moment, Djokovic is hardly ever deemed the GOAT. At twenty-eight, he has five, maybe six years of tennis ahead of him, but we are judging the GOAT today. Djokovic seems to hover around being third, sparring with Nadal for second-place, but with Federer normally ahead by a wide margin. But despite Federer’s evident greatness, I think his top place is unjustified. I believe Djokovic is the best male tennis player who has ever played, even if he never won another match. I not only think that – I also think to achieve what he has and is achieving today, in what the great veteran Stefan Edberg recently called “the greatest tennis generation of all time” (1), shows that Djokovic is demonstrating a level of play that’s so exceptional that it’s actually difficult to get your head round. And because of this, it deserves recognition and appreciation not just from tennis fans but from anyone fascinated by any individual who is operating off the scale, someone whose ability to rewrite standards of achievement is near to being inconceivable. I have long disliked the word awesome, with recent decades seeing it much overused, applied to anything and everything that is liked a lot, from a very good spaghetti carbonara, to a smart phone which aspires to be thinner than itself. But with Djokovic, no other word does him justice. Djokovic is truly awesome. Tennis fans are living through an age of brilliance, the Age of Djokovic. He is the GOAT, by far, and Federer isn’t – and I’ll show you why.
Despite my apparent worship of the Serb, there are three key statistics which could reasonably – and many argue should necessarily – place Federer as GOAT: number of Grand Slam titles; number of weeks at number one in the rankings; and the number of years clocked-up as year-end number one. On all counts Federer trumps Nadal and Djokovic. Perhaps added to that is the fact that Federer has won the end-of-year World Tour Finals six times, reaching the final nine times. Again, Federer is the king. And there are many other statistics relating to number of consecutive Grand Slam semifinals, and quarterfinals, consecutive weeks at number one, and other facts and figures. In most of them Federer is ahead. He only limps a bit here and there – record on clay, number of Masters titles compared to Djokovic, to name a few. Nadal also appears to come close to fully deserving his position as second greatest. Despite the lion’s share of his Slam titles coming at Roland Garros on clay, he still has more than Djokovic. He also pips Djokovic in number of Masters titles. For those who don’t know, Masters tournaments are the second rung down after Grand Slams, handing the winner of each 1000 ranking points, compared to 2000 for Slams. They are important.
A brief word about Murray: Murray is a great player. He is often included in a special class of four players – in no order: himself, Federer, Djokovic and Nadal. Watching Murray, usually, is a joy. His game is highly intelligent, incredibly varied from point to point and shot to shot, and a demonstration of his natural abilities and athleticism. He is far better than most in the top ten and always has been. His rankings history clearly backs this up. But… he is below the standard of the other three in the gang of four. Fortunately this is all relative. Really, he is in a class of his own, better than the majority, but just below Federer and Nadal. I am ignoring Nadal’s recent fall and rise, taking the long view from about 2007 onward. I am also ignoring Wawrinka. Despite his two Slams which match Murray’s, he still has a long way to go to draw level with Murray over all, and time is running out. Wawrinka is a far more mercurial player than Murray. Again, these things are relative. Wawrinka is still impressive. He often poses a serious threat to those ranked above him, most famously in the French Open final this year, where he denied Djokovic the only Slam that has so far eluded him. But Murray, even with his sometimes unpredictable performances, is a better and more consistent player, in general, across all court surfaces. But he is clearly not as good as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, likely the best three male players ever – and so is not considered as a contender for GOAT and never will be.
And if you’re wondering why the likes of Borg, Connors and McEnroe are rarely mentioned as the greatest, it’s because even though they were fantastic players, their abilities and achievements are generally accepted as not on a par with the standards of today’s game. They were of their time. I loved watching Borg, Becker and Edberg … less so Sampras. They are etched into my mind and personal history. But they weren’t as good as the current crop of top players.
Meanwhile, back on the GOAT front line: most statistics favour Roger over Novak. So why does Novak win out in the battle of these two greats?
2011 was an exceptional year for Djokovic, one of the best any player has ever had. The knowledge that comes from experience, his skill, commitment and a much-needed gluten-free diet, all combined that year to help him win three of the four Slams and five of the nine Masters tournaments. Phew. Wow. Many players in the top ten, or even top five, struggle to win one Masters, ever. He won Wimbledon for the first time and in doing so gained the number one spot, again for the first time. Yet although the following two years saw Djokovic reach most finals and win many, he remained dissatisfied. Could the man never be happy?
Then Boris Becker became his coach and something happened, something breathtaking. Djokovic’s performance has soared, even when set against his previous enormous achievements. Look at his Wikipedia ‘Performance Timeline’ grid. For each player, this grid shows the results in Slams and Masters each year in their whole career. Djokovic’s grid is laughably good. This year’s results are astounding. Federer’s and Nadal’s grids are truly great over all, but Djokovic’s is, well, awesome. For each event, where he won, it’s marked in green. The grid is crammed with green. Now he hardly ever loses. If he fails to make a final, it’s a genuine shock. This year he won three Slams, to make a lifetime total of ten, and was runner-up in Paris. He won six Masters titles, a new record in tennis. Federer won one, Murray two. Novak won the World Tour Finals for the fourth consecutive time. This is not only impressive, it’s highly significant. It shows a person totally in control, who, despite money, fame and success, keeps pushing himself and his game without respite, who is flying far, far above the rest and is utterly dominant. This is not mere rhetoric on my part. His number of ranking points at the moment is very nearly double that of Murray, who is world number two (Djokovic: 16,585 points; Murray: 8,945). If Murray, or anyone, had won all four Slams this year, he’d be lucky to have drawn level with Djokovic. To have so many points means winning virtually all Slams and most Masters tournaments. Djokovic is doing that. He is virtually unbeatable, anywhere, on any surface. I’m sure no one has ever had so many points or reigned so supreme.
This, added to his near pin-point accuracy in shot making, repeatedly close to the lines, which I’ve never seen before with such consistency – and his ability to do this unceasingly across matches, tournaments and years – leaves me almost speechless. Playing him must be your worst nightmare served up on a plate. Even if he is two breaks of serve up in a set, he expects himself to break again, just to hammer it home. The man is relentlessly brilliant and hungry. It’s what some part of you always wanted a top player or two to do, or suspected they could do, but which never quite materialised. Now it has. Federer is great, they said, but you can’t win everything. Really? Have a look at Djokovic’s grid. It’s getting that way.
And look at the nature of his wins. Rarely these days are his matches close. If his opponent wins a set – and even that seems extremely difficult – it seems not uncommon for Djokovic to strike back six-love in the next set, or even two sets. Winning games against him can rapidly become hard, let alone sets and matches; sometimes even winning two consecutive points can be problematic. This is against players like Murray, Nadal, and a resurgent Federer, who, until recently coached by Edberg, may be playing his best ever tennis. In addition to Djokovic’s titles, these feats of dominance over exceptional players are my key point here. This is precisely why I think he is not only the greatest ever, but is forging a fierce and continuous revolution in the game, aided by Becker. When Federer was storming through the bulk of his Slam wins, between 2004 and 2009, he did not have to contend with players such as Djokovic (even early in his career), or Murray, or Nadal. Federer’s opponents were worthy, no doubt: Roddick, Hewitt, Safin, Gonzales, others. But they weren’t as good as the best today. It’s true that Federer beat Nadal and Murray for numerous Wimbledon crowns. But that’s on grass, where he truly shines. Djokovic shines on all surfaces, against players considered greats of the game.
On a personal level, Federer also seems to attract the greatest public affection. He’s won the fans’ favourite award for the last thirteen years. I’ve no idea why this is. Other players are equally likeable. Including Djokovic. He is articulate and open (in contrast to Murray, who I believe is an intensely shy person). Djokovic is also pretty humorous and is always amiable with fans. A few weeks ago, after winning the World Tour Finals again, he signed autographs and posed for photos around the entire front row of the stadium. I’ve never seen that before. He was there ages. The umpire, staff and most cameras had left, but he was still there. He even held a baby, posed with the little blighter, for the happy parents. What more do you want in a player? But he gets far less support than Federer. It’s a mystery to me. Perhaps some things can never be explained.
But really it’s the tennis that matters. And today, and for the next five years, men’s tennis will be all about Djokovic. He is making a deeply qualitative change to the game, as well as stacking up the titles and impressive statistics. I don’t think this is always recognised, or the weight of it felt strongly enough. Maybe over the next year or two, we will begin to see, amongst commentators, journalist and fans, a more profound understanding of how he is redefining tennis.
1. Stefan Edberg, World Tour Finals interview, London, November 2015
Update: another article about Djokovic, after he won his sixth Australian Open title:
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