Novak Djokovic Plays his Way Back into Greatest of all Time Debate

Djokovic

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

After a quiet couple of seasons, slam trophy wise, Novak Djokovic came back out the woodwork the second half of 2018 to add to his silverware and in doing so has played his way back into the Greatest of all time debate.

Novak Djokovic’s straight sets US Open 2018 final win over Juan Martin del Potro was the Serbian’s 14th Grand Slam title and his second this season, the other one won at Wimbledon.

Djokovic could not have won his recent US Open any more convincingly than he did, winning his semis and final both in straights, barely putting a foot wrong, and against fine grand slam pedigree, a former finalist, Kei Nishikori (’14), and a former champ in del Potro (’09).

That recent US Open  win was another feat in a sudden rush of achievements for the Serbian. 

Djokovic’s comeback from well documented setbacks the second half of this season has seen him, after his Cincy win, complete the ATP 1000 set of nine titles, the first man to do so, and level Pete Sampras in the all time slam haul list.

The eighth seed also had his fourth multiple slam winning season (Federer has had six, Nadal 4, Sampras 4.). Though, like many stats, how much that reveals, considering the likes of Laver could not compete in slams for five years in their prime, is contentious.

Those achievements, whatever they reveal, have seen Novak Djokovic not just return to the current crop of slam winners, but have also seen him play his way back into the All Time Great conversation.

That conversation, as involving and controversial as it is for some, is one not everyone has time for. After all, comparing different eras is a little orangey and appley when you factor in the different surfaces slams have been competed on (just two in the years Laver won his calendar year slams; the four very different surfaces Sampras played on; the more homogenized era we have now), development in racket and ball technologies (wooden vs graphite; varying bounces and speeds), fluctuating prestige of events over time, (Borg played one Australian Open, in 1974, the slam before he won his first Roland Garros), and the years particular players were able to compete at events such as slams (Laver missed slams from ’63-’67, but won what many coined the Pro Grand Slam in ’67) being just a few of the variables.

However, a couple of elements which are consistent over time in judging the all time greats are winning percentage and who wins the big events, and Novak Djokovic has excelled at both.

In 2018, Novak Djokovic is at 80% for the past 52 weeks, (third after Federer and Nadal), and is third all time, too, at 82.6, behind Borg (1st) and Nadal (2nd). (Federer is 4th). This stat, like all, is as revealing for what it does not say as what it does,  a stat a little skewed with Borg’s early retirement. However, whether or not Djokovic comes first in it or not is not what proves conclusive. What matters is just how high Djokovic is ranked in the list, and what this ranking reveals about his consistency.

Another important factor to consider when delving into the G.O.A.T debate variables is that while the tournaments considered to be prestigious have changed- can anyone imagine Thiem missing the Australian Open the way Borg did?- who wins whatever those events are is still indicative of who the best players of that time are. In today’s game,  the ATP 1000s and slams are the tournaments to win and Novak Djokovic proved at Wimbledon, Cincy and the US Open that he was the man to beat.

The G.O.A.T debate variables keep on coming, too. Increased career longevity has been one factor reshaping the G.O.A.T debate the last few years and is  one crucial factor in the Serbian playing his way back into that debate.

Djokovic has been one of the men to beat, at times the man to beat, at those tournaments to win since 2007 when he first won the Canadian Open and a few months later when he won the Australian Open.

That early Djokovic success began just at the end of Federer’s prime, in late 2007 and early 2008, in what seemed like another in a long line of one of tennis’ most compelling tales: All Time Greats being surpassed by the next in line. Djokovic’s rise also occurred at the same time Nadal transformed from a one surface great to an all court one, no longer just getting in Federer’s way in Paris, but in London and Melbourne, too. That gradual usurping and battle for supremacy has been a long and engaging narrative in tennis, from Lendl and McEnroe being dethroned by Sampras and Agassi, those two Americans then slayed by Federer.

This passing of the tennis racket, though, did not play out like ones of times past, with Federer not going down in his late 20s or early 30s before licking his wounds on the Golf course or commentating on TV like many a great champion before him, but, instead, taking on the role of both the Jesus and the Lazarus of tennis, the player most beloved by the tennis congregation and the player most beloved of pulling off headline making comebacks.

If the general consensus is that Federer is the greatest of all time then Nadal and Djokovic are, only logically, his biggest rivals for that title, and if slams, the current be all and end all for judging greatness, are anything to go by, that would mean Federer is the greatest, Nadal second, and Djokovic third, which reduces the debate to its simplest, and using slams as the ultimate indicator, most modern form.

Who is the greatest cannot just come down to slams though, and cannot be just shaped by the U.S media’s desire to frame Sampras as the greatest when he tied and then surpassed the slam count with Laver. Outside of the slam numbers game, Djokovic has a few stats and achievements which could be seen to compensate for the number’s differences in slams won (Federer, 2o; Nadal, 17; Djokovic, 14). He has head to head winning ratios over his greatest rivals Federer (24-22) and Nadal (27-25), is the only one of the three to have won all four slams in a row, and is the only won to have all the ATP 1000 titles.

Still, as impressive as all these numbers are, we cannot fixate on objective figures, ones which can so neatly put an end to a discussion, not when it comes to a debate of such subjectivity. Look beyond the numbers, instead, and there is plenty going on in the foreground and the background which opens up that debate for some real conversation, namely style and story.

Narrative wise, Djokovic can now compete with Federer and Nadal, having, like them, bounced back from a fall from the top, battling elbow injury and the subsequent shocking and confidence bruising losses suffered on the road back, and what a high road it was the Serb had to get back on.

Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have all come back in inspiring fashion, but Djokovic’s fall- going from winning the Djokiovic slam in the Roland Garros final to losing in the third round of Wimbledon and going through 2017 not making it past the quarters of a slam- was more of a staggering drop from the top than Federer’s(the Swiss’s 2016 injury woes were four years past his last slam triumph) and Nadal’s (his 2014 fall did come off the back of a number 1 winning multiple slam winning year but it still pales, in the brightest colors, compared to Djokovic’s 2015-2016 run).

If the Djokovic comeback story was not compelling enough to give him an edge, then the Djokovic style is sure to pull any lover of baseline tennis or point construction in. The manner in which Djokovic won his most recent slams, winning both finals in straights and playing just the right match each time, breaking down his rival’s strengths and coming through the difficult moments of the match when they found their weapons again, was a return to the style Serbian executed to such great effect in his 2011 and 2015-16 runs. That Djokovic signature style, baseline prowess at its best on the big points, may not be greater than Federer and Nadal’s, but in its execution and effect, is certainly their equal.

So, what does Djokovic have to do to become the Greatest Ever?

First, he needs his rival’s own slam hauls to grind to a halt. Djokovic has already been argued by some scribes to be the greatest ever after his 2015 season and few expected Federer and Nadal to get back to winning slams and hitting the number one spot again pushing Djokovic back down into clear third place in the ruthless process. Now that Djokovic has caught back up a little, few would still bet against Fedal repeating that pulling away feat despite both men’s recent struggling form and injury issues. At the very least, and most optimistic, Nadal has a few Roland Garros titles in him, and, as for Federer, who would dare write off Federer, whatever happened versus Millman in New York?

Djokovic would also need the generations below him to continue struggling on the biggest stages. If Djokovic could carry his confidence over into the next season or two, his mental strength and game style would most likely mean he would be the favorite versus Thiem, Zverev, and Kyrgios, in slam matches, all of whom have failed to build on any significant advances in the major leagues, and all of whom are less likely to if Djokovic continues to make his experience count for him as he embarks on building up his slam count even further.

If Federer stopped his slam counting at 21 and Nadal did so at the same number, then Djokovic, now aged 31 would need 7 to tie them. He could get those titles, playing another five years, and would need ‘only’ two multi slam winning seasons to do it. Safe to say, the slower conditions of the US Open hard courts could be where Djokovic picks up another two slams, Wimbledon another two, Roland Garros another title, the Australian Open, another title.

It’s quite a stretch, there is no denying that, but, then again, who is better on the stretch than Djokovic? Even if he does not quite get there, slam tally wise, there would be plenty of arguments in Djokovic’s favor as to his Greatest Ever status, and in an argument which, unlike Grand slam finals, can never  be won, it’s all about how you play the game, and, in tennis history, what is not up for debate is that Novak Djokovic has done that as well as anyone.

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.
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