In-depth analysis: Who will end his career as the Greatest Of All Time… Djokovic, Nadal or Federer?
Novak Djokovic could be on course to overhaul both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on the all-time list of men’s Grand Slam champions
Somewhere in California, a former GOAT is sitting in his luxurious mansion and wondering where it all went wrong. Pete Sampras was once hailed as the Greatest Of All Time: his 14 Grand Slam titles proved it. In 2000 he broke Roy Emerson’s 33-year-old record of major titles by winning Wimbledon and lifting his 13th Grand Slam trophy. When, two years later, he played the last match of his career and won his final Grand Slam title at the US Open we thought we would never see his like again.
However, Sampras clung on to GOAT-dom for only seven years. In 2009 Roger Federer won his 15th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon and now has 20 majors to his name. Rafael Nadal, the reigning French and US Open champion, is snapping at his heels with 19, though neither man is safe in thinking he can end his career as the true GOAT.
On a cool February evening this year in Melbourne, Novak Djokovic did what everyone thought he would: he won his eighth Australian Open trophy. It was his 17th Grand Slam title. At the age of 32 he is the youngest of the “Big Three”, who have dominated the sport for more than a decade. This was a marker laid down at the start of the year: Djokovic is coming for Federer and Nadal.
Back in 2016 it appeared that Djokovic had, as the Australians say, done his dash. He won his first – and, to date, only – French Open title and thus completed the non-calendar year Grand Slam. He had achieved something that neither Federer nor Nadal had done; he was only the third man in history to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once. Now he could be mentioned in the same sentence as Rod Laver and Don Budge.
Yet by winning in Paris Djokovic had reached every goal he had ever set himself and for the next few months he was mentally and physically spent. He had run out of ideas: one of the most driven men on the tour was still driving but had lost his map and did not know where he was going. When he then had to give in to a serious elbow injury – he had surgery in 2018 – it seemed as if he would never be quite the same again.
Djokovic, though, is always at his most dangerous when he is down. No matter if he is ill or injured or just being outplayed, he can always rely on the deadliest weapon in his armoury: the reset button. He used it against Dominic Thiem to win in Melbourne this year, he used it against Andy Murray to win at Roland Garros in 2016 and he has used it against Federer and Nadal on countless occasions.
Think of Djokovic like your computer. Every now and then, it acts up. You call the highly trained and hugely expensive expert in to have a look. The expert sucks his teeth and says: “Have you tried turning it off and then turning it back on again?” You do as suggested and then, as if by magic, your laptop springs back into life. So it is with Djokovic.
Once he was fit again in 2018, he reset his goals. Revived and refocused, he has been relentless in his pursuit of history ever since. He has won five of the last seven Grand Slam titles and has made it perfectly clear that he wants more. Much more. Federer and Nadal are within reach and he knows it. Better still, he knows that Federer and Nadal know it too.
“It seems like I’m getting closer, but they’re also winning Slams,” Djokovic says. “We’re kind of complementing each other. We’re making each other grow and evolve and still be in this game. Those two guys are probably one of the biggest reasons I still compete at this level. The fact that they made history in this sport motivates me as well, inspires me to try to do what they have done, what they’ve achieved, and even more. Whether I’m going to be able to do it or not, I don’t know. I’m not really looking at age as a restriction of any kind – for me at least.”
Federer will turn 39 in August and is the first to admit that time is not on his side. However, to reach the semi-finals in Melbourne having not played a competitive match since November was, he thought, a positive sign for the rest of the year. And he still reckons he has another major title in him. “I do believe that,” Federer said. “I think by having the year that I had last year, also with what I have in my game, how I’m playing, I do feel that.”
Federer’s best chance of reaching 21 majors is at Wimbledon. He has won eight times there and, by rights, should have nine trophies sitting on his mantelpiece. The two championship points he failed to convert against Djokovic last July may haunt him for ever.
Nadal, meanwhile, is heading towards Roland Garros in pursuit of a 13th Coupe des Mousquetaires. He turned 34 this year but, providing he is fit and healthy, there are few who would bet against him. Thiem beat him in four sets and four hours in the quarter-finals in Melbourne, but in two Roland Garros finals the Austrian has not been able to find a defence against the suffocating pressure Nadal applies in every single point on the clay of Paris.
It is that pressure that the younger generation find so difficult to handle. Daniil Medvedev came closest to making the breakthrough by pushing Nadal to the very limit in the US Open final last year but still could not find a way to win. By the end of the season, he was exhausted. After Wimbledon, he won three hard-court tournaments and reached three more finals, but after winning the Shanghai Masters 1000 title he was out on his feet. He did not win another match in 2019. “That’s what is amazing about the top three, the big three, and Murray before,” Medvedev said. “Even when you look at them and you think ‘OK, they are not playing as good as they can’, they still win these matches.”
It is a fact not lost on Djokovic. He has won 17 major titles; he has been in nine more major finals. He knows what it feels like to be on the verge of winning or losing a Grand Slam trophy. At 32 he feels physically strong enough to repel the eager, younger men and after 15 years on the road he feels old enough and experienced enough to deal with anything on a tennis court.
Djokovic explained: “To win a Slam, and also to be consistently on the top level for many years, it takes, I think, a player to gain that mental and emotional maturity and experience to understand his own strengths, to fight his own fears, to really be able to maintain that level for a long time. Rafa, Roger, and I, obviously because of the past 10, 15 years, we know what we need to do mentally also in this particular situation. That gives us probably a little bit of an edge.”
If Nadal is still the favourite at Roland Garros, Djokovic is the favourite everywhere else. By the end of this year, the world No 1 could be breathing down the neck of Federer and his 20 Grand Slam titles. And he could be doing it knowing that he can play on for a good few years yet.
Meanwhile, in California, Pete Sampras is enjoying his retirement. Ah, well. GOAT-dom was nice while it lasted.
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