It has taken Novak Djokovic two decades, but he’s surpassed the high bar set by rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to clinch a record-setting 23 men’s Grand Slam titles. And he’s got the next one in his sights.
Does his victory at the French Open settle the debate about who’s the greatest men’s tennis player of all time? It depends on who you ask and which metrics you use.
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“What does ‘the greatest’ mean? It’s hard to say because great can mean on the court, it can mean off the court, it can mean a lot of stuff. It’s just a matter of how you want to frame the question,” sports journalist and author Christopher Clarey, who has reported from more than 100 Grand Slams, told Al Jazeera.
“But in a sense, in terms of results on the court, if you want to reduce it to that, I think Djokovic has got a really strong case.”
The 36-year-old Serbian, the oldest man to win the French Open, refuses to be drawn into the discussion.
“I don’t want to say that I am the greatest because I feel it’s disrespectful towards all the great champions in different eras of our sport that was played in a completely different way than it is played today,” Djokovic said after winning his third French Open title in Paris on Sunday.
Wearing a red jacket with the number 23, he added: “I leave those kind of discussions of who is the greatest to someone else,” and spoke only of his “faith and confidence and belief” in what he is “capable of doing”.
The debates about the greatest of all time – the so-called GOAT – are always fun, more so if they draw fans into the conversation, tennis commentator Ravi Ubha said.
“Greatest can go from subjective to factual if we look at the numbers. Even then, some might argue that some records and statistics should be given more weight than others. You could look at it from the perspective of greatest player on court. That narrows things down and doesn’t, for example, take into consideration the impact they’ve had on the sport, whether he or she transcends the sport,” Ubha told Al Jazeera.
Clarey thinks of the GOAT status as a “bit of an artificial construct,” but he agrees it’s fun to discuss.
“I’ve been talking about it for 20 years, and I think people enjoy it, but it may not be resolvable,” said the author of the bestselling book on Federer, The Master.
“Let’s face it, who does the most to popularise tennis, who creates the most good feelings about the sport while winning – those are arguments you can make. In terms of the results and the most successful player of the Open era, I’ve got to go with Novak on the men’s side. … He has the numbers now,” Clarey said.
Many congrats on this amazing achievement @DjokerNole
23 is a number that just a few years back was imposible to think about, and you made it!
Enjoy it with your family and team! 👏🏻
— Rafa Nadal (@RafaelNadal) June 11, 2023
‘Unfair to the guys in the past’
Having won the Australian and French opens this year, Djokovic is halfway to a calendar-year Grand Slam, or winning all four majors in one season. The last man to have done that was Australian Rod Laver in 1969 after achieving the feat the first time in 1962.
“The next question for him is if he can do all four in one year. That’s the big elusive thing that no one’s done in so long on either side since Steffi Graf in 1988,” Ben Rothenberg, host of the tennis podcast No Challenges Remaining, told Al Jazeera.
“Djokovic came within one match of it two years ago – in the US Open final he lost to [Daniil] Medvedev.”
Djokovic is the only man to win each Grand Slam three times and heads to Wimbledon next month, where he’s won seven times and is the defending champion. He’s also won 10 Australian Opens and three US Opens.
He has won each of the Masters 1000 events twice, a feat no other player has achieved. On Monday, he reclaimed the world number one ranking, starting his 388th week in the top spot.
He’s keeping count and is not stopping.
“Of course, the journey is still not over. I feel if I’m winning slams, why even think about ending the career that already has been going on for 20 years?” he said.
However, some say it’s unfair to compare results across men’s tennis through the ages because of the differing circumstances for the top players.
Laver or Ken Rosewall, another Australian playing in the 1950s and 60s, did not play the majors as frequently. Laver didn’t play a Grand Slam for five years. Even in the 1980s, Bjorn Borg only played the Australian Open once.
“So this whole idea of trying to base everything on the Grand Slams record count, I think is unfair to the guys in the past, because that wasn’t their metric,” Clarey said.
Players in previous eras grappled with different technology, didn’t have the sports science available today, had shorter careers and had to deal with a greater degree of variation in the speed of playing surfaces.
“If it was just comparing Djokovic against Laver, that would be a lot less interesting … and a lot less tangible,” Rothenberg said.
Meanwhile, players whose careers overlap may peak at different times and injuries are also a factor. Federer, who won 20 slams, announced his retirement last year.
Djokovic broke his 22-slam tie with Nadal on the Spaniard’s favourite surface at Roland Garros, which Nadal missed this year due to surgery that will keep the 37-year-old off court until 2024, when he is expected to retire.
Djokovic has said Federer and Nadal defined him as a player and even contributed to his success: “It was just those two guys who were occupying my mind for the last 15 years quite a lot in a professional sense.”
‘A polarising figure’
For all his success, Djokovic has also been a polarising and divisive tennis star, and he is not loved by fans in the way that Federer and Nadal are.
Djokovic chose to remain unvaccinated against COVID-19, organised the Adria Tour of exhibition matches in the Balkans in the midst of the pandemic and has been strident on the status of Kosovo.
“Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence,” he wrote in Serbian on a camera after his first-round victory at the French Open during a flare-up in tensions in the region.
Rothenberg said that while “there’s a lot to admire about Djokovic, … he’s a very complicated person,” adding that it “was kind of shocking to see him make this very overtly political, nationalistic message on the screen” on the Phillipe Chatrier court in Paris.
While “Nadal and Federer are a lot less complicated as superstars of the sport”, he said Djokovic “is more in that kind of category who inspires a lot of feelings, both positive and negative, and some of them are fair and some are not fair”.
For Ubha, “Novak is a polarising figure, no question. There doesn’t seem to be middle ground. Either you are a substantial fan of his or not a fan at all and can’t be swayed”.
Yet, “given his background and growing up in a war-torn nation, to become one of the greatest athletes of all time is a testament to his work ethic, resilience – and, of course, ability,” Ubha said.
“The way he handles adversity on court is remarkable. And he leaves no stone unturned in trying to become the best player he can.”