Can Novak Djokovic become the greatest of all time?
The Serbian looks primed to dominate the sport in the next two years by AtTheMatch
Just because you are statistically the best at something, it doesn't universally or historically make you the greatest.
Floyd Mayweather may be unbeaten in 49 fights but very few rank him above Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Robinson in terms of boxing’s ultimate fighter. Alastair Cook may have scored the most Test centuries for England but is he a better cricketer than say Sir Ian Botham, Kevin Pietersen or Wally Hammond?
These debates can rumble on for generations of sports fan but at the present time there is only one name that comes up when talking about tennis’ shining star in history. The ageless darling, Roger Federer. With 17 Grand Slam titles to his name and universal public adoration following him everywhere he travels, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks that Federer isn’t the finest player to ever grace a tennis court. Or is he?
Last weekend, Federer reached his 27th Major final but for the third time in a row, he was bettered by the current best player in the world Novak Djokovic in four pulsating sets. No matter what the Swiss maestro tried, Djokovic responded in emphatic style. From the baseline he dominated and even in the face of Federer’s net rushing tactics, his passing shots held up to the task long enough to claim victory.
It was Djokovic’s 10th Major win of his career putting him seventh on the all-time list and fifth in the Open Era. Just two more would place him ahead of Bjorn Borg, five more would take him past Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal. Whilst the mystical seven needed to match Federer’s total seems a long way off at present, it is not unfathomable to suggest the Serb can ultimately obtain that target in two to three years.
The two great modern era players in Federer and Nadal both seem to be on the wane. Nadal most obviously through a lack of fitness, poor form and unravelling tactics. Federer will be 35 next year and although every 12 months we say exactly the same thing, surely time will catch up to the great man sooner rather than later.
At 28-years-old Djokovic still looks in peak physical condition and although modern history suggests that his elastic defensive style may weaken his limbs in his 30s, his other weapons such as his return of serve mean it shouldn’t have as much of a negative impact on his game than on Nadal.
So whilst Federer and Nadal regress and Djokovic remains at the top, who can stop him? Andy Murray and Stanislas Wawrinka have the ability to beat him and have done so at points in the last four years in Majors but only in ¼ of their Grand Slam matches. Also rans like Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov and Marin Cilic have the shot making ability to trouble the Serb for best of three set matches but very rarely over best of five marathons. And whilst it appears we have a very talented new generation of male players emerging in Borna Coric, Nick Kyrgios and Alexander Zverev, they could take four to five years to reach their full potential. Not nearly enough time to make a dent on Djokovic’s dominance in the immediate future.
In the short term, Djokovic appears almost untouchable. Providing he stays healthy it would take a herculean effort from anyone on the ATP Tour to beat him at a Major.
If that ratio holds up in the next two years than the Serb could conceivably win four or five more Majors titles by 2017, crucially before 30 years of age. Entering the twilight years of his career, Djokovic would be within touching distance of that magical 17 mark set by Federer and you wouldn’t bet against him winning just one more title post the big 3 and 0.
You could argue that Djokovic has already garnered a wave of support to be mentioned alongside Federer as the greatest of all time even now. Unlike the Swiss’ blitzkrieg years in the mid 2000’s where he amassed the majority of his Major titles by beating ‘lesser’ opponents like Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick, Djokovic has had to consistently beat a Nadal, Murray and evergreen Federer whilst winning his 10 title thus far. In contrast to the nine times the Serb beat a ‘Big Four’ rival to win a Major, Federer only had to win six matches.
Consistently beating history’s best in their heyday is an achievement in of itself.
Yet for all titles he has and will win, Djokovic will never beat Federer or Nadal in one key battle, public devotion. Unlike his two peers, Djokovic’s tennis inspires awe not love and usually that is that one intangible quality that pushes a sportsperson career into the stratosphere. It is a factor that Djokovic will have to work hard on to during the next two years as he transitions into the unequivocal face of the sport.
In 20 years’ time, the tables on Wikipedia may state that Djokovic has the most Major titles and the most wins against the top players but who will bring the fondest memories to an ageing fan recollecting this glorious era in men’s tennis? Unfortunately for the Serb, it will almost certainly be Federer and that is a mark of true eternal greatness just as powerful as stats.Click here to stay up to date with AtTheMatch