I have woken up at 3:30 in the morning many times to watch Rafael Nadal crush opponents like world No. 237 James Duckworth or No. 177 Michael Mmoh in the early rounds of the Australian Open. I own an inordinate amount of Nadal’s signature Nike gear. However, I have no problem admitting that Novak Djokovic, Nadal’s greatest rival, is the greatest tennis player of all time.
In a career full of accolades and dominance, this past fortnight at the French Open may have been Djokovic's finest work yet. On Friday, he played one of the greatest matches of his career in the Semifinals to "upset" (as crazy as that sounds considering he is the world number one, but an upset nonetheless) Nadal, who entered the match 105-2 on the red clay of Paris and seeking his 14th title at the event. On Sunday, Djokovic's epic tournament continued as he dug deep to come back from two-sets-to-love down and defeat world number five Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 to win his 19th Grand Slam title. With the win over Nadal, just the sixth ever two-set comeback in a Grand Slam final in the Open Era and an additional 0-2 comeback against Lorenzo Musetti in Round Four, this has to be Djokovic's greatest achievement. Not only did these back-to-back four-hour-and-eleven-minute classic victories highlight the 34-year-old's incredible talent and mental fortitude, but his 19th Grand Slam and 2nd French Open title have done wonders for his case in men’s tennis' great debate.
Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer are unquestionably, by any metric, the three greatest male tennis players of all time. Their prolonged greatness and classic rivalries with each other have, naturally, forced fans to choose sides. Not only does this split between the three impact rooting interests, but it also often leads to biased opinions on who fans think the "GOAT" (Greatest of All Time), really is. While Djokovic is constantly reminded about how "unpopular," at least relative to the other two living legends, he is, ever since he rejuvenated his career in the Summer of 2018, he has been walking down Nadal and Federer on the mythical GOAT leaderboard. After his latest triumph in Paris, the debate, which was originally "who is the greatest?" has now shifted from “when will Djokovic be the greatest" to "when will everybody acknowledge he is the greatest."
While many Federer and Nadal die-hards, along with Djokovic “haters,” will grasp to narratives or counterpoints like the Serbian’s “lack” of fans or lack of “class” compared to the other two, the on-court accomplishments speak for themselves, and that should be all that matters when settling this debate.
Djokovic has built his legend by flourishing on the biggest stages. His win today gave him 19 career Grand Slams, second behind Federer and Nadal with 20, but he is now the only player in the men’s game to ever win all four of the sport’s most prestigious events multiple times. He is also the only man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slams at once, which he did by winning the final two slams of 2015 and first two of 2016. Now, after winning the first two majors of 2021, he will have a real chance at being the first since Laver to complete the true “Grand Slam” and win all four majors in a calendar year. While many will say we have to wait until he passes Federer and Nadal in the Grand Slam race to finally accept him as the GOAT, let’s just get it over with now. Being the only man with at least two of each slam should be enough to make up the small gap (at the French he also became the first man to play in six finals at all four majors). It is also just a matter of time before he gains sole possession of the record as he is highly likely to win number twenty in two weeks at Wimbledon, will be favored in New York later this year and should be the favorite in, at the very least, two of the four Grand Slams in 2022.
While they are obviously not as prestigious as the Grand Slams, Djokovic has also had incredible success at the Masters 1000 events, men’s tennis second tier of tournaments. Djokovic and Nadal are tied with 36 career Masters 1000 titles, but Djokovic has won each of the nine events at least two times, no other player has even won all nine once.
An underrated record broken by Djokovic earlier this year is the total weeks as ATP #1. With 324 weeks and counting (he should hold the number one ranking through, at least, Wimbledon 2021) he will smash Federer’s previous mark of 310 and set one of the sports’ most unbreakable records. If he continues at his current pace, he will also end the year number one for the seventh time in his career. That would give him sole possession of the record he currently shares with his idol, Pete Sampras.
When comparing these three legends, it is essential to look at their head-to-head records. This may be where Djokovic’s case is the strongest. While he holds a slim 30-28 advantage over Nadal, he has not lost to the man whom he calls his “greatest rival” off of clay since 2013. Additionally, on Nadal’s beloved clay, Djokovic is responsible for two of his three losses at Roland-Garros and 8 of his minuscule 43 total losses on the surface. Against Federer, Djokovic holds a 27-23 advantage and has not lost to the Swiss at a Grand Slam since 2012. Similar to his relative success on clay against Nadal, Djokovic has figured out Federer’s grass court game. Djokovic is 3-0 in Wimbledon finals against Federer while Federer is 8-1 in finals against everybody else.
Honestly, assuming nothing unexpected happens and he breaks the Grand Slam record and Masters 1000 tie, the only thing left for Djokovic to achieve would be an Olympic Gold Medal in singles. He’ll have a chance to do just that this Summer in Tokyo. If Djokovic wins the gold, he’ll join Rafael Nadal and Andre Agassi as the only men with a career “golden slam” (all four Grand Slams and a Gold Medal). He would also join Agassi as the only man with a career “super slam” (all four slams, a gold and a year-end title, of which Djokovic has five).
I conceded that Djokovic had achieved the completely unprovable, but highly coveted, title of GOAT after his epic, championship-point-saving triumph at Wimbledon in 2019. That may have been slightly premature given Federer and Nadal's Grand Slam lead at the time, but at that point it became clear that his ascension to the top spot was inevitable, more a question of "when" than "if." While the inevitability remained, most expected Nadal to win in Paris like he always does and get his 21st Grand Slam, which would have broken his tie with Federer for sole possession of first place on tennis' most prestigious list. That would have meant Nadal would have the most Grand Slams, been tied for the most Masters 1000 titles and had a winning head-to-head against Federer and a 29-29 split with Djokovic. Those numbers would have certainly allowed the debate, albeit maybe between two legends and not three (full transparency, my article saying just that was scrapped the second Nadal lost), to continue. Now, after winning his 19th Grand Slam in epic fashion at the French Open, the rest of the tennis world, fan of him or not, will have to reckon with the fact that Novak Djokovic is already the greatest men's tennis player ever. Additionally, if he can add his missing Gold Medal this Summer and go for the once unimaginable, but now somewhat realistic, achievement of the calendar year Grand Slam or 25 total Grand Slams, he will have to even pass Serena Williams and be considered the greatest tennis player to ever walk the earth.