Djokovic’s record is the best, but is he the greatest men’s tennis player of all time?
Novak Djokovic is statistically the most successful player to hold a tennis racquet in the men’s game, but does that make him the greatest of all time?
Immediately after winning his last 16 match at the Australian Open, Russian Andrey Rublev was asked about his next opponent. At that stage Novak Djokovic had not progressed to the quarterfinals and was due on court later that day.
Rublev’s response was telling: “I’ve got to play Novak, man,” he said with an air of resignation.
That’s what years of metronomic dominance will do. Rublev was beaten days before he played against Djokovic. In the match, he went down in straight sets despite Djokovic battling a hamstring injury that put his participation in doubt. The Serb, virtually on one leg, still scared the life out of the Russian.
In the semis and final, Tommy Paul and Stefanos Tsitsipas went the same way as Rublev — beaten by Djokovic’s will as much as his technique. He simply ripped Paul and Tsitsipas out of their pre-match gameplans.
“He didn’t really let me execute any of the gameplan that I had laid out for myself,” Paul said.
Tsitsipas didn’t even seem overly disappointed after losing the final: “There’s nothing that I could have extracted more for today. I did everything possible,” was his summation of events.
Djokovic’s injury, which was later confirmed by tournament director Craig Tiley as a 3.5cm hamstring tear, should have felled him. But somehow he battled through the draw to win his 10th Australian Open.
Few players divide opinion like Djokovic.
He is a relentless winner, fiercely competitive, hugely talented, maniacally driven and deeply intelligent. It’s a combination that enthrals, upsets and scares people in equal measure. He cannot be put neatly in a box marked, “tennis player”.
Victory ensured Djokovic went back to world number one and earned him his 22nd Grand Slam singles title, to draw level with Rafa Nadal on that count. The pair are two Grand Slam titles clear of the retired Roger Federer. Even at 35, Djokovic appears well capable of several more Grand Slam titles.
He and Nadal have won 16 of the last 19 men’s Grand Slam singles titles, and the “Big Three”, including Federer, have won 64 of the last 80 men’s Grand Slams.
There are only a few serious threats to Djokovic’s continued dominance — Spanish phenom Carlos Alcaraz being one, and age the other.
On the “majors won” measurement alone, Djokovic is at least the joint best player of all time. And there are many other metrics that put him ahead of the other two of the “Big Three”.
Of course, some might say Bjorn Borg, the ice-cool Swede who quit professional tennis at 25 with 11 Grand Slam titles, was the greatest even though his career was short. It was particularly brief when you consider the longevity of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer. Djokovic has won 10 of his 22 Grand Slams since turning 30.
Rod Laver, twice winner of all four Grand Slam titles in a single year, has a case. So too does Pete Sampras, with seven Wimbledons and 14 Grand Slams in total. Jimmy Connors has won the most matches and tournaments in professional tennis history.
This week is Djokovic’s 374th at No 1 in the world. Federer is the next closest with 310 weeks in tennis’s top spot. Nadal has spent 209 weeks at the official summit of the sport.
Outside the four Grand Slams, the nine Masters 1000 tournaments and the season-ending ATP Finals are considered a rung below in terms of prestige.
Djokovic and Federer have won six ATP Finals each — Nadal has, almost incomprehensibly, never won that tournament at all.
Both Nadal and Djokovic have won each of the four Grand Slams at least twice, while Federer only captured one French Open, so although he has a career Grand Slam, he can’t match the two of the others.
Djokovic leads the pack with 38 Masters 1000 titles to Nadal’s 36 and Federer’s 28. And when it comes to winning percentages, Djokovic has a career winning ratio of 83.6%. Nadal is on 82.8% and Federer retired with a winning record of 81.2%.
Federer is second only to Connors in terms of overall titles (103 to Connors’ 109) and number of professional matches won (1,251 to Connors’ 1,274). Djokovic has won 93 titles in total and 1,043 matches, so he has some way to go to match Federer and Connors on those scores.
Those are some of the cold, hard facts. But tennis, or professional sport for that matter, is not only about numbers. It’s about performing at the right time; about playing against great rivals, elevating the sport and bringing joy to fans.
On all those counts, the “Big Three” have set standards so high it’s impossible to fathom who might elevate them further.
Nadal is unquestionably the greatest player on clay in the history of the sport. Djokovic is widely considered the best return-of-server the game has known, while Federer can comfortably lay claim to the title of the most elegant and utterly watchable player to have lifted a racquet.
The merits of their technical abilities, titles, earnings and match wins can be debated for eternity, and it’s fair to say the three drove one another, and the sport, to incredible heights.
It’s probably also fair to say that Djokovic does not receive the same adulation as the other pair. Of course, he has his core supporters and is held in almost saintly reverence in Serbia.
But he is a complex, single-minded character who eschewed being vaccinated, which saw him deported from Australia in 2022 after entering the country without the jab. He was initially granted a visa, but under pressure, the Australian government ejected him from the country following a Newscorp survey, which found that 83% of Australian residents wanted Djokovic to be deported.
He tried to host a mini-tour in the Balkans during the harshest of Covid lockdowns and set up a rival players’ organisation which split the players on tour. He was also disqualified from the 2020 US Open when a ball he struck in anger hit a line judge.
But the other side of Djokovic is that of a driven person. He speaks five languages fluently — Serbian, English, French, Spanish and Italian — and is working on others, including Arabic.
He has an inner drive that is impossible to fathom without knowing him personally, but easy to admire from afar. His fitness, diet and skills, married to natural talent, are worthy of admiration, if not love.
He admitted that it’s hard to work on his game all the time, but he does it because the end goal — winning more titles — makes it bearable.
“There’s still a lot of that fire inside of me that is burning of passion for the sport and for competition and I think that’s what allows me to still push myself to the limit,” Djokovic said after winning in Melbourne earlier this week.
“In the practice sessions, day in, day out, after so many years to go through the same routines, repetitively, that sometimes is not so interesting.
“But I know that there is always a greater goal and a guiding star, so to say, and this trophy is one of those guiding stars… it’s something that I always strive to achieve.
“I really don’t want to stop here. I don’t have any intention of stopping here. I feel great about my tennis. I know that when I’m feeling good physically, mentally present, I have a chance to win any Slam against anybody.”
Djokovic isn’t going anywhere soon. If you love tennis, that has to be a good thing. DM