Sport

SUPERB SERB

Djokovic’s record is the best, but is he the greatest men’s tennis player of all time?

Djokovic’s record is the best, but is he the greatest men’s tennis player of all time?
Novak Djokovic of Serbia plays a backhand in the Men’s Singles Final against Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece at the 2023 Australian Open at Melbourne Park, Melbourne. (Photo : Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

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. 

djokovic cup

Novak Djokovic of Serbia poses with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup at the Government House in Melbourne on 30 January after winning the 2023 Australian Open. (Photo: Andy Cheung / Getty Images)

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.

djokovic celebrates

Djokovic celebrates winning championship point in the Men’s Singles Final against Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece on day 14 of the 2023 Australian Open at Melbourne Park. (Photo: Andy Cheung / Getty Images)

djokovic trophy

Djokovic kisses the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup after winning the Men’s Singles Final against Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece at the 2023 Australian Open. (Photo: James D Morgan / Getty Images)

“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

Djokovic plays a backhand as he returns a serve in the 2023 Australian Open Men’s Singles Final against Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece at Melbourne Park. (Photo: Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

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”.

Djokovic celebrates in his team box after winning the Men’s Singles Final against Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece at the 2023 Australian Open on 29 January 2023. (Photo: Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

djokovic fans

Serbian fans celebrate after Djokovic triumphed in the Australian Open Men’s Final against Stefanos Tsitsipas. (Photo by Lintao Zhang / Getty Images)

djokovic fans

Djokovic stops his car to greet fans in Melbourne on 30 January after winning the 2023 Australian Open. (Photo: Kelly Defina / Getty Images)

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.

The GOAT?

djokovic

Djokovic plays a backhand in the Men’s Singles Final against Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece at the 2023 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on 29 January 2023. (Photo: Will Murray / Getty Images)

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.

nadal quarterfinal

Rafael Nadal of Spain. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kieran Galvin)

federer

Roger Federer of Switzerland. (Photo: AELTC / Simon Bruty / Pool / Getty Images)

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.

Guiding stars

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.

djokovic celebrate

Djokovic celebrates winning championship point in the Australian Open Men’s Singles Final against Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece at Melbourne Park on 29 January 2023. (Photo: James D. Morgan / Getty Images)

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

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Uma Kabanye says:

    Djokovic uses gamesmanship to get the edge on opponents. Against Tsitsipas, he stalked dominantly about the court in loud aggressive conversation with his coach and the umpire, gesturing and talking to the crowd. The smashing-racket threat is always there. Opponent is psychologically backed into a corner of the court and match. It’s not sportsmanship.

  • Eugene Moll says:

    One needs to consider that Rod Laver won a number of tournaments as an amateur when he was the undisputed world #1. Then at a young age he turned professional and was for many years “banned” from playing in the majors. Eventually professionals we allowed to play the majors (Laver had won his quest to professionalize the game) and then Laver won more grand slams. He played with a heavy wooden racket and it took several weeks to travel by boat from Australia to Europe, etc. Hard to compare then and now, but for me he was the greatest without all the hype of today.

  • Petrus Kleinhans says:

    Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg’s names are rightfully mentioned. One stands in awe of the fact that the three greats have played in the same era. Each of them achieved incredible results while competing against two other players who could be in consideration as the greatest of all time. Djokovich has displayed an incredibly powerful force of character. This inner force will see him continue to dominate for a few years to come. No player can stop him. All that may slow his continued rise would be another global crisis affecting the tennis calendar. In the end, he will stand above all. The undisputed greatest tennis player of all time.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

X

This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.


Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.8% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.2% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.2% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.2%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider