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TENNIS

Does it matter if Djokovic is the GOAT or not? It’s a subjective exercise regardless of the stats

Does it matter if Djokovic is the GOAT or not? It’s a subjective exercise regardless of the stats
Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates winning the 2023 French Open men's singles final against Casper Ruud of Norway on 11 June. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Caroline Blumberg)

With his 23rd Grand Slam singles title, and his third French Open crown, Novak Djokovic statistically became the most successful men’s tennis player in history in terms of the sport’s most prestigious titles. But is he the greatest of all time?

Novak Djokovic. Two words that divide the tennis world and the broader sporting landscape like the Carpathian Mountains divide southern Serbia from Romania. People love him or loathe him, which is why the other word that really should be his moniker in the tennis world – “great” – sits uneasily for some.

For a sport that, until recently, was always the preserve of the elite, country club set, the likes of Djokovic – who emerged from war-torn Serbia and was forged by conflict into a hard-assed winner – presented uncomfortable feelings.

The urbane Roger Federer with his light touch and ability to make tennis look like art, is easy to love. And Rafa Nadal, with his brooding intensity and power, but also his emotional intelligence, makes him a crowd favourite.

Roger Federer. (Photo: Getty Images)

Rafael Nadal. (Photo: EPA-EFE)

Djokovic not only had to prove himself as a supreme tennis player against the other two all-time greats, which is no mean feat in itself, but also had to live up to those two as a sporting icon in a very narrowly defined way.

To some, he’s achieved that and more. To others, Djokovic has failed as a role model. He’s almost certainly not losing sleep over it.

World domination

The courts of the world have been ruled by Federer, Nadal and Djokovic for two decades. They’ve driven each other to greater heights, between them winning 65 of the last 78 Grand Slam singles titles since 2003.

Djokovic has 23, Nadal 22 and Federer, now retired, will forever be on 20. Djokovic has won 11 of his Grand Slams since turning 30.

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Novak Djokovic of Serbia moments after winning the 2023 French Open men’s singles final. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Christophe Petit Tesson)

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Novak Djokovic celebrates a point in his match against Casper Ruud in the 2023 French Open men’s singles final at Roland Garros in Paris on 11 June. (Photo: Julian Finney / Getty Images)

Novak Djokovic, French Open

Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts after winning against Karen Khachanov of Russia in their men’s quarterfinal at the French Open at Roland Garros in Paris, France on 6 June, 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Caroline Blumberg)

The Serb 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”.

This week is Djokovic’s 388th at No 1 in the world. Federer is the next closest with 310 weeks in the sport’s top spot. Nadal has spent 209 weeks at the official summit.

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 never won that tournament.

Djokovic has won each of the four Grand Slams at least three times, while Nadal has won them all at least twice. Federer only captured one French Open, so although he has a career Grand Slam, he can’t match the other two.

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 83.4%. Nadal is on 82.8% and Federer retired with a winning record of 81.2%.

Federer is second only to Jimmy 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 94 titles in total and 1,058 matches, so he has some way to go to match Federer and Connors on those scores.

GOAT race

Djokovic, for the better part of the past decade, has been vying with Nadal and Federer for the unofficial title of greatest of all time (GOAT) and has, by those objective measurements, won that fight.

His 23rd men’s Grand Slam singles title, won at the French Open at Roland Garros last week, took him clear in that ranking too.

But does it really matter if he is the GOAT? Because regardless of what he achieves, especially by loyalists to his two major rivals, it won’t matter.

Many have made up their minds about Djokovic, just as they have about Federer and Nadal. And none of us really knows them. All we know is what we see in public for the most part and Djokovic, at least, appears to be authentic.

He doesn’t do politically correct and isn’t afraid to express his right to decide about his health. If that means not being vaccinated against Covid and forfeiting tennis titles, so be it.

He never publicly advocated against Covid vaccinations for the general population, but he refused to get them himself. It might be misguided and we might disagree, but you have to respect his decision. It came with consequences – missing the 2021 US Open and the 2022 Australian Open, as well as a massive social media pile-on. He took it on the chin.

As a proud Serb, he sometimes expresses political feelings that don’t sit comfortably, such as supporting the Serbian view that Kosovo is not an independent state. Again, he might be wrong or he might not, but he takes the criticism and somehow becomes a better competitor.

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Novak Djokovic of Serbia embraces the Coupe des Mousquetaires after winning the 2023 French Open men’s singles final. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Caroline Blumberg)

Novak Djokovic of Serbia serves to Marton Fucsovics of Hungary in their Men’s Singles second round match during the French Open Grand Slam tennis tournament at Roland Garros in Paris, France, 31 May 2023. EPA-EFE/TERESA SUAREZ

Djokovic French Open Kosovo

Novak Djokovic caused a stir after his match against Aleksandar Kovacevic for signing a political message on a camera. (Photo: Christian Liewig – Corbis / Corbis via Getty Images)

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.

The other side of Djokovic is that of a driven person. He speaks five languages — 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.

Deciding sporting greatness is a fraught business because hard data tells much of the story, but not all of it.

Using just numbers and statistics will reveal that Steve Smith is a better Test batter than AB de Villiers or Brian Lara.

When and how runs were scored, the match situation, the strength of the opposition, the state of the pitch, the situation of the series it was played in and the quality of teammates on the subject’s side are just some factors that simply crunching numbers don’t reveal.

That’s a small example of why sporting statistics as the sole measurement of greatness are not necessarily definitive.

When Smith bats, it looks as if he is being attacked by a swarm of wasps, while Lara and De Villiers were as smooth and satisfying as cake mixture being poured into a bowl.

Clearly, there are several ways to get the job done.

And Djokovic does get the job done. He’s statistically got it done better than anyone in history. It makes him great. Does that make him the GOAT?

Does it matter? DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Coen Gous says:

    brilliant article

  • Agf Agf says:

    A man of principle. He stood by his in the face of an onslaught of criticism by particularly the Mainstream Media. He was treated appallingly by the Australian Government and then welcomed back with open arms a year later, still vaccine free.

  • Petrus Kleinhans says:

    I am astonished that people can battle with this question. If Federer, Nadal and Djokovic played in separate periods of tennis history, then all the grappling would be understandable. They did not. These three stars were shining in tennis heaven at the same time. And all three had many ascribing to them the title of GOAT. Yet one has come out on top. What is the measure of the greatest player? His popularity with fans? No, this is not a popularity contest. His political views? No, this is not an election? His mastery of tennis across all surfaces and against the best opposition? Yes. Djokovic is the greatest of all time.

  • Christopher Van says:

    I found this article frustrating to read.

    If win statistics is what counts to establish the tennis GOAT then there is nothing to discuss: Djokovic gets the mantle. If it is something other than pure statistics, then where are the criteria, and who, then, are the contenders? Federer? Nadal? McEnroe? Borg? Connors? Laver? Becker? Instead, the writer discusses cricket. (With an unfortunate analogy he also confuses cake mixture (batter) and a man who bats (a batsman).)

    Can do better. Or is that batter?

  • Eugene Moll says:

    To me Rod Laver is still outstanding. Back in his day getting to tournaments was NOT easy. After winning a lot he turned professional and was then banned for several years from playing in the majors. Once tennis went professional Rod won the majors again and again. Who know how many he may have won without the years missed. The problem today is we forget the past all too easily. I am NOT saying D, N and F were not as great – but like Johnny Waite we forget; great wicket-keeper and opening bat!

    • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

      The eternal question: If Laver had played with the very different means of today, would he have been the GOAT? We’ll never know. If the three great of today should play with the rackets and preparation of Laver’s times, I do not doubt that the winner would be Federer.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    For what it’s worth, I feel the same way about him as I do about Verstappen in Formula One – I really couldn’t give a damn. Sad, but there you go.

  • thedees says:

    Djokovic has been my favourite for the last 18 years together with Roger Federer but is now on his own after Roger’s retirement. Like him I also do not care what people say! As and avid Cape Talk listener however, I do not like the way that John Maythem bad mouths Novak knowing that he has a wide audience. I think that now following all the titles that he has amassed, I think that John should stop this and continue to support the useless Andy Murray. Djokovic for president of Serbia!

  • daniel.theron says:

    Great article. My wife and myself supported Federer for the past 20 years but since he retired, I started to appreciate Djokovic’s talent and now enjoys his matches. This caused many arguments with my better half with cold stares that suggests something like “traitor or sell out”. In fact, I also admire Nadal and I am of the opinion that we will not again in our lifetime see such a dominance of 3 players in tennis again. Between them, they lifted the sport and kept it in the public eye. There are in my view no direct challenger on the horizon. Ideally we need two challengers with a bit of a rivalry to keep the interest in tennis high. I dont see this happening anytime soon and am concerned that tennis inevitably will take a knock in years to come. We were spoiled. I intend to enjoy the last bit of it until D and N also retires. Eish

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