Sport Analysis

Djokovic jumps into prime position for GOAT title

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Novak Djokovic won his 19th grand slam title recently, defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the 2021 French Open (Screenshot via YouTube)

Arguably the "greatest [tennis player] of all time", Novak Djokovic's 2021 French Open win makes him the only man in the Open Era to conquer all four Grand Slam tournaments twice, writes Ronny Lerner.

LOVE HIM or hate him – and admittedly a fair portion of sports fans fall into the latter category – it’s now basically undeniable that Serbian superstar Novak Djokovic is the greatest men’s tennis player of all time.

Djokovic isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, largely due to his views on vaccinations, quarantining, alternative medicine and science (he once claimed that toxic food and polluted water could be cleansed “through the power of gratitude”) and his staging of the Adria Tour during the height of the pandemic — which was eventually cancelled after four tennis players, including himself, tested positive to COVID-19. 

But when Djokovic held the Coupe des Mousquetaires aloft for the second time in his career in the wee hours of Monday morning (Australian time) after defeating Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas in the 2021 French Open final, he merely put an exclamation mark on the magnitude of his greatness which had already become apparent in his previous match.

In the semi-finals, Djokovic accomplished the tennis world’s equivalent of climbing Mount Everest — beating Rafael Nadal at the French Open.

Nadal is the greatest clay-courter in tennis history by some margin, winning Roland Garros a belief-defying 13 times — seven clear of the Open Era’s next best Björn Borg on six.

The Spaniard’s career record at the French Open heading into Saturday morning’s final-four match-up was 105-2. But after Nadal won the first set, Djokovic took over to win an epic contest in four sets which lasted four hours and 11 minutes. It included one of the best sets of tennis you’d ever wish to see in the third which went to a tie-breaker and clocked 93 minutes. After the victory, Djokovic rated it in the top three matches of his career. 

It also meant that Djokovic had handed Nadal two of his three career defeats at the second Grand Slam tournament of the year, having also "climbed Everest" back in 2015 at the quarter-final stage (he would lose to Stan Wawrinka in the final that year).

In clinching his 19th Grand Slam title on the weekend, Djokovic also created a slice of personal history, winning a major final from two sets down for the first time in his 19-year career, having lost all five previous finals which began that way.

Yes, Djokovic still trails the legendary Roger Federer and Nadal by one major, with that duo both tied on 20 Grand Slam tournaments apiece, but the 34-year-old has just done something that neither of his great rivals (or any other man in the Open Era for that matter) has been able to achieve — win all four Grand Slam tournaments twice.

Federer has only won one French Open, while Nadal has managed just the solitary Australian Open triumph.

Federer will forever be an icon of tennis and in many respects revolutionised the way the sport was played, but he was able to win 12 of his 20 majors before the "Big Four" era (featuring Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and Andy Murray) really started cranking into gear around about 2008.

And while three of those 12 titles were won against a fresh-faced Nadal (twice) and Djokovic, the vast majority were not.

Djokovic, much like Nadal, has only ever known the Big Four era (now commonly referred to as the Big Three due to Murray’s decline), with his first-ever major win coming in 2008 at Melbourne Park.

In 29 Grand Slam finals, Djokovic has faced either Federer, Nadal or Murray a combined 21 times (at 72%) for 13 victories, including three over Federer at the Swiss master's pet event Wimbledon, while he also notched a total of six wins over Big Four members en route to his eight other finals.

Federer has made 31 major finals, but only 17 of them have been against the Big Four (at 55%) for a total of just seven wins, while his other 14 finals were preceded by just the two victories against the Big Four.

Granted, Nadal’s 28 Grand Slam finals have included 18 showdowns with fellow Big Four members (at 64%) – of which he won 11 – and he has scored a combined five wins against either Federer, Djokovic or Murray on the way to his ten other major deciders. 

But with so much of his Grand Slam success occurring on the red clay of Paris, Nadal probably gets marked down ever so slightly against Federer (six Australian Opens, eight Wimbledons and five U.S. Opens) and Djokovic (nine, five and three) whose greatness has been spread out a lot more evenly across all surfaces.

The case for Djokovic’s claim as the GOAT is further strengthened by the fact he leads head-to-heads with Federer (27-23), Nadal (30-28) and Murray (25-11).

And while it would be foolhardy to write off Federer – who turns 40 in August – from clinching yet another Wimbledon crown at the All England Club next month and again stretching his lead for career Grand Slam wins on the chasing pack, there’s a very strong sense of inevitability about 34-year-old Djokovic catching him for good, before opening up a gap of his own at the apex of men’s tennis.

Ronny Lerner has been a sports and music journalist/editor since 2006. Follow Ronny on Twitter @RonnyLerner.

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