Undesirable No.1: Why Novak Djokovic is the GOAT of men’s tennis, whether you like it or not

Some say it’s the best shot in tennis history.

September 2011, the semifinals of the US Open. For the second year in a row, Roger Federer faces Novak Djokovic; for the second year in a row, Federer has two match points. Rafael Nadal awaits in the final.

It’s 5-3, 40-15 in the Swiss great’s favour. There is hysteria in the stands, the crowd yearning for another Federer-Nadal battle. Djokovic glances around, nodding ruefully at the noise, then settles near the baseline. Federer fires down a first serve at 108mph, and Djokovic slaps back a forehand winner before his opponent has even regained balance.

John McEnroe called it “one of the all-time great shots”. Federer, who went on to lose the match — just as he had in 2010 from the same position — dismissed it as “lucky” and borderline disrespectful. “I tend to do that on match points,” Djokovic said. “It kinda works.”

What’s a forehand winner at the US Open 12 years ago got to do with Wimbledon 2023? Nothing. And everything.

That match, and the final against Nadal, capped the greatest 12 months in Djokovic’s early career. The man who had reached just three major finals in six years ended 2011 by winning three of the four grand slams, his only defeat coming to Federer in the semifinals of the French Open. In the 12 years since, he has won another 19, most recently at Roland-Garros. He enters Wimbledon as the holder of 23 major singles titles, a record for men in the Open Era.

That shot against Federer was a precursor to all that. So, too, was his reaction at the time: raising his arms to the spectators, a Maximus mimic, daring them not to be entertained.

They didn’t all like him then. They don’t all like him now. But the cold, hard numbers don’t lie: Novak Djokovic enters SW19 in 2023 as the greatest male tennis player in history.

Most grand slams won in men’s tennis

Djokovic beat Casper Ruud 7-6 (7-1) 6-3 7-5 to win the French Open final this year. That victory took him to 23 singles titles at tennis’ four majors — the Australian Open, Wimbledon, the US Open and Roland-Garros — which is more than any other male player in history and only one behind the all-time record held by Margaret Court.

Nadal has 22 majors; Federer has 20. The closest to the tallies set by the modern game’s ‘big three’ is Pete Sampras, who retired on 14.

Djokovic won his first major at the 2008 Australian Open, defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final. He lost the 2007 US Open final to Federer and the 2010 showpiece at Flushing Meadows to Nadal. In his first six full seasons on the professional tour, they were the only grand slam finals he reached.

Djokovic has won 22 of a possible 50 men’s major singles titles ever since.

Most grand slam titles won by a player in men’s singles

Player Grand Slam titles
Novak Djokovic 23
Rafael Nadal 22
Roger Federer 20
Pete Sampras 14
Roy Emerson 12
Rod Laver 11
Bjorn Borg 11
Bill Tilden 10
Jimmy Connors 8
Fred Perry 8
Andre Agassi 8
Ivan Lendl 8
Ken Rosewall 8

*Bold denotes active player

He has won 10 in Australia, which is a record. He has three French Open titles, three US Opens, and seven Wimbledon crowns, making him the only man to have won all four majors at least three times. He has been to 34 finals, reaching three in consecutive years and seven overall at each tournament, all of which are records.

He is the only man to win all four majors in both his 20s and his 30s, and the only male player in the Open Era aside from Rod Laver to be champion of all four majors at once.

The main goal that eludes Djokovic is the calendar Grand Slam: winning all four majors in the same year, something nobody has achieved since Laver in 1969. He came closest in 2021, where he won in Australia, Paris and Wimbledon before losing to Daniil Medvedev in the final in New York. He has the chance to complete the feat in 2023.

Djokovic vs Nadal vs Federer head to head

As with most sports, it’s difficult to compare tennis players from different eras. The huge evolution of the game, from a pastime for wealthy Victorians with sticks to a global behemoth contested by titanium-wielding warriors, undermines any debate about the best player ever.

Still, the general consensus is the modern ‘big three’ of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal are the three greatest male players in history, so it makes sense to compare their direct records. Djokovic comes out on top.

Nadal’s sensational victory over Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the 2022 French Open was the most recent meeting in a rivalry stretching back nearly 20 years. Given the Spaniard’s injury troubles, it could be the last time they face one another either side of a net.

If that’s the case, Djokovic will finish with the superior head-to-head record, having won 30 of the 59 Tour-level matches they have played. Nadal led 14-4 until the balance shifted at the Cincinnati Masters in 2009, where Djokovic prevailed 6-1 6-4. The Serbian has since lost just four times to Nadal away from the Spaniard’s favoured clay surface. That’s not to say his record on the red dirt is poor — he is the only player to have beaten Nadal multiple times at the French Open, after all.

Djokovic has met Federer 50 times and leads that head-to-head 27-23. Again, Djokovic had to play catch-up in this rivalry: Federer led 13-6 before the semifinals of the 2011 Australian Open, where Djokovic won in straight sets en route to the title; since then, the head-to-head record reads 21-10 in the younger man’s favour. Those 31 matches include three Wimbledon finals won by Djokovic against the record eight-time champion, who only won two of their last eight meetings before retiring in 2022.

Djokovic vs Nadal vs Federer head to head overall record

     
Novak Djokovic 30-29 Rafael Nadal
Novak Djokovic 27-23 Roger Federer
Rafael Nadal 24-16 Roger Federer

Djokovic vs Nadal vs Federer head to head at grand slams

     
Novak Djokovic 7-11 Rafael Nadal
Novak Djokovic 11-6 Roger Federer
Rafael Nadal 10-4 Roger Federer

 Djokovic vs Nadal vs Federer total match wins vs ‘big three’

   
Novak Djokovic 57
Rafael Nadal 53
Roger Federer 39

Most ATP Masters 1000 titles: Djokovic’s ‘Golden Masters’

The ATP Masters tournaments (or Masters 1000s) are the Tour’s most prestigious competitions behind the majors. There are nine in total: the Canadian Open (hard court), Italian Open (clay), Indian Wells Masters (hard), Miami Open (hard), Monte-Carlo Masters (clay), Madrid Open (clay), Cincinnati Masters (hard), Shanghai Masters (hard) and Paris Masters (hard indoor).

Given the series was only introduced in 1990, it’s not surprising that the winners’ list is dominated by the ‘big three’. As of July 2023, Djokovic has won 38 Masters singles titles, the most of any male player. Nadal has won 36; Federer, 28. The next man on the list is Andre Agassi, with 17.

Most ATP Masters 1000 titles

No. of titles Player Different tournaments won
38 Novak Djokovic 9/9
36 Rafael Nadal 7/9
28 Roger Federer 7/9
17 Andre Agassi 7/9
14 Andy Murray 7/9
11 Pete Sampras 5/9
8 Thomas Muster 4/9
7 Michael Chang 4/9
6 Daniil Medvedev 6/9

*Bold denotes active player

Only one man in history has won all nine Masters 1000 titles, an achievement dubbed the ‘Golden Masters’. That player is Novak Djokovic. And he’s done it twice.

Most weeks as world No.1 and year-end championships

In March 2021, Djokovic set a new record for the most number of weeks as the world No.1 in men’s tennis. The Serbian reached 311 weeks at the top of the ATP rankings — which have existed for half a century — to surpass the previous record held by Federer.

As of July 2023, Djokovic’s record stands at 389 weeks at the summit. He has been world No.1 in 12 different years — no other player has even reached double figures in that regard.

Djokovic has finished as the year-end No.1 — in essence, a mark of the world’s most successful player in a single season — seven times, which is also a record.

Most weeks as world No.1 in men’s tennis

  Player Weeks at No.1
1. Novak Djokovic 389
2. Roger Federer 310
3. Pete Sampras 286
4. Ivan Lendl 270
5. Jimmy Connors 268
6. Rafael Nadal 209

*Bold denotes active player

Djokovic has made a habit of finishing the year strongly. He’s reached the year-end championships — the ATP Finals — 15 times, a figure only bettered by Federer (17). He shares the record with the Swiss when it comes to ATP Finals titles, with six each. It’s a trophy Nadal has never won.

Djokovic won a record fourth consecutive Finals title in 2015. When he won the Australian Open and French Open in the following year, he became the only man in history to hold all four major singles titles and the year-end championships crown at the same time.

MORE: How the draw looks at Wimbledon 2023

What’s left for Djokovic?

Beyond a shock switch to regular doubles play in the final stages of his career, there is little left for Djokovic to achieve in tennis. However, he has one or two outstanding objectives.

One of those could be achieved at next year’s Olympics in Paris. Djokovic won bronze in 2008, but that’s his best result at the Games: he was beaten by the eventual gold medalists in 2008 and 2012 (Nadal and Andy Murray) and was shocked by Juan Martin del Potro in round one in 2016.

Djokovic has won more matches with opponents ranked in the top 10 and top five in the world than any other man ever, but he is still behind when it comes to overall career match wins. Another 10 would draw him level with Nadal and Ivan Lendl on 1,068, but he would have to play for many more years to draw close to Federer (1,251) and record-holder Jimmy Connors (1,274). He does at least boast the best win percentage (83.4%) in history.

Roger Federer Australian Open 2017

Arguably the biggest remaining challenge for Djokovic is to catch Connors and Federer for total career titles in the Open Era. The 36-year-old is equal-third with Lendl on 94, Federer is second on 103, while Connors leads on 109.

Given Djokovic has won 17 Tour titles since the beginning of 2020, he is on track to overtake Connors before his 40th birthday — assuming, of course, he keeps on playing.

Why don’t people like Novak Djokovic?

That memorable winner against Federer at Flushing Meadows, and reaction that followed, was almost insolent — a stunning riposte against the game’s dominant player of the early 21st century and his legions of fans.

In some ways, Djokovic has never been forgiven.

Despite the records, the longevity, the astonishing success levels, Djokovic has never been wildly popular among tennis fans around the world. He has a core of ardent supporters, of course, but he has never garnered the same universal admiration as Federer and Nadal, in spite of his best efforts.

Why? Part of the reason is probably because of Federer and Nadal. They elevated modern tennis to new heights in their early rivalry, culminating in that unforgettable Wimbledon final of 2008, considered by many the best final in history. By the time Djokovic became a true force on the Tour in 2011, many fans were firmly ensconced on either side of the ‘Fedal’ rivalry, and they didn’t want this usurper to interfere.

Novak Djokovic

Of course, Djokovic hasn’t helped his own cause. His faith in holistic medicine and the (literally) transformative power of positive emotion has been dismissed by some as little more than superstition. His refusal to receive a COVID-19 vaccination prevented him from playing the Australian Open — he was deported from Melbourne for being in breach of entry protocols — and the US Open last year; that followed his controversial decision to host an exhibition tournament in Belgrade and Zadar in the early stages of the pandemic in Europe in 2020, when nations were being plunged into strict lockdown measures. Nick Kyrgios, who was beaten by Djokovic in last year’s Wimbledon final, called the idea “boneheaded”.

Djokovic has also sometimes been criticised for antics on the court. Some dislike what they see as a tactic to disrupt the rhythm of his opponent by taking a bathroom break if a match is not going his way — although, it must be stressed, Djokovic is not alone in taking advantage of these permitted rest periods in this way. There have been many occasions, too, when Djokovic has been riled by a crowd either for vociferously backing his opponent or for not showing enough appreciation for the spectacle at hand, and the way he salutes the four corners of a stadium after a victory is not always warmly reciprocated.

There was also the infamous moment he was defaulted from the 2020 US Open when, in his fourth-round match with Pablo Carreno Busta, he struck a ball in anger that hit a line umpire. Djokovic apologised for what he insisted was an accident and said the incident would stay with him forever.

After beating Marton Fucsovics at the second round of this year’s French Open, Djokovic wrote on a pitchside camera lens: “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence.”

Kosovo, where Djokovic’s father was born, declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but political tension and unrest prevails in the region, where many Serbs in the north of the country have never accepted the decision of 15 years ago.

Djokovic was criticised by the president of Kosovo’s tennis federation and the sports minister of France, Amelie Oudea-Castera. He responded by saying: “My stance is clear: I am against wars, violence and any kind of conflict, as I’ve always stated publicly. I empathise with all people, but the situation with Kosovo is a precedent in international law.”

Ultimately, although the Wimbledon crowd has rarely backed Djokovic as they have Federer, Nadal, or their home favourites, it’s rarely made a difference. Centre Court will welcome the defending champion on July 3, when he starts his quest to equal Federer’s eight titles at the All England Club against a debutant, Pedro Cachin of Argentina.

He doesn’t tweet much, but Cachin felt the need to post on January 25, the date Djokovic beat Andrey Rublev in straight sets on his way to win a 10th Australian Open title. “It’s not tennis that Nole plays,” he wrote. “We play tennis. Don’t be confused, kids!”

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