As the nation is gripped by Wimbledon (when not being gripped by the Ashes), Novak Djokovic is attempting to win for a fourth consecutive tournament at the Open. This, after winning the Roland Garros French Open last month, beating Norwegian Casper Ruud 7-6 (7-1) 6-3 7-5 in the final to win a record 23rd Grand Slam, moves him one ahead of currently injured Rafael Nadal.
No male tennis player has ever won more, and he’s currently equal with Serena Williams and one behind the Aussie legend Margaret Court. Winning Wimbledon again is firmly in his sights. Statistically speaking, if things stay as they are, with Nadal battling injury and rumoured to be retiring in 2024, he will be the best male player ever, right?
Well, for me it’s not that simple.
The most technically gifted men’s player to have ever graced a tennis court versus the King of Clay. A man not popular with the media or crowds for his controversial views on vaccines, on-court demeanour and misogynistic views on female tennis players, Novak Djokovic will never be my favourite of the near-two-decade dominating male triumvirate alongside Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
As a return to competitive tennis becomes ever more unlikely for Federer, and Nadal’s latest sets of injuries have also hindered his attempts to add to a Grand Slam since the French Open last year, the path for the record books is there for Djokovic to take. But is it all about numbers? Notwithstanding, every one of the three have had their flaws both on and off the court; Nadal’s superstitions and long routines pre-serve alongside a frustrating lack of consistency outside clay courts, Federer too-often smug and sluggish in his career before really achieving ascendancy.
So, if the Serbian does indeed go on to achieve statistical greatness this year by racking up his grand slam wins to 24 and more in the future, does that mean he will be considered the Greatest of all Time?
It’s a question that will be perhaps never be answered, and his on-court and off-court personality demonstrate that the politics can never truly stay away from the sport. Stats and wins are not the be-all-end-all to the definition of historically-defined ‘greatness’. Rafa and Federer will always hold more of the crowds.
Sportspeople are remembered for so much more than just records, it is the manner of their victories. Djovokic has been part of many a great tennis match, but arguably the one Wimbledon crowds will remember the most is the final he lost to Andy Murray in 2013. Failing that Nadal’s victory over Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon Male Final, considered by many to be the greatest tennis match to have ever been played, will live longer in the memory than any other tennis match. I think Djokovic cares too much about just results. A footnote in the records listing his achievements statistically might be all he will be remembered for in the future. Or maybe he will just be remembered as the one who everyone wanted to beat?
Personally, my heart will always go to Rafa, at least in the men’s game. Is that unpatriotic of me? Perhaps, I will never forget the utter joy at seeing Andy Murray lifting the Wimbledon trophy on the telly ten years ago. He won Wimbledon twice, as well as the US Open and was back-to-back Olympic Gold medallist. In the context of the most competitive era of male tennis, that is an impressive feat. But ultimately, and perhaps unfortunately, he was nowhere near the Big Three of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal. We’re now in the fading light of that era, even if Djokovic has a few more seasons in him, his domination of the game should be short-lived, Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas and the heir to the King-of-Clay, Carlos Alcaraz, are currently best-placed to challenge the pretender to the throne of Male tennis.
It’s worth remembering the adage: “There’s lies, then there’s damned lies, and then there’s statistics”. Maybe Djokovic should be enlightened of this next time he waves his racket in frustration as the Wimbledon crowds are quiet to him.