Is Novak Djokovic an all-time great?

Saturday, November 24, 2012 /by

In the past 24 months, Novak Djokovic has won a Davis Cup, four Grand Slam titles and an ATP World Tour Final. He's also made his mercurial happy-go-lucky days when he was wearing adidas shirts and swinging Wilson rackets seem like ancient history. Today, Djokovic is one of, if not the, toughest out in tennis. A year-end No. 1 two years running, Djokovic has reached the semifinals or better in 33 of his past 38 tournaments. It's a run of all-surface acumen that hasn't been seen since—well, not that long ago, actually.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who have regularly joined Djokovic in said semifinals, have gone on similar streaks in the recent past. They've combined to win 28 Grand Slam titles, have each completed the career Slam and built one of the most engaging rivalries in tennis history. One is the all-time leader in major singles titles; the other is probably the only player who can catch him in the foreseeable future. Even Djokovic, who owns five majors, would likely admit that. But taken as a whole, the dominance of these three is exhibit A, B and C of the evidence supporting the widely held theory that we're in the midst of a golden men's era.

There is no doubt that Federer and Nadal have cemented their status as all-time greats. Has Djokovic? It depends on your definition of the term, and even I have a tough time pinpointing what makes a player so. Djokovic is just behind a number of legendary players on the Grand Slam singles title tally whom I'd consider "all-time greats": Boris Becker, Mats Wilander, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors. At 25, Djokovic has time on his side, and it would be shocking if he didn't win at least another two Slams, at a bare minimum.

But the Serb has more in his favor going forward. First, let's consider Federer, who recently lost to Djokovic in London. As we saw in the beginning of that final and in prior matches during the past two years (2011 French Open semifinal; 2012 Wimbledon and Cincinnati semifinals), Federer can still overpower Djokovic. But it's unlikely that the 31-year-old will actually improve or give Djokovic something different to look at when they meet in 2013. Federer won those three semifinals, but Djokovic has won seven of their past 10 meetings dating to the 2011 Australian Open. I expect that trend to continue. If the two were to play a best-of-three match series, Djokovic probably takes it more times than not.

Then there is Nadal, who is the ultimate wild card of 2013. I've heard people say this is the end of the road for Rafa; I've heard people say that he's successfully returned from extended injury before, so why not again? As Nadal and perhaps Peyton Manning have proved, you shouldn't count out an elite athlete. But the consensus is that Nadal appears to be injured more severely than at any time in his career. It seems highly unlikely that he will be back at full strength right away—and Nadal isn't supposed to come back until just before the Australian Open. As long as he's playing and until proven otherwise, Nadal is the favorite at the French Open. But at the other Slams? It looks like Djokovic is the clear oddsmakers' choice.

That's unless you feel Andy Murray should receive more attention based on his performance at the U.S. Open, where he beat Djokovic in a five-set final. Or if you think Juan Martin del Potro is finally ready to return to his ruthless ways of bashing the Big Four off the court en route to more major titles. Or if you'd rather take the field, with all the possible obstacles that could derail Djokovic: The relentless David Ferrer, the erratic Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the lethal Milos Raonic, the fresh-out-of-the-box Jerzy Janowicz?

I still feel the most likely slipups Djokovic will encounter in 2013 will be against an ascending Murray, a healthy Nadal and a still-motivated Federer. But no one challenger truly stands above the rest, and I have concerns about Djokovic's two top rivals, Roger and Rafa. In a pecking order full of questions, I offer you one sure answer: Novak Djokovic will not have a better opportunity to collect more Grand Slam titles and build his case as one of tennis' all-time great players than he will in the next 24 months.

In sports, we like to declare that teams have "windows of opportunity" based on their contract situations, players' ages and level of competition. Djokovic doesn't have to worry about the first one, and the last two are skewed positively in the coming years. Is he an all-time great? We're about to find out.


Originally published on ESPN.com.

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