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With each major win—and qualities beyond the numbers—Novak Djokovic continues to redefine tennis greatness
The 35-year-old has 22 Grand Slam titles to his name and a host of other accolades. But that's only part of his story.
Published Jan 29, 2023
Press Conference: Novak Djokovic after his 22nd Grand Slam title, and 10th Australian Open win
Novak Djokovic has now won 22 Grand Slam singles titles, tying him with Rafael Nadal for the most in men’s tennis history. These two, along with 20-Slam winner Roger Federer, have created incredible metrics that in many ways redefined tennis greatness.
So how we do we parse what greatness is all about? First, if you’re looking for talk of the GOAT, you’ve come to the wrong place. On that topic, I am a conscientious objector, of the belief that such an approach is hardly nuanced, profoundly ahistorical, and even insulting to hundreds of skilled and accomplished men and women who’ve shaped the sport’s history for decades.
Better yet, let’s explore the ways greatness plays out, how it’s evolved over the years—and the ways Djokovic has demonstrated his excellence in a wide range of categories.
This is the quantitative approach, typically based on numeric achievements such as Grand Slam singles victories, tournament titles, and year-end No. 1 finishes. Yet insightful as raw data is, it’s by far the least sophisticated methodology in assessing greatness across eras, as tallying data fails to consider shifting evaluation criteria.
After all, prior to the start of Open tennis in 1968, numeric heft was hard to generate. With no money in the amateur game, greats such as Ellsworth Vines, Don Budge, Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzales, Frank Sedgman and Tony Trabert competed at the majors only a scant few times before turning pro. The numbers they achieved as amateurs hardly do these legends justice (exhibit A: the mighty Gonzales, winner of but two Grand Slam singles titles). Then there was World War II, which severely curtailed competition and, in several instances, disrupted the progress of many champions. Note also that the Australian Championships was primarily a single nation event, with few players willing to devote the time or possess the resources to take a ship (can you imagine?) or fly there.
The coming of Open tennis altered the landscape—but at first, only slightly. Not until 1979, following the demise of World Team Tennis’ May-August season, did a full troupe of players compete at Roland Garros. In the Open Era, too, the Australian lagged behind, the event defined by shallow fields prior to the 1988 opening of its current first-rate facility. Bjorn Borg competed at the Australian Open only once; Jimmy Connors twice. Believe it or not, for many years such events as an indoor tournament in Philadelphia and the Italian Open were far more important than the Australian Open.
Next came what I call the Spheres of Influence Era. From the 1980s, through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, surfaces were quite different from one another—and so were playing styles, a specialization of sorts that precluded the massive Slam tallies later generated by Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. Rare were players like Edberg, Ivan Lendl, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi, each versatile enough to reach the finals of all four majors in the Open Era. (Agassi was the only man to win all of them.) Instead, formidable baseliners such as Sergei Bruguera, Thomas Muster and Gustavo Kuerten excelled at Roland Garros and made nary a dent elsewhere. Then there were aggressors such as Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Richard Krajicek, Goran Ivanisevic and Stefan Edberg, their best results occurring at Wimbledon with its slick grass. This wealth spread of styles and surfaces was one reason why during those years, the US Open—played on a hard court that rewarded baseliners and net-rushers alike—served such a vital and dramatic function as the tennis year’s final showdown tournament.
But starting in 2002, major changes affected the competitive landscape and dynamic of the majors. Wimbledon’s grass became slower. Roland Garros got speedier—or, more pointedly, balls there began to fly faster, thanks to the ascent of Luxilon strings. With players arriving fresher than ever thanks to improvements in and affordability of fitness training, the Australian Open began to blossom. The majors started to seed 32 players, therefore reducing early-round danger for the higher-ranked contenders. And so it was that the homogenization of playing surfaces and a less treacherous early phase of a Slam made it that much more possible for greatness to assert, command and dominate. In came Federer, Nadal and Djokovic—three superb and devoted competitors with excellent footwork, discipline, weaponry, fitness and a relentless commitment to improvement: The Empire Era.
In Djokovic’s case, incredibly efficient technique, fueled by fantastic balance and agility, as well as one of the greatest service returns in tennis history, made him a perfect man for contemporary surfaces and situations. All of those skills have helped Djokovic seamlessly navigate his way through Melbourne, Paris, London and New York. In addition to his record-tying 22 Slams, Djokovic’s most notable accomplishments are an unsurpassed seven years finishing the year ranked No. 1, and 93 singles titles (one more than Nadal), a figure exceeded in the Open Era only by Connors (109), Federer (103) and Lendl (94).
At the Zenith
It can be illuminating to dissect the peak-level performances of a particular great. This is where Rod Laver stands alone, having won eight of his 11 singles majors during two calendar Slams in 1962 and 1969. Still, when it comes to evaluating greatness prior to the Open Era, including Laver’s ’62 sweep, the amateur-pro schism makes it difficult. Even Laver has admitted that he was not the best player on the planet that year (he was beaten repeatedly by Ken Rosewall soon after turning pro at the end of 1962). Alas, for all the emphasis on Laver’s Slam years, some of his best tennis was played from 1965-67, when he was exiled from the majors and had overcome Rosewall.
In the Open Era, there have been vivid demonstrations of brilliance. John McEnroe’s 82-3 campaign in 1984 inspired the notion that he was playing tennis better than anyone ever had. Ivan Lendl stood head and shoulders above his peers in 1986 and 1987. Pete Sampras finished the year ranked No. 1 six straight times, a record that still stands. And it remains staggering that a clay-court natural like Borg could win five straight Wimbledons, including three straight Paris-London double triumphs.
Then there have been three-Slam years from Connors (1974), Mats Wilander (1988) and Nadal (2010). Federer accomplished this feat three times (2004, 2006 and 2007), as has Djokovic. But, as noted next, in an even more impressive manner.
Indian Wells, USA
Tremendous Tuesday: The entire round of 16 is played today
Joel Drucker reports from around the grounds at the bustling BNP Paribas Open.
Longevity Has Its Place
This is one area that’s often overlooked, but from my standpoint, a deeply significant ingredient in the greatness recipe. Pancho Gonzales won the 1949 U.S. Championships, turned pro, and didn’t play a major again until 1968. In his first Slam back, shortly after his 40th birthday, Gonzales reached the semis of tennis’ most physically demanding tournament, Roland Garros. The whole world witnessed Connors 1991 US Open run at 39. Rosewall was seeded No. 1 at Wimbledon as an 18-year-old in 1953—and No. 2 as a 40-year-old. Agassi first reached a US Open final in 1990 and did so again in 2005. Even if none of these efforts resulted in a tournament title, they reveal extraordinary excellence.
Djokovic has also made many major statements that demonstrate his excellence across a long period of time—but his have been triumphant. The Serb’s three-Slam years have occurred a decade apart—in 2011, 2015 and 2021—the latter so successful that only a loss in the US Open final kept him from earning a calendar year Grand Slam. Djokovic’s 2020 Australian Open title run also put him alongside Rosewall and Nadal as the only men to have won singles majors in three different decades. In other words, Djokovic’s peak efforts are also coupled with longevity.
For All the Marbles
Finally, there comes a captivating and even implicating question tennis aficionados like to ask: Who would you have play for the fate of the planet? Big servers who thrived on pressure like Gonzales and Sampras frequently come to mind. Toss in supreme shot-maker Lew Hoad, a comet of a talent often considered the greatest Aussie of them all, at least on a given day. The case can also be made for such Hoad compatriots as the remarkable Laver, and another great pressure player, the tactically adroit John Newcombe. Then there are the gritty warriors such as Connors and Nadal.
But surely, Djokovic warrants a seat at this table. Over a decade ago, he twice beat Federer from two match points down in the US Open semis. More recently, he rallied again to overcome Federer, on that occasion with the great Swiss serving at double championship point in the 2019 Wimbledon final. Winning a second Roland Garros title also took significant effort, Djokovic rallying from two sets to love down in the final to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas—whom he beat today in Melbourne—48 hours after he got past Nadal in a sparkling semifinal.
Time and time again, Djokovic has brought his best when it mattered most, backed by his own mix of a perennially fantastic return game and, in recent years, a greatly improved serve.
As far as the balance of 2023 goes, Djokovic as of now will not be permitted to enter the United States and play in Indian Wells and Miami. Unfortunate as that is for tennis fans, exile from the grueling North American hardcourt tennis might also help keep Djokovic stay fresh for the European clay court season—and, approaching 36, make the best possible effort to win Roland Garros for a third time.
As the years go on, it will be intriguing to see how Djokovic continues to redefine greatness.