Years played: 2003–
Major titles: 12*
“I’d been watching him in my rearview mirror, looming closer, for a while now,” Rafael Nadal said of Djokovic in 2006. “He’d been racing up the rankings, and I had a strong feeling he would be neck and neck with me before too long.”
Call it game recognizing game. Just as the ATP looked set to become a two-man tour, with Nadal and Roger Federer dueling on their own private Mt. Olympus for the next decade, along came a teenager from a non-traditional tennis power, Serbia, to challenge them both for world supremacy.
The brash kid from the mountains around Belgrade had no fear of either of his Hall of Fame rivals. He said Nadal was “beatable” on clay, even after being soundly beaten by him at the French Open. He said he expected to take over for Federer and become “the next No. 1,” before he had even reached a Grand Slam final. Djokovic’s first coach, Jelena Gencic, who had also worked with Monica Seles, told him he was destined for greatness, and the young Novak believed her.
But Djokovic backed up his brashness and proved to be as good as his own self-hype—better, in fact. After living uneasily in Nadal’s and Federer’s shadows for four years, he began to make his move at the end of 2010, when he led Serbia to its first Davis Cup title. With that longtime goal achieved, his game and his confidence soared. In 2011, he won his first 41 matches, took home three major titles and five Masters 1000s, claimed the No. 1 ranking for the first time, went 10-1 against Federer and Nadal, and finished 67-4.
Djokovic did it with a game that, while not as artistic as Federer’s or as physical as Nadal’s, was perfectly suited to 21st-century trends in the sport. A lean but muscular 6’2”, he blended offense and defense until there was little difference between the two; he was strong enough to stand toe-to-toe with anyone, but fast enough to retrieve nearly anything. Djokovic’s two-handed backhand was every bit the weapon, to both corners, that his forehand was. And while there were better servers among his peers, there were no better returners. Djokovic at his best was often described as “clinical.” With no exploitable weaknesses, he took his opponents apart, shot by methodical shot.
Devastating without having to be spectacular, Djokovic’s game worked on every surface, against every type of opponent. While he wouldn’t entirely vanquish Federer and Nadal, Djokovic would take the lead in his head-to-heads against both men, and he would fulfill his early self-prognostications by putting a stranglehold on the No. 1 ranking from 2011 to 2016. By the time that long, remarkably consistent run of dominance was over, Djokovic had won 12 majors and a record 30 Masters 1000s, and spent 223 weeks at No. 1. In 2015, he experienced a second annus mirabilis, winning three majors and a record six Masters 1000s, and finishing 82-6.
Yet one prize eluded him: the French Open. Djokovic’s quest to win at Roland Garros and complete a career Grand Slam consumed him for five springs. He lost to Federer in 2011, and Nadal in 2012, ’13 and ’14. But even when he finally beat Rafa in the quarterfinals in 2015, it wasn’t enough; he was stunned by Stan Wawrinka’s 60-winner star turn in the title match.
Finally, in 2016, Djokovic prevailed in Paris. He had his career Grand Slam, and he had become the first man since Laver to win four straight majors.
Ten years after he first appeared in their rear-view mirrors, Djokovic had one-upped Federer and Nadal. But what once appeared to be a sprint has turned into a marathon, and Rafa and Roger have since retaken the lead. As Djokovic enters his 30s, he’ll rejoin the race in a three-man homestretch for the ages.
Defining Moment: Djokovic fought back tears as the Roland Garros crowd cheered in sympathy. He had lost his third French Open final, to a player, Wawrinka, he was heavily favored to beat. Had he let his last, best chance in Paris slip away? Over the next 12 months, Djokovic gave us the answer when he became the first man since Laver to win all four majors—including the French Open—in a row.
Watch: Novak Djokovic finally wins his first French Open in 2016