For some – especially fans of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – this will sound like a heresy. How could Novak Djokovic already be the greatest of all time when he has fewer Major titles than both and fewer weeks as world #1 than Federer? In fact, Djokovic does not lead in any single category of the so-called big records.
Federer still holds the record for most Grand Slam titles won and has reigned the longest as world #1, whilst Nadal has won more Masters titles and Pete Sampras finished as year-end #1 six times to Djokovic’s five (so far). So yes, at a first glance, it may seem like a stretch to declare Djokovic the GOAT.
However, things are not so simple. Of course, if the criteria to define the GOAT were only the number of major titles and weeks as #1, there would be no argument as to who the GOAT currently is: with his 20 majors and 310 weeks atop the rankings, that honour would go to Federer. But there is more to take into account than just those raw numbers. Is it not the case that in order to be accounted the greatest of all time a player must have achieved what no other has before them?
And if that is the case, then the question becomes: does Djokovic have a C.V. to definitively set him apart from his peers?
Djokovic has won all the big titles
It should not be overlooked that Djokovic is the first and thus far only player to win every single one of the so-called “big titles”. Federer and Nadal, glorious as their careers have been, have gaps on their resumes. Federer has never won in Monte Carlo or Rome, whilst Nadal has failed to claim the title at the Miami Open and the Paris Masters, and perhaps more damningly, has never won the season-ending ATP Finals where the field is restricted to the best eight players in the world.
Djokovic, in contrast, has won just about everywhere he has played, having picked up at least one title at all four Grand Slams, the nine Masters 1000’s and the ATP Finals. That is no small feat. Actually, it might even be the greatest feat of all, the ultimate challenge conquered. After all, the most celebrated feat of all, after the legendary Calendar Slam achieved only by Rod Laver, is the Career Grand Slam, i.e. winning all four Majors. Just eight men have done it, five during the open era.
But as mentioned above, Djokovic has also won all nine Masters 1000 tournaments. The only other player to have accomplished that feat is the great Ivan Lendl, who won 22 titles at Grand Prix Super Series/ATP Super 9 with at least one coming at each of the nine events.* But Lendl never won the title at Wimbledon meaning that he also has a gap in his trophy cabinet. Djokovic then stands alone in this regard.
Djokovic is the only player to have held all four Grand Slams on three different surfaces
Winning the four different Majors is already a rare feat, but winning the four majors consecutively is something even rarer. In the Open Era, only two men have ever held all four Grand Slams at once: Rod Laver and Novak Djokovic. However, we should remind ourselves that whilst Laver achieved the Calendar Slam, in 1962 and 1969, three of the four Majors were then played on grass, with the French Open the sole exception. That leaves Djokovic as the only man ever to have held all four Majors on three different surfaces: clay, grass, and hard courts. Djokovic is also the only man to have simultaneously held all four majors and the indoors Year-End Championship.
Djokovic leads the head-to-head against both Nadal and Federer
Challenges to Federer’s widely accepted status as the GOAT are often predicated on his losing record against Nadal. After all, how can a player be considered the greatest of all time if they have consistently been beaten by their biggest rival? Djokovic, however, has no such blot on his copy book. On the contrary, the Serbian has a winning record against both Federer and Nadal. Indeed, the only player to boast a winning head-to-head after more than five matches against Djokovic is Andy Roddick, who led 3-2 when he retired in 2012.
Djokovic has more big titles than anyone else
As mentioned above, Djokovic does not lead in any individual category of the so-called big titles. However, he does have the lead if all big titles, that is Majors, Masters and ATP Finals, are combined. Currently, Djokovic is the frontrunner in this category, with a fairly staggering 56 combined big titles, whereas Federer and Nadal are a step behind at a still impressive 54 apiece. And adding weight to Djokovic’s claim is that he is the youngest of the three.
Would anyone seriously consider a player to be the GOAT if they hadn’t achieved the Career Grand Slam? Or is it by now common ground that the GOAT must have won each of the four major titles? And if that is the case, by the same reasoning, should we not also expect the GOAT to have the most complete collection of big titles available? And as we do have a player who has won every big title (and more of them than anyone else) does that player not have the best claim to be the GOAT? If so, then Djokovic is your man.
*Editor’s note: In their current form, the ATP Masters did not exist before 1990. However, the nine tournaments that comprised the Grand Prix Super Series, which ran from 1970 until 1989, was its predecessor and equivalent, with the nine Grand Prix tournaments played across the world then effectively the premier tennis events aside from the Grand Slams.
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