It may still seem inconceivable right now, but there may come a time in the not-too-distant future when the phrase “The Big Three” becomes obsolete and is replaced by “The Giant One (and The Big Two)”. That is because Novak Djokovic, having just won his 24th Major Singles title, might end his career by winning so many Major Singles titles that even the previous all-time greatness of Nadal and Federer will be eclipsed.
No Man Matches Novak – Only Margaret Court
In winning his fourth US Open Singles title, Djokovic has pulled further clear of Nadal (who has 22 Major Singles titles) and Federer (who has 20). Nadal, of course, still has a chance to add to his total, but after missing almost all of 2023 with injuries he may just be reconsidering his plans to return for a last hurrah in 2024, given how Djokovic has been playing in his absence.
In purely statistical terms, Djokovic is now undoubtedly the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) in men’s tennis. Indeed, the only tennis player who can match him for sheer number of Major Singles titles is Margaret Court, with whom he is now level on No. 24. Yet there are two strong arguments for Djokovic having already surpassed her.
Why Djokovic Has Already Surpassed Court
The first is that the bulk of Court’s Major Singles titles (11 of the 24) were won in her native Australia when the Australian Open was by far the least important of the Majors. That was principally because the relative isolation of Australia before widespread jet travel meant that many of the world’s greatest tennis players, both female and male, did not even travel to Melbourne to compete in the Australian Open, let alone win it. As late as the 1970s and early 1980s, the Australian Open was very much the runt of the Major litter, with even the great Bjorn Borg only ever competing in it once (and then crashing out early on).
The second main reason why Djokovic may already be considered to have surpassed Court is, of course, that he has played far more tennis to win his 24 Major Singles titles than Court ever did, because women only play three-set matches at the Majors whereas men play five-set matches. Whatever the merits or otherwise of that arrangement (and there are strong arguments on both sides, either for making women play five-set matches at the Majors or, as Billie Jean King would wish, reducing men’s matches at the Majors to three-set contests), it does mean that in numerical terms at least Djokovic’s achievement is greater than Court’s.
And Djokovic Could Soon Surpass Court Anyway
Of course, Djokovic can very soon make that whole debate entirely academic by winning his 25th Major Singles title and thus becoming the first tennis player of either gender to win a neat quarter-century of Grand Slam Singles titles. That could come as soon as Melbourne early next year, when the great Serb will be going for his 11th Australian Open Singles title in total and his fifth in sixth years. And of course, he might have been going for a magnificent seventh in succession if he had not been banned from competing in Melbourne in 2022 because of his still-controversial stance on Covid vaccination.
Such is Djokovic’s domination (or “djomination”) of Melbourne in particular that, barring injury or some unforeseeable event such as – God forbid – another global lockdown because of another Coronavirus upsurge, it is extremely difficult to see anyone beating him there. Of course, Carlos Alcaraz and Daniil Medvedev in particular will be serious challengers. However, it is a sobering thought for all of Djokovic’s opponents that, besides him, Nadal and Stan Wawrinka are the only two men still playing ever to have won in Melbourne, and given their much-documented injury problems it is doubtful that they will ever challenge for the Australian Open title again.
Where and When Will It All End?
When Carlos Alcaraz won his first Major Singles title at the 2022 US Open, his coach, Juan-Carlos Ferrero, was asked how many Major Singles titles in total he could win and Ferrero joked (emphasising that it was a joke), “I don’t know. Maybe 30.” For all of Alcaraz’s undoubted greatness over the last two seasons, he still has “only” two Major Singles titles to his name. Djokovic now has a dozen times as many Major Singles titles as the young Spaniard and is far more likely to reach 30 Major Singles titles than anyone else, even Alcaraz.
The only two things that might stop Djokovic from reaching that previously unimaginable total of Major Singles titles are time and himself, and it is highly unlikely that he himself will ever be the main reason that he stops winning Grand Slam tournaments. Resilience, in every sense, is his defining quality (notwithstanding all of his technical excellence), and it is that resilience that has allowed him to overcome challenges that would have stopped almost any other tennis player, or indeed almost any other human being, in their tracks.
Djokovic’s Childhood Helped Lead Him to This Moment
As virtually the whole world now knows, when he was a child Djokovic had to leave his native Serbia, to escape the NATO bombing of his country during the Kosovo conflict and to further his hopes of becoming a tennis professional. Although it is not uncommon for young tennis players to have to move abroad, most do so with at least one of their parents in attendance, but Djokovic had to do so on his own.
Perhaps that childhood isolation is the bedrock of his remarkable resilience, which subsequently allowed him to overcome one of the greatest challenges in sporting history, namely breaking the Nadal-Federer duopoly of men’s tennis, before at least temporarily overcoming another enormous challenge, namely the emergence of Alcaraz, who is potentially the most complete tennis player there has ever been.
And that is without considering all the other obstacles – some of them, of course, self-created – that have beset Djokovic’s career, from the aforementioned ban from Major tournaments because of his refusal to have the Covid vaccine to being defaulted from the 2020 US Open for striking a linesperson with a ball struck in anger. (More than most players, Djokovic must be grateful for the introduction of automatic electronic line-calling at most Majors, because it dramatically reduces his chances of ever being defaulted from a Major again.)
Memories Of The Big Three Will Remain, But They May Only Be Memories
Of course, such was the greatness of both Nadal and Federer that memories of The Big Three will remain and there will always be advocates for both Nadal and Federer being superior to Djokovic: Federer because of his unmatchable grace on the court (a grace that was unmatchable not only in tennis but in all of sport); and Nadal because of his domination of clay-court tennis, particularly the French Open, for so long.
Having observed The Big Three since the arrival of their first member more than 20 years ago, when Federer first won Wimbledon in 2003, I would characterise their respective greatness like this: if you had to choose one tennis player to play for your life, it would be Djokovic; if you could only watch one tennis player for the rest of your life, it would be Federer; and if the match is on clay, you would choose Nadal over either Djokovic or Federer.
Soon, though, Djokovic may make even such granular definitions of their different types of greatness completely redundant. If he goes on to win between 25 and 30 Major Singles titles, numerically at least he will have left both of his greatest rivals trailing behind him, and he will set an all-time target for Major wins that may be beyond even the astonishing Carlos Alcaraz. And if he does so, he will undoubtedly be The Giant One of tennis.
Main Photo Credit: Danielle Parhizkaran – USA TODAY Sports