There has never been a sportsperson like Novak Djokovic. He will be 37 next May, but he still bestrides men’s tennis like a colossus, beating virtually everyone he faces, whether they are five, 10 or even 15 years his junior. He did so again at the weekend, winning the Paris Masters, the last Masters tournament of the year, to add a remarkable 40th Masters title to the 24 Major titles that he already possesses. The fact is that the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) keeps beating all the kids – and compared to him, virtually everyone else in men’s tennis is a kid.
Dimitrov Is No Kid, But Djokovic Still Beat Him
At 32, Grigor Dimitrov is the second oldest man in the world’s top 20. Nevertheless, he is still nearly five years younger than Djokovic. However, by the end of the Paris Final, which Djokovic won relatively easily in straight sets 6-4 6-3, Dimitrov looked by far the older man as he obviously and visibly struggled to work out how on earth to compete against the great Serb. It is a puzzle that he has been struggling to find the answer to for over a decade now, as his last – indeed, only – victory against Djokovic came in 2013.
Djokovic Beat Three Generations Of Men’s Tennis In Paris
In Paris over the weekend, Djokovic effectively beat representatives of three different generations of men’s tennis in the final, semi-final and quarter-final respectively. Before winning so comfortably against Dimitrov, one of the thirty-somethings who have struggled to win anything of significance in the era of The Big Three, he had beaten Andrey Rublev (who, at 26, is a full decade younger than him) in three incredibly hard-fought sets, eventually triumphing 5-7, 7-6 (7-3), 7-5. For Rublev, it was almost a victory of sorts to take Djokovic the distance, as he had only ever won one of their previous five matches and had lost most of those in straight sets. In the end, however, the result was the same – a Djokovic victory.
Finally, Djokovic had faced an actual kid, at least in terms of tennis experience, in the quarter-final, when he beat the 20-year-old Holger Rune in a truly epic match 7-5, 6-7 (3-7), 6-4. And in doing so, Djokovic gained revenge for losing to Rune in the Paris final last year, when the then 19-year-old Dane capped off the best week of his career, during which he beat five members of the world’s top 10, by beating Djokovic.
Nobody Does Tennis Revenge Like Djokovic
The fact is that nobody does tennis revenge like Djokovic; indeed, his entire career might be considered as one enormous act of revenge against anyone who ever had the temerity to doubt him. First, he broke the Federer-Nadal duopoly at the top of the men’s game; then he proceeded to dominate men’s tennis for over a decade, in a way that nobody before him (not even Federer at his best) had done; and then, for his final act, he started dominating the youngsters (and at 15 or more years younger than him, they are definitely youngsters in comparison with him) emerging in the wake of The Big Three.
Beating Rune wasn’t even Djokovic’s most dramatic act of tennis revenge this year. That came in Cincinnati, in probably the best three-set men’s match of the year, when he showed he had learned a lot from losing the Wimbledon Final to Carlos Alcaraz by beating the new young king of men’s tennis 5–7, 7–6 (9–7), 7–6 (7–4). After Alcaraz had reduced Djokovic to tears in London by preventing him equalling Federer’s record of eight Wimbledon titles, Djokovic duly turned the tables on the brilliant young Spaniard by beating him in the very next match they played. And the truth is that Alcaraz has not been the same player since. For all the injuries that he has suffered recently, the biggest wound that he has suffered this year was that Masters final loss, which actually reduced him to tears.
So, within the last six months, Djokovic has achieved tennis revenge against arguably the two best young male players on the circuit, Alcaraz and Rune, after they had inflicted devastating defeats on him over the last 12 months. And as for the other young players emerging in men’s tennis, most of them are yet to achieve a victory over Djokovic, let alone an important one. Jannik Sinner, for instance, who probably makes up a potential future Big Three with Alcaraz and Rune, has yet to beat Djokovic in any of their three matches, the last of which was a comfortable straight-sets victory for Djokovic in the Wimbledon semi-final.
Djokovic’s Durability Is His Defining Characteristic
As the most successful male tennis player of all time, Djokovic obviously has numerous qualities; indeed, for all the accolades lavished on Alcaraz over the last 18 months, Djokovic remains probably the most complete tennis player the world has ever seen. However, his defining characteristic is surely his durability. It may sometimes be called endurance or even bouncebackability, but it amounts to the same thing. Nobody has ever been so good at tennis for so long. Indeed, it is arguable that nobody has ever been so good at any sport for so long as Djokovic has been at tennis.
Naturally, the question arises: how long can he go on for? At the moment, it is impossible to see him slowing down significantly for at least another year, notwithstanding the fact that nobody ages so quickly as athletes (even great athletes). Consequently, he is likely to extend his record number of Major singles titles beyond 24, starting with the very next Major, the Australian Open early in 2024, which of course is a tournament that he has already won 10 times.
When Carlos Alcaraz won his first Major, the 2022 US Open, his coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, was asked how many Majors he thought his charge might eventually win. Ferrero joked (and made it clear that he was joking) that Alcaraz could win 30 Majors. But with Djokovic, it is no joke. 30 Majors is a realistic target for him to aim at.
Perhaps the best hope for the kids against the GOAT is for them to work collectively, or as collectively as they can in an individual sport like tennis. Mats Wilander famously said that the reason it was so hard to win Majors in the era of The Big Three was that it was hard enough to beat any one of them at a Major, let alone all three. Well, flipping that image on its head, maybe if Djokovic faced in any one Major a quarterfinal against Rune, a semi-final against Sinner and a final against Alcaraz, the young guns might collectively wear him down. But given his fabled powers of recovery – physical, mental and even spiritual (whatever one thinks of his beliefs, they obviously sustain him) – even such a three-man attack might not be enough to stop him.
Ultimately, it will only be time that stops Djokovic. And it doesn’t look like doing that any time soon. For now, the GOAT continues to beat all the kids and virtually everyone else he faces.
Main Photo Credit: Danielle Parhizkaran – USA TODAY Sports