GOAT at 36, Novak Djokovic yet to command Federer-Nadal-like adulation
It was always a question of when rather than whether. Now, it’s official. Novak Djokovic has gone where no man has previously, keeping his tryst with history by sweeping to a record-setting 23rd Grand Slam title with a straight-set annihilation of Casper Ruud in Paris on Sunday.
To the legion of Djokovic followers, hundreds and thousands of them from the country he represents so proudly, the debate over who is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) in men’s tennis has been emphatically settled. Equally, though, there are millions others who hold the conviction that while numerically, Djokovic is unmatched, and unmatchable, that doesn’t necessarily mean he is greater than the other two champions with whom his career overlapped massively, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
The real GOAT
Federer is retired from tennis, bowing out with 20 majors against his name. Nadal, him of the ravaged body but undying spirit that has refused to be tamed by injuries galore, is on the last legs of a glorious career, having blasted and fought and winced and used unimaginable mental strength to rake in 22 Grand Slams. So while the debate over who the greatest is will rage on, the only unanimous verdict is how fortunate the tennis landscape has been to have witnessed the skills and genius of this unique triumvirate with distinct skillsets and extraordinary courtcraft.
Djokovic might view No. 23 – the number immortalised through their jerseys by the likes of basketball legend Michael Jordan and leg-spinning great Shane Warne – as the ultimate statement of authority, a number that he has every right to believe will elevate him in the eyes of the tennis aficionados to the same rarefied air hitherto reserved only for Federer and Nadal. The free-flowing right-handed Swiss maestro and the uncompromising left-handed Spanish bull have captivated, enthralled and mesmerised audiences for two decades together, quickly breaking into the hearts of the tennis fans and remaining firmly entrenched to the extent that they are almost inseparable.
Federer, Nadal-like adulation hard to come by
For a long time now, Djokovic has tried to command the same adulation, love and reverence as his two illustrious peers, but not always with great success. Respect hasn’t ever been a factor; his all-surface game and the immense reserves of fortitude that he has had to summon time after time ensured that while he might not have been the most popular champion – certainly not in the Federer-Nadal league – he did get his due.
But it’s impossible for a professional sportsperson who has been there and done all that not to be affected by the reality that the same adoration reserved for his two contemporaries has remained elusive all this while, despite his remarkable consistency and the lengths to which he has gone to woo audiences in Melbourne and Paris, London and New York.
It’s worth remembering that Djokovic is 36, because he simply is showing no signs of slowing down. Over the last four or five years, there has been talk of the next generation of superstars-in-the-making stepping up and sweeping past the established order, but beyond odd sparks of brilliance, the no-longer-young guns haven’t displayed the unwavering consistency or the undimmed focus that have been the calling card of the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic threesome.
The last-named’s third French Open title on the red clay of Roland Garros returned him to No. 1 on the ATP charts when the rankings were released on Monday. Remarkably, the oldest of the other nine in the top-10 is 27; Djokovic is giving at least a decade to most of the other pretenders and yet seems unstoppable, having already made it halfway through a calendar Grand Slam by adding the French to the Australian Open crown won in Melbourne at the start of the year.
Impeccable fitness and stamina at work
His takedown of world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz in the semifinal in Paris was a masterclass in perseverance, determination, fitness and stamina. Alcaraz turned 20 just last month and is widely touted to be the next great dominator of men’s tennis. Indeed, before their semifinal showdown, Djokovic likened the young Spaniard’s intensity and passion to a ‘left-handed player from the same country’ with whom Djokovic has had numerous bruising battles, the reference obviously being to Nadal. The two went hammer and tongs in the semifinal; when they split the two sets, they had played for a little under two and a quarter hours and clearly, Djokovic was feeling the effects of the exertions, his legs a little wobbly.
Fascinatingly, though, it was the younger man whose body caved in. Overcome by the occasion, by the stage, by the bloody-mindedness of an opponent 16 years older and by the gremlins in his own mind, Alcaraz started to cramp. Badly. It started with his arms, spread to his legs and finally took over his entire body and he practically sleep-hobbled through the last two sets. It made for mind-boggling viewing – the powerful 20-year-old walking meekly from side to side after each point, his body creaking and protesting, the lanky 36-year-old skipping and bounding and gliding across the clay as if he could go on for another couple of days.
Here are some telling statistics – Djokovic has reached a Grand Slam final 34 times, the most by any man or woman apart from Chris Evert, the elegant American who enjoyed a compelling rivalry with Martina Navratilova. With 23 titles, he is level with Serena Williams at second for the most Grand Slams won, just one behind Margaret Court. He has won 11 majors since turning 30, and 11 of the last 20 Grand Slams staged, particularly staggering because he missed two of them due to his anti-vaccination stance and was disqualified from a third for accidentally striking a linesperson with the ball.
Clay is the one surface that has tested and challenged Djokovic to the hilt, hence there is a nice touch to him going past Nadal on the surface that the latter conquered, with 14 French Open titles. It was where Djokovic was perhaps not the obvious favourite, not with Alcaraz having established his clay credentials in no uncertain terms. Mt Roland Garros conquered, Djokovic will believe Wimbledon and the US Open are winnable, for sure. The chasing pack may not disagree, for such is the aura that surrounds the Serb at the moment. To be the people’s champion will be a huge win, no doubt, but were that not to eventuate for some reason, there is at least the consolation of a mountain of Grand Slam titles to draw solace from.