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Can Djokovic settle the GOAT argument in men’s tennis?

Parameswaran Iyer writes: As the odds-on favourite to win the Australian Open in January 2022, he could make it to 21 Grand Slam titles and break the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic tie of 20-20-20.

Written by Parameswaran Iyer |
Updated: October 9, 2021 8:42:05 am
Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic’s magnificent quest for the holy grail of tennis, the calendar Grand Slam, came to a grinding halt at the recently-concluded US Open when he lost a heartbreaker to Daniil Medvedev, and in the process also broke the hearts of millions of die-hard Djokovic fans around the world. But his loss brought relief to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal supporters, who were equally paranoid about their idols’ tally of 20 Grand Slam titles apiece being overtaken by Djokovic.

If Djokovic, who also has 20 Grand Slam titles under his belt, had won the 2021 US Open, he would have not only overtaken his two great rivals in numbers, but also pocketed the haloed Grand Slam — winning the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon Championships and the US Open in a calendar year. The latter feat would have unquestionably cemented his Greatest of All Time (GOAT) status. By missing out on the US Open, the GOAT debate continues, not least in our tennis-crazy family, with my son (a former professional tennis player) being a die-hard Djokovic supporter and myself a loyal Federer acolyte. My wife and daughter (also a former professional tennis player) are neutral in this raging debate.

Federer, Nadal and Djokovic — tennis’s Big Three — have dominated the men’s game in an unprecedented manner over the last 18 years. Between them, from 2003 until 2021, they have won 60 of the last 71 Grand Slam titles (Wimbledon was cancelled in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic). Each has dominated a separate Grand Slam tournament: In addition to winning 13 French Open titles, Nadal has also won an Olympic gold medal in the men’s singles, while Federer has won eight Wimbledon titles and Djokovic has nine Australian Open titles to his name.

Djokovic fans argue that he is the greatest since he has a winning record against his two rivals and is the only one of the three to have won each of the four Grand Slams at least twice. Federer’s fans argue that he has the longest run at being No. 1 in the world — 237 straight weeks. Djokovic, while having held the No. 1 ranking for more weeks overall (334) was ranked No. 1 consecutively for only 122 weeks. Nadal was ranked No. 1 consecutively for only 56 weeks.

In the Federer vs Djokovic debate, some commentators use the “peak value” argument. According to John Bronsteen writing in The Slate, the question is “how great the greatest were at the apex of their talents and dominance”. He argues that from 2004 to 2007, Federer won 11 Grand Slam titles and dominated tennis in a manner which has never been done by any other tennis player, male or female. Djokovic also had three dominant, though disconnected, years — 2011, 2015 and 2021 — when he won three of the four Grand Slams. Bronsteen feels that Federer, by dominating in an unbroken stretch of four years, wins the “peak value” argument. If Djokovic had won the US Open last month, and thereby the calendar Grand Slam, it would have been impossible to argue against his GOAT status. As it is, the debate goes on.

Rivalries at the highest echelons of sport are what keep both players and fans going. Federer, at the ripe old age of 40, and recovering from knee surgery, has not yet called it a day. Nadal, five years younger, but still “old” in tennis terms, is also battling on with a foot injury. Djokovic, though no spring chicken at 34, is the only one who is still almost in prime physical condition and determined to win more Grand Slam titles. Slowly but surely, however, this golden generation of tennis is coming to an end. A few challengers from the younger generation — Medvedev, Tsitsipas, Zverev — are looming on the horizon, though still far away.

Women’s tennis, on the contrary, has been very different. Unlike the dominance of the Big Three in men’s tennis, the Grand Slam wins in the women’s game over the past five years have been very evenly spread among multiple players. The five-year period of 2017-2021 saw 15 different women winning Grand Slam titles, the latest winner being the British teenage sensation, Emma Raducanu, who won the US Open last month at the age of 18.

Coming back to men’s tennis and the GOAT debate, I have a sneaking suspicion that the discussion may come to an end in 2022. I hate to say this, but Federer, even if he recovers from his surgery and competes again, is highly unlikely to win another Grand Slam title. Nadal, while always in with a chance to win the French Open, the event he has dominated over the past 15 years, may find it difficult to take on the dominant Djokovic or even one of the young challengers in 2022 at his beloved Roland Garros. Djokovic is still the odds-on favourite to win the Australian Open in January 2022, taking his tally to 21 Grand Slams, one more than each of his two rivals.

Ultimately, it is difficult to fight against numbers. If Djokovic makes it to 21 and the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic Grand Slam title tie of 20-20-20 is broken, I may have to concede the GOAT argument to my son. While this will be sad news for all of us Federer fans, there will be one positive outcome — the GOAT debate finally settled, peace and harmony will prevail on the tennis front at home.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 8, 2021 under the title ‘Grit to greatness’. The writer is a former secretary to the Government of India and coach to his professional tennis playing children. Views are personal.

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