The GOAT debate: Three kinds of greatness

The GOAT debate: Three kinds of greatness

Djokovic has shown that a third kind of greatness is possible, one that consists of a tunnel vision focused solely on glory

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Credit: AFP/Reuters Photos

It was a characteristically elastic summer evening in London as Roger Federer and Andy Roddick did battle to become Wimbledon men's singles champion for 2009. After four unrelenting hours, it is Federer who prevailed, winning the fifth set 16-14. The victory gave the Swiss an unprecedented 15th Grand Slam, taking him past Pete Sampras on the all-time honours board. At the time, Rafael Nadal had six majors to his credit, while Novak Djokovic had one.

A little more than 12 years later, on a far more gloomy London evening, Djokovic took on Matteo Berrettini on Wimbledon's Centre Court, and the outcome was far more straightforward. No fifth set was required, as the Serb clinched his sixth Wimbledon trophy and reached the top of the Grand Slam titles list, level with Federer and Nadal on an astounding tally of 20. 

Djokovic's triumph created a remarkable three-way tie for the most important record in the game. But, it is also a reflection of three different ways to scale the mountain, three different ways to secure greatness.

The numbers' game

As for the numbers, it is hard to argue against Djokovic being the greatest of all time. The youngest of the three at 34 (Nadal is 35 while Federer turns 40 in August), Djokovic's distribution of slam victories - 12 on hard court, six on grass, and two on clay - makes him the most complete player in men's tennis history. Federer has also dominated on grass and hard court but only won one Roland Garros final, whereas Nadal's peerless dominance on clay skews his figures - 65 per cent of his Grand Slams have come at the French Open.

Also read: Djokovic says he will play Tokyo Olympics 'with much pride'

Djokovic is the only player to complete the career Golden Masters - winning all four Grand Slams, all nine ATP Masters events and the ATP finals. Should he claim the US Open this autumn, he will become the first man since Rod Laver (1969) to have his name etched on all majors in the same calendar year.

In terms of the most consistent statistical indicator of excellence- the number of weeks spent as world number one - it is once again Djokovic who leads, having spent a total of 329 weeks (and counting) as the best player in the world.

The intangibles

Beyond the numbers, however, there is something intangible, something ineffable at play. Something that makes greatness sacred, that stirs the emotional core of the audience in the most intimate ways.

It is here that the legacies of Federer and Nadal supposedly surpass that of Djokovic. Federer has redefined what it means to move with grace on a tennis court with his timeless elegance and aesthetic supremacy. The doggedness of Nadal and his indefatigable spirit have served as the perfect foil, providing fans with two compelling styles for close to two decades. Djokovic's problem seems to be that he does not belong to either camp, as he finds himself lodged somewhere between the Federer school of sport as pure art and the Nadal school of sport as pure passion. The mechanical precision of Djokovic's game does not lend itself to endless eulogising.

Also Read Djokovic has time and momentum on his side to become greatest tennis player of all time

Then there are the off-court personas of Federer and Nadal that always give them a PR edge, especially in today's world of blurring boundaries between achievements and impressions. Federer and Nadal, to their credit, have managed to steer comfortably clear of controversies across their storied careers. No irresponsible comments, no bad blood with peers, no self-sabotaging indulgences. The same cannot be said of Djokovic, whose copybook is blotted by accusations of sexism (for arguing against equal pay in 2016), an anti-vaccination stance, a clumsy mid-pandemic jamboree, and a series of on-court gaffes, ranging from petulant displays of frustration to overstepping the boundaries of appropriate humour.

The verdict

In all likelihood, Djokovic will end his career as the most decorated player to lace up a pair of boots. Twenty-five Grand Slams is not an impossible target for someone playing the most composed tennis of his life. Whether Djokovic can win over tennis fans with the same unanimous appeal of Federer or Nadal remains to be seen, but nothing can take away from how the Djoker has blazed his trail, carved the third path when it seemed that there were only ever going to be two roads and two kings.

The Federer way of combining unteachable talent with a calculative approach for self-preservation had long found a fitting match in the Nadal way of going all guns blazing all day, every day. But Djokovic has shown that a third kind of greatness is possible, one that consists of a tunnel vision focused solely on glory, wherein being liked or loathed does not matter. All that matters is the sheer force of will, the endurance to keep rising to new challenges.

(The writer is a freelance journalist writing on politics, culture and sport)

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