Novak Djokovic and the Debate About Greatness

Yeah, I think it is time.

Novak Djokovic has been attending some press conferences lately, what with his run of Grand Slam wins in Melbourne and Paris. This week, in London, he was asked by a keen journalist about how it feels to be a bad boy amongst the two greatest and most likeable men ever to hold a tennis racquet. Djokovic, with his half-smirk-half-smile, replied, “That’s what you think.”

Tonight, Djokovic will stroll out as the overwhelming favourite at the Wimbledon final. At times during the semi-final against Denis Shapovalov, he played a level of tennis that video games would have found tough to simulate. His ability to switch tempo in the middle of a rally often left the young Canadian grasping for thin air. Djokovic now stands within a stone’s throw of Peak 20, the highest climbed point of Mt. Tennis. Even if he turns up second best against Matteo Berrettini tonight, you suspect he will touch and move beyond Grand Slam number 20, past Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, soon.

Which brings us to the debate. Ideally, Djokovic’s stature in tennis shouldn’t rest on one performance, or an extra Grand Slam. There are more ways to measure greatness.

How do you define greatness? For starters, the math has to back you up. Numbers are objective, and if you can get them on your side, you must be doing something right. To be great at something, you need to maintain substantial distance from the chasing pack and show better wares than your nearest rivals. You have to do it often enough, for a long time, and across different situations. Ability, consistency, longevity, and versatility.

When Djokovic won the French Open final against Stefanos Tsitsipas, he became the first male player to win at least 75 games at each of the four majors. He is also the only man to have won at least two titles of each variety. He has a favourable record against Federer and Nadal — 27-23 and 30-28 respectively — and hasn’t lost to either at a non-clay major final in eight years. Numbers don’t always tell the whole story, but these come close.

The other part of perceived greatness is something more subjective: likeability. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, besides redefining what on-court excellence looks like, have been shining beacons of grace off it. Unlike the last major rivalry in men’s tennis — Sampras and Agassi — Roger and Rafa seem to enjoy each other’s company. You see them at Laver’s Cup or this promotional video, and you begin to realise they are probably friends. Years of gritted-teeth rivalry hasn’t come at the cost of respect and admiration. When Nadal won his twentieth Grand Slam title at Roland Garros last year, Federer was waiting with a glittering note of appreciation. Why can’t more sporting rivalries be this joyous?

The inimitable Brian Philips described it best when he wrote that Djokovic’s entry-point in tennis is his great tragedy: too late to be an equal part of the Roger-Rafa narrative; too early to not be clouded by it. Five months after Novak’s first Grand Slam title, Roger and Rafa played a Wimbledon final that is often called the greatest match ever played. For close to three years after that, Novak knocked the door but couldn’t find a way through. He became another in a long line of talented hopefuls. The genius was evident, but the edge was missing.

Another thing with Federer and Nadal is that they are the gold standards of the two major schools of tennis. Federer is all grace, moving like a ballerina, hitting the ball just hard enough for it to escape his opponent and land safely. He embodies the pristine aesthetic of Wimbledon and pro-Tennis. Nadal is a force of nature. You associate muscle, sweat, and dirt with him. He is no inferior artist, just one with a different palette.

Djokovic came blessed with amazing technical and physical ability, but in a world debating about beauty and power as an absolute battle, he didn’t plant a flag at either end. To this day, his brand is difficult to explain. He wins when he dominates, he wins when he looks least in control. He can play breathtaking and attritional tennis in the same set. He finds angles that don’t exist and covers fifth-set drop shots without breaking a sweat.

In rain and shine, Djokovic just finds a way. Even at the incredible Wimbledon final of 2019, Federer finished with better numbers on every measurable metric except the crucial one: the number of sets won. Maybe that is Novak’s brand. He wins.

On the court, Djokovic can be gnarly and loud, breaking racquets, arguing with umpires. He was once infamous for taking injury breaks every time a rival had the upper hand. At last year’s US Open, he was eliminated for accidentally hitting a line judge with the ball. Last month, after the titanic semi-final at Roland Garros, Novak didn’t win. Nadal lost. Djokovic the tennis player has always been seen as the trespasser into the misty meadow of Fedal.

And then there is Djokovic the person without the racquet. Let’s start with the good stuff. He was a major force behind the Players Relief Fund last year, aimed at dispersing funds to pandemic-affected players, especially those ranked below the ATP top 100. He has been vocal about mental health and spirituality. Like Roger and Rafa, he is always a gracious speaker after a match.

Which makes it so difficult to explain the side of him often termed ‘eccentric’. How do you explain organising a tournament and inviting crowds in the middle of a pandemic? How do you explain speaking to a mic about good emotions changing the molecular structure of water? How, indeed, do you explain baring your anti-vaccination views in public?

Sure, Djokovic isn’t directly hurting anyone, although he totally could have at that tournament, but he has to be aware of his influence. For better or worse, there are going to be those who take his words as gospel. I wish we could be living in a world where public personalities could just speak their mind, and everyone else uses their brain cells before making a decision. We live in the age of capitalism, advertisement, and blind fandom. I am writing this on a Logitech keyboard I didn’t know I needed until YouTube told me. For proof of Novak’s influence, check out the pictures from last year’s Adria Tour. Middle of a pandemic, and he gets some of the world’s brightest young tennis players and a proper crowd to attend a public event without enforcing any medical protocols.

Do you see how it might be tough to be best friends with this guy?

It took until the Australian Open in 2011 for Djokovic to be considered as a potential challenger to the throne. In the decade since, he has won more Grand Slam titles than his two rivals combined. By this time next year, he will have eclipsed them and flown into an orbit of his own.

Novak Djokovic has always been viewed through the Roger-Rafa lens, but I think it is time to admit that he exists as an equal, if not better. Like many, I may not seek him out in a room full of elite athletes, but it may be a good time to make peace with the fact that he not only belongs there, but has a table all to himself.

Played, Novak. Played.