69. Novak Djokovic: an underappreciated great

By defeating Andy Murray 10 days ago and in so doing winning the French Open, Novak Djokovic is, as Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim has written, firmly part of the GOAT conversation – the Greatest Of All Time.

Despite his dominance for four of the last five years, inclusion of Djokovic in this discussion would have been premature without winning each of the four slams. So his French Open title is certainly a watershed for Djokovic in this regard – he can now be included in the conversation alongside Federer and Nadal from his own generation, perhaps something we can evaluate more easily than across generations.

Not that this is apparent 10 days later. There is remarkably little reflection in the media on the achievements of Djokovic. After all, he now holds all four slam titles – the Novak slam if you will – which is something that Federer and Nadal have not achieved and only Laver from the Open era (since 1968) has managed. Yet the general response has been tepid to the extent that US broascaster NBC penned an article on the limited public follow up of Djokovic’s achievement.

But Djokovic’s French Open win is more than just one title. It is also the apotheosis and culmination of something that has been in the works for a lot longer. He has now been ranked the ATP’s number one player for more than 200 weeks, more than Nadal and since rankings were introduced in 1973, only Federer (302), Sampras (286), Lendl (270) and Connors (268) have been at the top for longer. He could pass Federer as soon as just before the French Open in 2018. If that is to be the case, Djokovic, now with 12 slams, will surely have passed Nadal and Sampras (both 14) and will be close to, if not past, Federer’s all-time record of 17.

It was not always clear – perhaps even to Djokovic himself – that this would be the outcome of his career. Following his victory over Murray, Djokovic said that Federer and Nadal specifically but also Andy Murray had driven him to be a better player.

“At the beginning I was not glad to be part of their era. Later on I realised that in life everything happens for a reason. You’re put in this position with a purpose, a purpose to learn and to grow and to evolve. Fortunately for me I realised that I needed to get stronger and that I need to accept the fact that I’m competing with these two tremendous champions and then everything was uphill from that moment on.”

“These two guys — and Andy as well — the rivalries with all three of the guys have definitely, in a big part… helped me to become a better player and helped me achieve all these things.”

This is reflected since 2011 in every measure you choose to mention: prize money (see my post here), rankings, and the fact that Novak has won 11 of the last 22 slams and 6 of the last 8.

A lot has been made in the last 12 months about Djokovic overhauling deficits in his head to head statistics with both Nadal and Federer. Currently Novak leads Nadal 26-23 and Federer 23-22 (part of the first chart below). However, again, the current balance is the outcome of a process set in place since 2011. Since 2011, Djokovic leads Federer 16-9, Nadal 19-7 for a combined 35-16 (and he has won 13 of his last 15 against Murray). See chart 2. Some will tell you that Federer’s age in recent years has been the determining factor (he is 34, Djokovic 29), but you could argue that Federer has raised his game further over the last couple of years and has just been defeated by a player taking the game to new heights.

Chart 1: A tale of two eras. Djokovic vs Nadal vs Federer – Head 2 Head – 2004-present

Chart 1 2004-2016 post

Chart 2: A tale of two eras. Djokovic vs Nadal vs Federer – Head to Head – 2011-present

Chart 1 2011-2016 post

Ascribe Djokovic’s success to a multitude of factors: motivation, discipline and will, an improved serve, a gluten-free diet, technical perfection, Boris Becker and Marian Vajda, and maybe even a Davis Cup win in 2010 – they have all played their part.

There was a sense in media reporting during Federer’s rise, his ascension to the number one ranking and his rivalry with Nadal that both Federer and Nadal were set for all time greatness.

I can’t say this empirically but the same general sense has not been apparent with Djokovic. Does he not have the same fan adoration as Federer and Nadal? (He has more twitter followers than Federer if that’s any guide.) Has he remained in their shadows? Or does he not have the same charismatic style of play as suggested by the NBC article?

Regardless of what your answer may be, it would be a mistake not to recognise Djokovic for the all-time great that he has already become.

One thought on “69. Novak Djokovic: an underappreciated great

  1. For me, Djokovic became the greatest of all time about the start or middle of last year. This was due to the simple fact of the frequency of his titles in Slams and in Masters tournaments, while competing against a range of players who are far better than Federer faced, in general, during the high plateau of his career. Also, perhaps surprisingly, I’m never really at ease including Nadal in the mix of GOAT contenders, as most of his titles have come on one surface.

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