HomeAustraliaIs it time to acknowledge Djokovic as the greatest?

Is it time to acknowledge Djokovic as the greatest?

“When Roger was in his prime in the mid-2000s, he was unstoppable. He had much more of an all-round game – he would destroy you with his serve, destroy you at the net, and so on.”

Australian doubles legend and former Australian Open tournament director Paul McNamee agrees on the last point.

“My opinion is very consistent, and I’ve said this from the beginning: these are the three best players to ever play the game,” McNamee said.

“I call them the Holy Trinity. We will not know who the GOAT is until they all retire, and we can look at their entire careers.”

Is he the best to win the Australian Open?

There’s no question Djokovic is the best male to compete at the Australian Open, a title he has held for several years and cemented again on Sunday night.

He makes no secret of this being his preferred grand slam, praising Rod Laver Arena and its place in his career.

Djokovic nudged ahead of Australian tennis legend Roy Emerson and long-time rival Federer in 2019 to become the most successful Australian Open player after winning that final against Nadal.

This kicked off a winning streak for the Serb, prevailing in 2020, 2021 and 2023 (he was unable to play in 2022 after being deported).

Djokovic clinched his first grand slam title in 2008, at Melbourne Park, defeating France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a fourth set tie-breaker. He defeated Andy Murray in four Open finals, and Nadal twice. The first match against Nadal in 2012 remains the longest in the tournament’s history, taking five hours and 53 minutes. Djokovic has also beaten Dominic Thiem and Daniil Medvedev in deciders.

But Djokovic hailed this year’s win against Stefanos Tsitsipas “the biggest victory in my life considering the circumstances”.

He said later he had blocked out challenges, including commentary about a hamstring injury that put early doubts over his chances, his father being photographed with supporters carrying banned Russian flags, and discussion over his deportation last year. “It required an enormous mental energy really to stay present, to stay focused, to take things day by day, and really see how far I can go.”

What differentiates Djokovic?

Before Djokovic’s win on Sunday, this masthead went through the stats to show why he would be tough to beat. Those same stats show why he is also going to be tough to beat going forward.

He is the male first player in the Open era to win all the grand slams twice. No player has been ranked No.1 for longer (although Federer held the ranking for a longer consecutive period). And no one has ended the year at No.1 more often since ATP rankings began in 1973.

While Djokovic might dominate the hardcourt and sweaty Melbourne summers, Nadal has a commanding 14 wins at the French Open.

The pair have played 59 times – and the Serb is a whisker ahead, claiming 30 victories.

O’Shannessy believes Djokovic’s razor-thin margin between his best and worst elevates him to another level.

“All three of these guys have this unbelievable top level, but what Novak’s done, I think, better than the other two is that his range at the low end is not as low,” O’Shannessy said.

“Roger could spray balls, misfire and things would go sideways, and Rafa can go off, particularly when he’s not on clay, but Novak’s low end is higher than any person, I think, who’s ever played the game.”

What O’Shannessy also admires about Djokovic is his insatiable appetite to get better, even after he had established himself as “a legend of the sport”.

“He’s actually not open to improving – he’s demanding of it,” he said.

“I remember him saying in my first year with him, ‘I know there are areas in my game that I’m not doing well and need to do better. I’m hiring you to find those areas I’m under-performing in.’

“He already had 11 slams, that 2015 year, where he went 82-6 [win-loss record], and he’s already a legend of our spot, but he was still wanting to improve and was obsessed with it, really.”

Novk Djokovic plays a backhand to Stefanos Tsitsipas during the men’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis. Credit:AP

Djokovic’s professionalism, diet, strength, and capacity to “lock down” when under pressure also separates him from the other elite.

“When other guys get pushed around, he locks down, drives the energy into the ground and goes nowhere. His backhand is an absolute machine, and the forehand is unleashing hell,” O’Shannessy said.

Not a popularity contest

Everyone seems to have a view on the GOAT debate, but in some quarters it is becoming about more than the numbers, which McNamee says is wrong.

“It has to be objective, not subjective,” McNamee says.

“It’s unfair to have a subjective analysis when you’re talking about the GOAT. People’s likes and preferences are irrelevant. They’ve all made an amazing impact on and off the court. But, to be clear, it is absolutely not a popularity contest.”

What does the future hold?

Djokovic’s coach Goran Ivanisevic believes the superstar still has “two, three more years” playing at the top level due to his fastidious diet and how he looks after his body.

“[When] talking about young guys: they’re here, it’s great for tennis, great for the future of tennis. But you still have these two guys [Djokovic and Nadal] battling,” Ivanisevic said after Sunday night’s final.

McNamee thinks it is premature to make a call on who is the greatest until Djokovic, 35, and Nadal, 36, join Federer in retirement. But given the younger two both boast two extra major titles than the Swiss legend, McNamee is already willing to rank the 41-year-old third.

“It’s down to a race in two, and, the number of slams is the most important measure, but it’s not the only one. If Novak finishes with the most, he becomes the GOAT, but that’s not a done deal,” McNamee said.

“Rafa is still favourite to win at Roland Garros, and Novak, at this stage, can’t play the US Open again [due to being unvaccinated] but is obviously favourite at Wimbledon.

“This grand slam [at the Australian Open] was absolutely critical for Novak because if he didn’t win in Melbourne, I’m not as sure as others he would end up with the most.

“People get caught up with the emotion of Novak playing so well under difficulty here, which is true – it was an incredible performance – and now it’s more likely it will be Novak, but I don’t think it’s fair to Rafa to call it yet.”

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