In an era in which Roger Federer has taken the level of competition to new heights and Rafael Nadal has dominated on a single surface in a way nobody could have previously comprehended, it is Novak Djokovic who now appears destined to be remembered as tennis’ greatest-ever male player.
The Serb’s ruthless 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 victory over Daniil Medvedev in Sunday’s Australian Open final took him to 18 Grand Slam victories, just two shy of the tallies of both Federer and Nadal. The fact that he is showing no signs of letting up suggests it won’t be long before he usurps both.
Djokovic has a lot to thank Rafa and Roger for. Their brilliance in the mid-2000s ensured that anybody with designs on a Grand Slam trophy would have to learn to play a standard of tennis that nobody had ever previously reached in history. By the time Djokovic was winning his second major in Australia in 2011, Federer was already the greatest Grand Slam champion ever with 16 titles and Nadal was on nine. They were dots in the distance.
But in the last decade Novak has seen their brilliance and raised it. With his dominant base-line game, his great first serve and consistently high-percentage second-serve game, he has become practically unplayable in the modern era. During the same period Federer has begun to feel the effects of age and injury, while Nadal’s game on surfaces away from Roland Garros’ clay has not been to the standard Djokovic has set, perhaps in part due to his nagging knee troubles.
All the while, Djokovic has been imperious. But for his indiscipline in smashing a stray ball at the 2020 US Open which hit a line judge and led to his forfeiture, he would likely be just one title behind Federer and Nadal by now, and 2021 might well be the year he pegs at least one of them back. It is hard to bag against Rafa in France, but Djokovic is the favourite to win everywhere else the tennis tour goes.
At the beginning of the 2010s the big question seemed to be whether Djokovic or Andy Murray would become established as the third-best player in the men’s game behind the two greats, but now there is little doubt that Novak will be out on his own before too long.
Federer will be 40 this year and must surely be considering retirement in the near future, while Nadal has won only three titles away from Roland Garros in the last 10 years. And with nobody out of the new crop of leading players showing the sort of consistent quality which has become the norm for tennis’ Fab Four over the past decade and a half, there would appear to be a clear run for Djokovic to go out and make the history books his own if he maintains his current desire.
Even the madness of playing post-quarantine in the middle of a global pandemic wasn’t enough to throw him off stride in Australia.
“It has been a rollercoaster week for me. I am eternally grateful to my team for all their support and energy,” Djokovic said afterwards. “There are a lot of mixed feelings about what has happened in the last month or so with tennis players coming to Australia but I think when we draw a line at the end it was a successful tournament.”
There are very few that aren’t successful tournaments for Djokovic. He is out on his own as the greatest male player in the sport today, and it won’t be long now before he’s got the Grand Slam record to prove that he is the best of all time.