Novak Djokovic won the Shanghai Masters last week, adding another important title to his victories at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Cincinnati Masters this year. After a year-long struggle against injury, and an elbow surgery, he is dominating tennis again. But despite his statistical brilliance, he is often overshadowed by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
ThePrint asks: With Djokovic’s recent wins, is it time to anoint him king of tennis over Federer & Nadal?
Djokovic is king, and has a five-year window to surpass the other legends
I am a crazy Rafael Nadal fan who grew up watching him burst the bubble of Roger Federer’s invincibility. But then came 2011. Suddenly, Novak Djokovic emerged as a completely transformed player, who has since got the better of both. He owns a 27-25 head-to-head record against Nadal and 24-22 against Federer.
Die-hard Federer fans argue that Djokovic could improve his record against the Swiss master only because the latter was no longer in his prime. But “not-in-his-prime” Federer hardly faces any difficulty against players not named Nadal or Djokovic. He still reaches Grand Slam finals effortlessly, only to lose to Djokovic. The same holds true for Nadal who, with the exception of 2013, has continuously failed to outperform Djokovic on non-clay surfaces this decade.
When Djokovic struggled with injury from mid-2017 to mid-2018, both Federer and Nadal made merry, sharing six straight slams (3 each), taking their tallies to 20 and 16 respectively. But as soon as he was fit, Djokovic once again closed the gap by winning two straight slams, taking himself level with the legendary Pete Sampras (14).
At 31, Djokovic is younger than both the oft-injured Nadal (32) and Federer (37). Advancements in medical technology, coupled with a lack of any promising youngsters, provide Djokovic a good five-year window to surpass the other two. In terms of other titles like Masters 1000s and ATP Finals, he has either already matched their numbers or left them behind.
If numbers don’t lie, and they don’t, then Djokovic is the tennis king of this generation.
All hail King Djoker, the entertaining anti-Federer!
I’d like to answer the question with one of my own: Do we need to indulge in these pointless debates about picking one ‘king’ over another? Can’t we adopt a sort of Roman triumvirate system where all three of them can be co-rulers of this ‘world’?
Let’s face it — fans of men’s tennis who have lived through the last decade-and-a-half have been the most blessed generation. They may or may not have seen the likes of Rod Laver and Jimmy Connors, Björn Borg and Boris Becker, John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg, and Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi in their prime, but they’ve been lucky to see all that the sport of tennis can offer — the metronomic finesse of Federer, the superhuman stamina of Nadal, and a true master-of-all-trades in Djokovic.
Gloves off, here’s the truth: I’ve never liked Roger Federer. What with him being so dominant and so perfect, I’ve always rooted — mostly unsuccessfully — for the Andy Roddicks of the world to topple him.
In Rafael Nadal lies the perfect antithesis to Federer — technique versus heart, grass versus clay, serve-and-volley versus baseline play, roboticism versus raw energy (accompanied by screams of effort). And he toppled Federer on his turf in a head-to-head final battle, winning Wimbledon in 2008.
Then, there are the many facets of Novak Djokovic. Djokovic the adaptable, Djokovic the fit. Djokovic the possessor of the better head-to-head record against both these all-time greats. Djokovic the all-time leader in prize money, ahead of Federer and Nadal, in that order.
The race is too close to call in tennis terms. So I’ll cheat my way to the answer. I’ll pick the guy who’s a hoot, on and off the court. Not just the anti-Federer, but the entertaining one. All hail King Djoker!
Djokovic is an inconvenient thorn in our Federer-Nadal nostalgia, not ‘king’
Great rivalries are what make sport interesting — Real Madrid vs Barcelona, India vs Pakistan, LA Lakers vs Boston Celtics, and of course, Federer vs Nadal. Perhaps Djokovic’s biggest misfortune is playing in an era that does not, and cannot, belong to him.
Every hero needs an arch-nemesis. Legend, born from history, also creates itself the way reality is experienced — chronologically: First come, first serve. Djokovic came later, he came alone, and he came from Serbia.
Statistically, the answer is simple: Djokovic has won more matches against Federer and Nadal than they have won against him. Significantly, Federer, considered to be ‘the greatest to ever play tennis’ has been defeated more number of times by Nadal and Djokovic than he has won.
But sport is all about the feeling — we cry and scream and cheer for the underdog despite all logical evidence to the contrary. Winning isn’t always about actually winning, but how many people cheered for you even when you lost.
Djokovic can never be king, because the crowd sometimes cheers when he gets a time violation. And while he may combine the strength of Nadal and the grace of Federer to deliver a lethal combination in skill, he isn’t winning the popularity contest. Nadal has ferocity and fortitude, and Federer has gentleman manners and an effortless grace, but Djokovic is the jester — fun to watch only as long as you don’t take him too seriously. Tennis, unfortunately, has always taken itself too seriously.
Djokovic is a disruptor from ‘some country further East’, worming his way to the top. An inconvenient thorn in our Federer-Nadal nostalgia.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Djokovic supporter. But that’s also because I never liked the prom king.
Nothing comes close to Federer’s aura of invincibility from early to mid-2000s
Novak Djokovic’s victory in Shanghai laid to rest any doubts about his return to the top of the men’s tennis. The Serb has had one of the best seasons of his career with such a comeback post-30, which is no mean feat even if M/s Federer and Nadal might make it seem so.
His tally now stands at 14 grand slam wins, at par with Pete Sampras, three shy of Nadal (17) and six less than Federer’s 20 (an all-time record).
His comeback has invariably fuelled the debate about the greatest men’s player of this generation. As an ardent fan of Roger Federer, it’s difficult to not have a bias, but I shall try to keep it at bay.
Statistics and number may tell a story, but reducing any sport to mere numbers is folly. The game is defined by competition and rivalry that enthral spectators. In my mind, there is no doubt that this generation of tennis has been defined by Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Their contrasting style and on-court persona along with a career-defining rivalry has made watching the game a pleasure.
While some may prefer to define sporting success through statistics, I come from the school that roots more for the human aspects of the game and how passionately it is played.
Indeed nothing in my mind comes close to Federer’s aura of invincibility from the early to mid-2000s and the effortless ease with which he did it all. While his younger peers may have years on their side, their coronation as the best is still not due. None other than Toni Nadal said this: “Nobody did what he achieved. Rod Laver was also very good, but no one has 20 Grand Slams”.
By Achyut Mishra, journalist at ThePrint.
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