- 22 Feb 2021
On the heels of Novak Djokovic’s latest coronation in Australia, the GOAT debate is once again percolating among the tennis cognoscenti. It’s not a surprise. The Big Three have won 58 of 70 Grand Slam titles since Roger Federer claimed his maiden Wimbledon title in 2003. That’s 82.8571 percent if you’re scoring at home. An impressive strike rate for all three ascendant GOATs.
On Sunday it was Djokovic painting a picture of dominance as he barreled past Daniil Medvedev in under two hours to snag another slice of Grand Slam history by winning his 18th major title. So he’s the GOAT now, right?
Not so fast, it’s a fluid situation, and there’s lots of tennis to be played…
18 Grand Slams for Djokovic 🏆
— ATP Tour (@atptour) February 21, 2021
Novak takes aim on… Margaret Court?
The tennis world has been watching Serena Williams attempt to tie Margaret Court’s Grand Slam record (24 major singles titles) since 2017. Maybe in a few years’ time we’ll be watching Djokovic chase the same dream.
Djokovic appears to have enough spring in his step to catch every player – male or female – ahead of him on the Grand Slam singles title list. Let your imagination wander: Can you go there?
Ivanisevic (Djokovic's coach) : "These guys are still producing steps and steps in every final. Maybe they will surpass Maragaret Court (24 Slams) and Serena Williams (23). I still think Rafa (20) and Novak (18) will overtake Roger (20)." #AusOpen #live
— Tennis Majors (@Tennis_Majors) February 21, 2021
Federer falling down the ladder
But first Djokovic must catch Nadal and Federer. The “OG” – or original GOAT – on the men’s side is Federer. The Swiss maestro has been top of the pops in the Grand Slam title race since passing Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2009. But now Federer shares that distinction with Nadal, who joined his rival and friend when he won his 20th major title at Roland-Garros in October.
How much longer can Federer delay the inevitable? At 39, he’s down a few sets to Father Time, never mind his main rivals. And on Sunday it has been made very clear: the galloping thoroughbred named Djokovic is putting himself in position to catch – and pass – both Federer and Nadal.
“You know, you don’t know where is the end of these guys,” Goran Ivanisevic, Djokovic’s coach, said last night in Melbourne. “They’re unbelievable. They are producing better and better tennis.”
Djokovic, who will turn 34 in May, is the youngest of the ascendant GOATs, with the most room to run. Ivanisevic believes that he’ll win at least three more majors, and maybe a lot more.
“It’s just great. The race is there. Who knows,” says Ivanisevic. “I said a couple years ago: Rafa and Novak, they are going to overtake Roger, both of them. I still believe that. I still think so.”
Shifting focus – Djokovic wants more Slams
Djokovic missed out on a few big opportunities to close the gap on Nadal and Federer in 2020, with Wimbledon being cancelled and his disqualification at the US Open, but now that he’s won again in Australia, the public’s perception of what Djokovic can accomplish has shifted again.
It’s difficult to imagine a world where Djokovic doesn’t win at least one more Slam in 2021, and maybe he’ll win two more. The Serb has locked up one of his two biggest goals by securing the record for the most all-time weeks at No 1 (he’ll break this record on March 8), so now he can focus on his stated goal of owning the Slams.
“Now, after achieving the historic No 1 for the longest weeks at No 1, it’s going to be a relief for me because I’m going to focus all my attention on slams mostly,” Djokovic told reporters after Sunday’s final. “When you are going for No. 1 rankings, you kind of have to be playing the entire season and you have to be playing well, you have to play all the tournaments.”
Djokovic is a man that clearly has set his targets high. And he’s not shy about the subject.
“Whether I think about winning more slams and breaking records, of course. Of course, I do,” he said. “And most of my attention and my energy from this day forward, until I retire from tennis, is going to be directed in majors, trying to win more major trophies.”
Beware: Recency bias is real
Given that Nadal and Djokovic have claimed the last two major titles in such impressive fashion, it’s natural to assume that the pair can maintain their dominance at Roland-Garros and Australia respectively, for years to come. Already pundits are handing Nadal two more titles in Paris and those same pundits believe that 22 majors won’t be enough to stop Djokovic from overtaking both Nadal and Federer in the Grand Slam title race.
But Grand Slam titles aren’t won by pundits, years in advance. Yes, Nadal and Djokovic did make their most recent triumphs look easy in some ways, but there has been a physical and emotional toll exacted on both players. Djokovic was nearly compromised due to injury in Melbourne, and it’s no guarantee that a similar injury wouldn’t have a far more deleterious effect a year from now, or two years from now.
Is it wrong to believe that Djokovic can win five more major titles? No. It does seem quite possible. But we must take into account the enormity of the task and the role that time will play in the equation. The Serb will be racing his biological clock while simultaneously trying to fend off his challengers.
He knows they are coming for him, but after last night Djokovic is confident that he can hold those challengers off, at least for a few more years.
“Dominic [Thiem] has contested in several Grand Slam finals before he actually got a trophy, got a win,” Djokovic said. “How long is it going to take for maybe Zverev or Tsitsipas or Medvedev to do the same? I don’t know. But they seem awfully close. I mean, Medvedev was definitely a guy to beat today. I mean, 20-match winning streak. Tsitsipas, Zverev, Medvedev, they all won World Tour Finals, multiple Masters 1000 events and high ranking. They have all contested in semis and finals of slams, so it’s just a matter of time.”
For now, there is no GOAT, and maybe there will never be…
An important caveat to this conversation: GOAT talk is an exercise in futility, at least until each of the Big 3 have retired. And even then how can we really say which player is better? If we decide that one of the three stands head and shoulders above the rest, how can we say that player also outshines a legend from the past like Pete Sampras or Bjorn Borg or Rod Laver?
As we’ve said before, GOAT debates are fun to have. They sell papers, enhance click rates and drive up social media engagement. They also push us into healthy debates about what makes a tennis player truly great. Slam titles, head-to-head dominance, performance across all surfaces, athletic prowess, rankings and mass appeal all play a role in the perception of a tennis player’s greatness, and when we dissect the fine points it can be an illuminating experience.
But too often GOAT talk does a disservice to legends of the past in favor of the current candidates. Let us not forget that the contributions of Budge, King, Perry, Navratilova, Laver, Graf, Borg, Seles and Sampras. Each has done heavy lifting in laying the groundwork for the current generation.
Tennis is a giant quilt, with the contributions of the legends of the past woven into the progress of its current stars. Djokovic, Federer and Nadal are indeed rewriting the record books, and they’ve earned the right to be considered along with the greats of the past, just as the greats of the future will likely earn the right to be considered along with them.