The four times Djokovic had seemingly lost the Grand Slam race…And how he likely won it for good
Let’s see how Novak Djokovic defied the odds to be become the Greatest (Statistically) Of All Time, winning more Grand Slam trophies than his rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Once upon a time, somewhere between 2008-2010, 2012-2014, or 2016-2018, or when Roger Federer went one point away from the 2019 Wimbledon title, or when Rafael Nadal humiliated him in the 2020 Roland-Garros final, or when he was deported from Australia and banned from entering the United States in 2022, it seemed like Novak Djokovic, who started third, was inevitably going to fall short in that never-ending, always-scaling Grand Slam race between the three greatest players to ever grace men’s tennis.
We collectively – I personally – should have picked up the clues, and should have known better. Last year at Wimbledon, on Federer’s beloved grass, Djokovic forever broke away with the Swiss by winning his 21st Major, and today at Roland-Garros, on Nadal’s beloved clay, he broke away with the Spaniard, presumably forever too, by winning his 23rd, dizzying heights only Serena Williams could touch.
That does not mean the GOAT debate is over – it will always live on, because there are many vastly different components to greatness – but it certainly puts him above his two rivals in the numerical category that matters most. On June 11, 2023, Novak Djokovic stands atop – alone – for the very first time. Remarkably, for most of the journey, the odds were not in his favour…
2008 – 2010 : Grand Slam Hangover
Fresh off capturing his maiden Grand Slam title at the 2008 Australian Open, Djokovic experiences a 30-month slump at Grand Slam level, losing to the likes of Marat Safin, Philipp Kohlschreiber, Tommy Haas, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Tomas Berdych before the semi-final stage.
Against Federer and Nadal, who keep piling up Major trophies in that interval (four and six respectively), Djokovic systematically comes up empty-handed – including in the 2010 US Open, his first Grand Slam final in two and a half years, where a 24-year-old Nadal (one year his elder) becomes the youngest man to complete the Career Grand Slam…
• Federer 16 / Nadal 10 / Djokovic 1
•Odds to finish at the top : Federer 49,5% / Nadal 49,5% / Djokovic 1%
Having won four out of five possible Grand Slams – securing one of the most extraordinary finals in tennis history at the 2012 Australian Open against Nadal – and spectacularly reshaped his career, Djokovic fails to capitalize, going through another 30-month (relative) slump with just two titles out of eleven possible. Meanwhile, Nadal regains his momentum, denying him at both Roland-Garros and the US Open.
Albeit still the outright leader, Federer – who has left his 20s – seems unlikely to break the 20 Grand Slam titles mark. Can Nadal catch him? As far as Djokovic is concerned, his loss in the 2014 US Open semi-finals to Kei Nishikori seals his third year in a row with just one Major. He remains far from touching distance, and his average is not enough…
• Federer 17 / Nadal 14 / Djokovic 7
• Odds to finish at the top : Nadal 50% / Federer 40% / Djokovic 10%
2016-2018 : Fedal from affar
At the very pinnacle of his career (Djokovic’s 2016 Roland-Garros title makes him the first man since Rod Laver to hold the four Grand Slams simulaltenously), personal and physical issues derail the world No.1 from his history-making run. Obeying the law of communicating vessels, Nadal – who had his own issues across 2015-2016 – returns to winning ways at Roland-Garros and the US Open.
More worryingly, Federer seems to have rediscovered the Fountain of Youth as he improbably takes his tally to 20 within just twelve months, with two Australian Opens – the first in clutch fashion against Nadal – and one Wimbledon. Whether sidelined or stunned, in the 2017 Australian Open second round against Denis Istomin and the 2018 Roland-Garros quarter-finals against Marco Cecchinato (perhaps his lowest point), Djokovic has seemingly left the equation – and the Grand Slam race…
• Federer 20 / Nadal 17 / Djokovic 12
• Odds to finish at the top : Federer 50% /Nadal 40% / Djokovic 10%
Unpredictible COVID years
Just as he fires on all cylinders again (he clinches five out of seven possible Grand Slams between 2018 Wimbledon and the 2020 Australian Open, and comes within one win of the Calendar Grand Slam in 2021), the pandemic indirectly alters Djokovic’s ability to compete for Grand Slam titles – his decision not to get vaccinated forcing him to sit out the 2022 Australian Open and 2022 US Open.
Once more, Nadal ruthlessly takes advantage, flamboyantly claiming his first Australian Open in 13 years and recapturing his Paris bastion. With Federer soon to retire, Nadal is Djokovic’s lone remaining target, and the Spaniard has just landed two blows that could prove decisive…
• Nadal 22 / Federer 20 / Djokovic 20
•Odds to finish at the top : Nadal 55% / Djokovic 45%
Wimbledon, 2022 to Roland-Garros 2023 : The final twist surely ?
Three chances. Three titles. Djokovic goes unbeaten – and frankly unbeatable – at Grand Slam level for an entire year, poetically surpassing Federer (21 at Wimbledon) and Nadal (23 at Roland-Garros) on their respective turves.
With Nadal casting shadows over his future and hinting at a possible retirement after the Paris Olympics, Djokovic’s new Grand Slam record looks all but locked. So why give Nadal a 3% chance, then? Well, these were his odds to win the 2022 Australian Open final against Daniil Medvedev from two sets down…
•Djokovic 23 / Nadal 22 / Federer 20
• Odds to finish at the top: Djokovic 97% / Nadal 3%