Advantage, Novak Djokovic in the race to be tennis’ GOAT

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MELBOURNE, Australia — There’s an inevitability about Novak Djokovic playing tennis at Rod Laver Arena.

It’s the feeling that regardless of what year we’re in, who stands on the other side of the net and just how lopsided the crowd support might be in favor of his opponent, it’s still Djokovic who will prevail.

Djokovic, 35, did just that on Sunday evening for the 28th consecutive time at Melbourne Park. The Serbian dispatched third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) to clinch a record 10th Australian Open title, one that draws him equal with rival Rafael Nadal for the most major titles (22) in men’s tennis — the pair having left longtime leader Roger Federer in their wake with 20.

As Djokovic hugged each member of his players’ box, and before he was able to raise the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup, a familiar discussion began to circulate. Who is tennis’ GOAT? And while it’s near impossible to definitively answer this until the Big Three era has officially drawn to a close, there’s no doubt Djokovic’s fortnight Down Under has seen him put his nose in front, once again.

Federer has now hung up his racket and Nadal faces yet another injury layoff. Meanwhile, here’s Djokovic, winning Slams. Earlier in the tournament, he said, “I know I’m in the last quarter of my career,” and while that may be accurate, his tennis would suggest he’s not close to being finished. In fact, what he showcased over the past fortnight in Melbourne, all while battling a nagging hamstring strain, is not all that far away from peak-of-his-power Djokovic.

For the third time in his career, Djokovic dropped just one set along his journey to an Australian Open title. He humiliated local hero Alex de Minaur in the fourth round, repeated the dose against fifth-seeded Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinals and cruised by American Tommy Paul in a lopsided semifinal.

Tsitsipas, the world No. 4, was to be his greatest challenge, but he passed that test with ease, repeating the result of the 2021 French Open final. He kept the unforced errors low all while battering the ball from behind the baseline and hustling after anything Tsitsipas sent over the net. As always, Djokovic found an extra gear when the situation required it. Two tiebreaks? No problem.

“I did everything possible. There’s nothing I could have extracted more. Novak is a player who pushes you to your limits,” said a deflated Tsitsipas after the final. “I think he’s the greatest who has ever held a tennis racket. The numbers speak for themselves. He has earned it with so much dedication he’s put in and professionalism.”

An exceptional and unparalleled return game is what has made Djokovic such a force on the ATP tour for 15 years. At this tournament, he struck more return winners than any other player and was the only man to win over 40% of first-serve points and 60% of second-serve points when returning.

But it might have been his serving that caught the eye most. Djokovic led the field in service games won (94%), ranked in the top 10 for first serve points won and saved 79% of break points. He was broken just once from 17 games in the final.

“It was honestly some of the best tennis I’ve ever played on this court,” Djokovic declared after the match, referring to his stunning fortnight at Melbourne Park. “I would rank it right up there. Maybe top two, three of all time of performances on Slams.”

So Djokovic now sits at 22. But no matter whether your allegiances lie with Federer, Nadal or Djokovic, there’s no denying the Serbian’s Slam wins figure could have grown significantly higher over the past 30 months, if not for the pandemic and some polarizing personal decisions.

He missed the opportunity to defend his Wimbledon title in 2020 when the event was canceled due to COVID-19. Sure, the title was no certainty, but he hasn’t lost a match at Wimbledon since 2017.

Two months later, Djokovic was sensationally defaulted from the US Open after striking a linesperson with a ball during his fourth-round match. Again, there’s no guarantee he would have lifted the silverware, but with a number of his main rivals sitting out the event for various reasons — notably Nadal and Federer — few were brave enough to pick against him.

And in 2022, he was unable to compete in the Australian Open or US Open because his COVID-19 vaccination stance wouldn’t allow him to legally enter either country.

Djokovic was or would have been the odds-on favorite in all four of those majors. Even playing it conservatively, he would have likely added at least two more to his total. Had one of them been last year’s Australian Open, he could very easily be sitting on 25 after his most recent triumph, leading Nadal’s 21. An insurmountable gap.

But enough of the hypotheticals. The reality is Djokovic and Nadal are locked at 22-22. Even still, it’s advantage, Djokovic.

Djokovic has now won five of the past seven majors he has contested — his two failures coming in the 2021 US Open final and the 2022 French Open quarterfinals — and by any logical metric he’s the undisputed best player in the world. Heck, we’re not even 18 months removed from him falling one match short of the coveted calendar Slam.

Meanwhile, Nadal, 36, is set to miss up to two months of tennis after suffering a Grade 2 iliopsoas injury during his straight-sets loss in the second round to American Mackenzie McDonald. But even prior to the injury, the Spaniard was in the midst of perhaps the greatest form slump of his professional career. Some prominent figures in the sport are doubting he will ever return to anything close to his best.

“[Nadal’s loss to McDonald] was already the first step towards his retirement,” tennis great Boris Becker said on Eurosport Germany’s Matchball Becker show. “An injury like that is hard, and at this age, it takes even longer to get back into shape. I think his days are numbered.”

By contrast, Djokovic’s coach Goran Ivanišević believes his man can continue playing at an elite level for the foreseeable future.

“The way he’s taking care of his body and approaching everything … two to three years, for sure,” declared Ivanišević after the final. “The guy is unbelievable. I don’t know how to describe it in words.”

Djokovic, too, says he isn’t eyeing the finish line just yet.

“I am motivated to win as many Slams as possible,” he told reporters as he eyed off his latest trophy. “At this stage of my career, these trophies are the biggest motivational factor of why I still compete. I really don’t want to stop here. I don’t have intention to stop here.

“I know that when I’m feeling good physically, mentally present, I have a chance to win any Slam against anybody. Of course, 35 is not 25, even though I want to believe it is, but I still feel there is time ahead of me. Let’s see how far I go.”

While Djokovic is the favorite to end his career with the most Grand Slam titles, it shouldn’t be the only measure used when considering tennis’ GOAT.

Djokovic also owns the record for the most weeks as the No. 1 player in the world (373), the most Masters 1000 titles (38), and has accumulated more prize money than anyone else in the sport. He has amassed the most ATP Player of the Year awards (7) and is tied with Federer for the most ATP Finals wins (6). Think of just about any tennis record and Djokovic’s name more often than not is at the top of the list.

Another factor working in Djokovic’s favor is his winning record against both of his great rivals. He leads the Nadal head-to-head 30-29 and Federer 27-23.

Tennis’ GOAT debate will be argued for years to come. Decades, probably. Some will say Federer, some will say Nadal. Others will argue Serena Williams or Margaret Court. But if nobody ever struck a tennis ball again, you’d be hard-pressed not having Djokovic at the top of the pile.

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