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An Open Debate

Might Novak Djokovic, despite his loss this weekend, be the greatest tennis player of all time?

By Eric Wills | September 13, 2021
Novak Djokovic competing at the Eastbourne International tournament, 2017 (Wikimedia Commons)
Novak Djokovic competing at the Eastbourne International tournament, 2017 (Wikimedia Commons)

Not that long ago now—just a generation-and-a-half in tennis terms—Pete Sampras stepped to the microphone at the Arthur Ashe Stadium during the 2003 U.S. Open and made his retirement official. Eyes welling, upper lip quivering—his emotions always ran closer to the surface than his stoic on-court persona suggested—Sampras was awarded a commemorative plaque forgettable in every respect except that it recorded the prevailing belief back then: “Sampras’s 14 Grand Slam titles are a mark which are likely to stand for all time.” Boris Becker, hair spiked like a boy-band member for the occasion, echoed the sentiment: “I’m very proud to be part of a generation that produced the very best.”

Looking back, it’s difficult to fathom how quickly, how suddenly, that belief would be upended, with Roger Federer ascending the throne, Rafael Nadal casting off his reputation as a clay-court specialist and becoming a bona fide rival, and Novak Djokovic himself starting to hoist major hardware, the three combining to usher in a golden age of tennis—a sporting Camelot where topspin and Grand Slam titles are the preferred currency. What a charmed time to be a tennis fan. And what a sticky question raised by the dominance of the Big Three, each of whom has won 20 majors—60 out of the last 73: Who is the GOAT, the greatest of all time?

This weekend, in the finals of the U.S. Open, Djokovic had a chance to make a compelling closing argument on his behalf, the kind that even Johnny Cochran would have had difficulty spinning. With a win against Daniil Medvedev, the 25-year-old Russian, he would have gone one up on Federer and Nadal in major titles and would have secured the calendar Grand Slam (all four majors in a single year). Rod Laver was the last man to manage the feat—in 1969.

But just as Djokovic was on the verge of bringing some clarity to the debate, the lanky and crafty Medvedev stood tall against the prevailing tides, his decisive straight-sets victory leaving Djokovic to ponder a season that will end up being as much about what could have been as what was. The period of mourning will likely be short. With Federer and Nadal at long last appearing to lose their mystical ability to stave off Father Time—both missed the U.S. Open with injuries—Djokovic will likely win his 21st major next year and renew his claim to the mantle of GOAT.

And yet, for all its numerical merit, the case for Djokovic feels wanting somehow. He has never inspired the kind of adulation that Federer has. When the Swiss alighted on the scene, it was as if some futuristic species of athlete had arisen from the detritus of champions past and charted a new evolutionary course for the sport. David Foster Wallace could make the case for “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” as he did in the now-defunct Play magazine, and not worry that any irony would be read into the undertaking. Nor, for that matter, has Federer ever created a public spectacle the likes of what Djokovic managed at last year’s U.S. Open, when he was disqualified for swatting a ball in anger that struck a lineswoman in the throat. A certain segment of tennis fans has always been infatuated with the bad-boy personalities of the sport: John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase. But I’ve always been firmly in the Martin Amis camp, which holds that personality in tennis is nothing more than a euphemism for asshole. Not that Djokovic is an asshole, per se, but he lacks some of the grace and finesse of Federer and Nadal; he has always been less capable of shielding his flaws from public view. And he’s always been needier, yearning to be liked in a way that repels instead of attracts.

If that rings petty, let me assure you that there is also a numbers-based case that can be mounted against Djokovic. He has benefited, especially this year, from operating in a kind of vacuum: with Federer and Nadal on the wane, and the next generation still struggling to step up, Djokovic has been left to fill the void, padding his résumé like a straggler at a wedding reception making off with the last of the booze. In this context, it’s worth noting that the Big Three all have benefited from advances in technology and nutrition that have enabled them to win slams far deeper into their 30s than previous generations. Sampras retired at 32 with another slam or two left on his racquet. Laver won his last at 31. Federer is now 40, and Djokovic, at 34, appears far from done. It’s also worth noting that during the tenure of the Big Three, only Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray mounted any kind of legitimate challenge to their primacy. Were the Big Three that much better, or was the chasing pack that much worse than in prior generations?

When comparing different generations, there’s another overarching issue at play, one that’s more difficult to square: How many fans still among us have witnessed the full sweep of modern tennis history—Laver, Borg, Sampras, the Big Three—on Centre Court at Wimbledon? A recency bias plagues these discussions, as well as what we might call a timing bias—the athletes who made us feel something when we were a certain age, especially when we were coming of age, tend to carry the most sway with us. In my teens and early 20s, I was a Sampras fan, not only because of the exquisite aesthetics of his serve and the slam-dunk overheads, but because his placid demeanor would, in key moments, dissolve to reveal the beating heart of the man himself. During the 1996 U.S. Open, in the decisive fifth-set tiebreaker of his quarterfinal match against Alex Corretja, Sampras, dehydrated and doubled-over with cramps, vomited the Pepsi he drank on a changeover, drawing a time-delay warning from the umpire, before he saved a match point with a desperate stretch volley, then on pure guts summoned a second-serve ace that precipitated his victory. I had never seen anything like it on a tennis court. It was raw, almost animalistic, the likes of which you might witness in the later rounds of a heavyweight fight. Under the lights of Flushing Meadows, it was mesmerizing for how it revealed the depths of the game, for how it showed that it was about more than technical brilliance or athletic artistry or a kick-ass forehand.

Djokovic may continue to pad his slam total. Or perhaps Medvedev’s victory this weekend will mark an inflection point, the end of the Big Three and the start of whatever comes next. Either way, the center of gravity in the GOAT arguments will undoubtedly continue to shift in favor of the recent past, even as some of us carry our own personal attachments that resist any numerical persuasion. Let the debate continue.

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