When discussing tennis history, people’s tastes will always influence and muddy debates about who’s what and the places they hold. Because it’s an individual sport that incorporates so many styles among its players that what one individual prefers watching will always make them lean in one direction or another about the player that lords over the game.
Because, when the argument is reduced simply to what’s on paper or what’s tangible, there’s less and less reason to not anoint Novak Djokovic the best of all time. Djoker racked up his second French Open today, his 19th Grand Slam overall, leaving him one behind Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer. He beat Nadal along the way at Roland Garros, his second win over him in that stadium. The field has one. He has a winning record against both. He has won every Grand Slam at least twice, something the other two can’t say. He has a real shot at being the first to collect the calendar Grand Slam, as he’s the defending champion at Wimbledon and he’s won three times in New York. Assuming he doesn’t get himself tossed again, he’ll be the favoire there too.
Djokovic also had to go into deeper water to win this tournament than ever before, somehow escaping the clutches of the hydra Nadal in the semis in over three hours (including the third set which some will tell you was the best set of tennis ever played) and then coming back from down two sets to none in the final against Stefanos Tsitsipas in over four. He hadn’t done the latter before, and no one had ever really broken down Nadal at the French in the way Djokovic did. The last time Djokovic beat Nadal in Paris, Nadal was having physical issues, so it wasn’t much of a surprise then. This time, Nadal was looking to be nearly as much on auto-pilot as he was last year when he didn’t drop a set. As Djokovic said, beating Nadal at the French is probably the hardest task in sports. It’s the biggest “home” advantage. It’s as if the Islanders not only had their rabid home base but could also have the ice surface tilt or rotate in ways to benefit them.
Once Djokovic came out on top in that third set, where each player redefined the term (shot-making), Nadal looked beat in a way he almost never does. His body started to give in, he looked tired, and most of all he looked resigned. This is not something that happens to a player who plays every point as if it’s his last. Nadal hit the star-button punch, missed, and then was fodder.
In the final, that effort looked like it had taken too much out of Djokovic in the first two sets. Tsitsipas, himself having been in a near four-hour semi, was springy and vicious, pummeling forehands and serves wherever he wanted and lasering one-handed backhands that couldn’t help but make one think of Federer in his pomp. He brutalized a seemingly spent Djokovic in the second set 6-2.
But the thing about Djokovic, other than his other worldly fitness levels, is that his game doesn’t take much to correct when it goes off the boil. When Federer starts spraying backhands, you feel like he might never get it back and that level of precision can be a needle in a haystack to relocate. Nadal usually breaks down physically when he does lose, and that only gets solved by rest.
Djokovic’s game is just about clean and efficient hitting, so he just needs to adjust the dial on his sites a click or two instead of engaging in a massive overhaul. The tide turned in the third set’s fourth game, an 11-minute taffy pull that saw Tsitsipas fight off four break points before succumbing to the fifth.
And maybe that’s one of the big reasons only Djokovic’s most ardent fans choose him over Federer or Nadal. Whereas Federer stands for elegance and Nadal barely controlled fury, the defining adjective for Djokovic is obstinance. He just leans on opponents. There aren’t defining shots, though he’s more than capable of them as the semifinal showcased. It’s just the repeated ground game of returns and groundstrokes hit so deep so consistently and watching his opponents fold up like tin foil. No one can live under that constant drone and hum of pressure of every ball landing near their ankles, pushing them somewhere near the concession stand when the point is over. And the longer a match goes, the more likely Djokovic is to win. He drags everyone to deep water, and then basically leaves them alone and watches them drown.
Djokovic found his second serve, wasn’t broken in the third, fourth, or fifth set, and even for a four-hour, five set match, his win seemed...routine. It just moved orderly to the finish, as it always seems to do with Djokovic. He leaned and leaned on Tsitsipas until the Greek just backed up and backed up and then fell over.
So it must be aesthetics. Djokovic is unquestionably galaxy-brained. He has the far more interesting background than Federer or Nadal, emerging from modest means in a war-torn country. Yet sympathy for Serbians always seems to run short. Back in the day he exhibited a sense of humor that neither of the other two have but really only got him in trouble in tennis’s decidedly stuffy world.
You can tell the way he openly begs for crowd support either during or after matches that it matters to him. That he recognizes he generates more appreciation and respect than straight love and adulation.
Maybe the day will come when he just is happy to have all the accomplishments and wins. Starting to look like he’ll have more of those than anyone else.