In her perspective piece on Rafael Nadal — written Saturday after the most historically significant men’s match played at the 2018 Wimbledon tournament — Tennis With An Accent staff writer Briana Foust noted that Nadal doesn’t measure himself by what others have.
Bri recalled a Nadal quote from after the French Open, in which the 11-time Roland Garros champion said he didn’t measure himself or his career by Roger Federer’s 20 major titles. Nadal punctuated that quote by saying: “You have to do your way.”
This is instructive on so many levels. First, the tennis player walks his (or her) journey alone… and we love tennis for that reason. This is the sport which, at the majors for both genders, involves no on-court coaching. We love the challenge tennis poses to its practitioners. We love the fact that players have to figure things out on their own, handle tough situations, walk over the hot coals of pressure, ride the emotional roller-coasters which are part of elite athletic competitions, and tame the voices in the head which are part of any stressful experience.
The journey of the tennis player belongs to that player alone, at least in the sense that only the player himself can decide what happens in pivotal moments. Only the player himself can make tough choices about coaches to hire, fire, or rehire; which tournaments to play; how to tweak his game; how to deal with the media; how to react to what his competitors are doing. Players do share their victories and professional triumphs with family, friends, coaches and fans, but the doing — the working, the problem-solving — is up to them. That work can be inspired or improved by what other people do. The player, though, must take the steps, turning walking into running, and complete the race.
This is why merely counting major titles and assuming the GOAT debate rests on that category alone — or at least primarily — is such a trap, and also such an easy way out of the conversation.
NOTE number one: I do believe the major tournaments should carry a lot of weight when considering how great tennis players are. They are called majors for a reason. They require more of tennis players for a reason. Playing them well should definitely count a lot.
NOTE number two: Saying the majors matter more shouldn’t mean that the Masters 1000s are a minor point. Two things — three, four, five things — can all matter a lot at the same time.
NOTE number three: The two notes above reinforce a very simple point about GOAT debates or other very familiar, often tiring, water-cooler or sports-bar conversations: The quality of debate is often very poor. Why is this the case? Because people look at surface numbers or assume that making Statement A about Topic X automatically diminishes or excludes Statement B about Topic Y.
I love a good GOAT debate, but tennis commentators often fail to generate a good GOAT debate by staying on the surface of a discussion instead of going deeper. The context is the discussion, not the surface, but discussions often never go below the surface. That’s the problem.
That’s also why Novak Djokovic — when he completed the Novak Slam at the 2016 French Open — already did merit ample discussion and consideration as the greatest men’s tennis player of all time. His 13th major title and fourth Wimbledon, won Sunday in a predictable and almost entirely routine final against a gallant but physically taxed Kevin Anderson, offer both a reminder and a reinforcement of that point. Djokovic has now joined Roger Federer and the aforementioned Nadal in coming back from an injury to win a major. He has moved into sole possession of fourth place on the all-time major title list. This win dramatically increases the chances that Djokovic will surpass Pete Sampras’s 14 majors before his career is over, enabling each of the Big 3 to finish 1, 2 and 3 — order yet to be determined — on the major title list.
Djokovic, if he can play this well at age 36 (as Roger Federer is doing and has done), could climb up the charts and surpass both Federer and Nadal… or he might not. The point right now, in a moment such as this, is not to predict the future, but to assess the meaning of this moment and the career attached to it for Djokovic.
People who stay on the surface of the GOAT debate will look at Federer’s 20, Nadal’s 17, and Djokovic’s 13. People interested in a fuller and genuinely good discussion will say a few things, one of them that we need to wait until all three careers are over before making “lockdown-style” pronouncements. Another thing mature GOAT debaters will offer is this: Even if Djokovic doesn’t win as many majors as Fedal, let’s remember where we were at the end of 2010. Federer had 16 majors, Nadal had nine and was coming off arguably his best season, the only one in which he captured three major titles. Djokovic had just his one major, the 2008 Australian Open, a tournament which did not open the floodgates for the Serb in any larger sense. Djokovic was THEN the clear No. 3 player in the world, the man clearly several steps below his two peers.
Djokovic was THEN the unproven player who had to show something special to declare that he truly belonged.
Djokovic was THEN the player who had to change the equation relative to the Big 3.
Djokovic was THEN the player who didn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Fedal.
It was THEN that Djokovic stood in the shadows of giants.
Beginning in 2011 — or one could fairly say, at the 2010 Davis Cup or the 2010 U.S. Open, also entirely legitimate answers — Djokovic began a run in which he has now won 12 majors in the heart of the Fedal era, against the teeth and competitive chops presented by the Fedal axis.
Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova both have “only” 18 majors because they beat each other so many times and were there to stop the other — Chris against Martina at Roland Garros, with the roles reversed at Wimbledon. Steffi Graf had Monica Seles as a rival for a few years, but not after the stabbing which sadly yet undeniably changed the course of tennis history. Pete Sampras had Andre Agassi as a rival, but that rivalry was uneven because Agassi had so many reinventions and disappearances during his career. Connors, Borg, McEnroe and Lendl all had each other to varying degrees.
No, I don’t think a lot of tennis commentators or casual fans truly and fully appreciate — not yet — how amazing it is for any man to have looked Federer and Nadal in the eye, at the end of 2010 and the start of 2011, and then won 12 majors… and counting. Those 12 majors (added to the 2008 Australian Open) have the weight of even more majors. The numbers don’t tell the whole story. Statistics have their place, but context fills in the gaps and blank pages of the great book of history.
This isn’t a way of saying, “Djokovic is conclusively the best.” No one should derive that conclusion from this latest major title at Wimbledon, which was finalized by beating Anderson but essentially won by outdueling Nadal, 10-8 in the fifth, on Saturday.
The point is simply this: Djokovic is not an appendage or afterthought. He stands on his own, second to none, as an author of remarkable tennis achievements. Saying “but Federer has 20 and Rafa has 17” does a disservice not only to the depth and breadth of Djokovic’s achievements, but to the larger act of debate and discussion.
In a collection of essays published last year, I wrote the following:
Novak Djokovic has lifted himself to levels of stature and achievement which ought to give him fundamentally equal standing with Federer and Nadal. “Best of” arguments are granular, and should certainly not be handed down in the way a poker player puts down a winning hand. “Trump card” arguments are perceptions each fan base will tout, but in a world of context, the feats of each member of the Big 3 – very much including Djokovic – become so much more substantial… and compelling on a scale equal to each other. This is a trinity more than a divided hierarchy.
To Djokovic fans, the points made above are obvious and – I would guess – first became obvious a few years ago, in 2015, when Djokovic first earned the right to be viewed as a historical equal of his peers. (The first half of 2016 cemented this notion, just in case anyone held lingering doubts.) However, Nadal and (especially) Federer fans might still claim there is obvious daylight between Nole and the other two men who have commanded the stage in tennis during this Golden Era of the sport’s existence.
Given the depth, breadth and intensity of media coverage accorded to Federer and Nadal (especially Federer), the tennis media (writ large) often leads news consumers and casual fans to think that Djokovic really is a third wheel, a clear “option 3” who resides several thousand feet beneath the summit Federer and Nadal have climbed. Sadly – I don’t use that word lightly, either – I fear that for the majority of people who are casual tennis fans (people who will tune in for the four majors or whenever a big match occurs, but rarely otherwise), Djokovic remains this distant third figure.
That’s quite unfortunate, and I reject that idea/image/characterization in the strongest possible terms.
People are free to say that Player A is slightly better than B and C, but the more wide-ranging and sweeping idea that Players A and B inhabit their own universe, while C exists in a much less substantial realm, is profoundly unfair when C has produced titanic achievements worthy of the same elevated plane.
Novak Djokovic is not some “oh-by-the-way, he’s really good too” player, dismissively slotted into that “C” silo. He is one of the three unfathomably legendary icons of his time, a man equally if not more responsible for making this era what it was and is… and could yet become.
Those words carry even more weight — and more real-world truth — one year later. The point of emphasis should be on that last clause: “and could yet become.”
The story of this Golden Era of men’s tennis is not over. Novak Djokovic, not just Federer and Nadal, continues to write that story at the highest level of performance and quality.