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A case of substance over style: Why Djokovic can already be called the GOAT

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Djokovic slam

Sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye. Roger Federer is universally loved, swooned over and venerated as a sporting saint. Seen through the narrow prism of popularity, he is the greatest tennis player of all time. Not simply because of what he has won, but how he has won it.

Novak Djokovic display

Federer has given tennis a spiritual element, a sense of greater meaning amid the grunting. He has allowed people to dream, to become emotionally involved in tennis since he first fell to earth and wept tears on Wimbledon’s Centre Court after outclassing Mark Philippoussis in straight sets 16 years ago.

Plenty of public tears will be shed when he no longer feels capable of cutting it. He is the darling of his worldwide domain.

While Federer has gifted his sport a narrative, an extraordinary viewing experience and a longevity of excellence that may never be matched, it’s perhaps difficult for some to face up to the dawning reality that the Swiss may not end his days as his sport’s GOAT.

The aesthetics of Federer make him easy to love. He is fabulous and feted because of his gall and gracefulness. He tends not to play his sport, more perform it.

At the age of 38, he is the most prolific major winner of all time. The rest of his legacy remains a matter of some conjecture, an argument that will remain up in the air longer than the balls at Melbourne Park. It is a fluid and moving conversation that seems to gather fresh pace after every Grand Slam.

Attempting to offer a true analysis of the GOAT debate at this juncture is difficult when it fails to see the whole picture of an unfolding tennis tapestry. There is a possible twist in the tale better than Banksy can deliver.

When Federer revelled in his 20th Grand Slam at the Australian Open in 2018, it was widely accepted that only his nemesis Rafael Nadal had a chance of usurping him. Novak Djokovic had been felled by Chung Hyeon in the last 16 of the Australian Open, and was toiling to recover from tennis elbow when he lost to the unheralded Marco Cecchinato at the same stage of the French Open. The Belgrade behemoth’s recovery since that humbling on Rod Laver has been truly remarkable and delivers a potentially decisive blow in how history will recall him.

Novak Djokovic display

Five Grand Slams lifted out of the last seven has catapulted him to 17 Majors. Suddenly he can see the summit of not only his era, but perhaps of all time. His 6-3 6-2 6-3 butchering of Nadal in the final of the Australian Open at the start of 2019 was a brutal exhibition of his unfashionable greatness: winning 56 of 59 service points, clubbing 34 winners and committing just nine unforced errors. It was akin to a tennis bloodbath as Nadal’s spirit was scattered across Rod Laver Arena. It was much the same against Dominic Thiem in 2020.

If Federer had done similar to Nadal on Laver, he would have had platitudes, hyperbole and GOAT garlands foisted upon him. But somehow Djokovic has never been viewed as an easy character to love. Certainly, not as much as Federer. Or his tennis. That is just how professional sport is.

Characters and personas are loved by the public, some are not. If Djokovic has come off second best in style, both on the court and off it, he is very much in the reckoning when it comes to substance.

When Djokovic largely toyed with Federer in his win over the Swiss in the 2016 semi-finals in Melbourne, one recalls chatting to the former British Davis Cup player and Eurosport expert Miles Maclagan about the highlights reel of the match. Maclagan correctly pointed out that Djokovic’s warehouse of exceptional winners did not have the same artistic merit as Federer so are wrongly viewed in a lesser light. Even if they are the same arena of world-class delivery.

Tennis attracts armies of hostile followers who are not fair to the fare on offer. Especially when it comes to rational discourse: Djokovic, Federer and Nadal fanboys become very tribalistic.

Djokovic can play every shot in Federer’s arsenal, can win the clutch points like Federer and has an athleticism never seen before in tennis. He is also firmly on schedule to catch Roger and Rafa in the tennis arms race.

A 20-year-old Djokovic first contested the final of a Grand Slam in 2007, losing to Federer in straight sets at the US Open.

Federer was lifting his 12th major in that final, but the major victories have become sparser since that point. Not due to age or inability, he was only 26 at that juncture, but rather because of the rise and rise of Djokovic, Nadal, Andy Murray and latterly Stanislas Wawrinka as serial Grand Slam winners.

No disrespect to opponents such as Marat Safin, Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt, but they were extremely limited in comparison to the ferocity Federer faced in the second half of his career. The competition has intensified greatly since 2008 with Federer losing three Grand Slam finals to Djokovic across 2014 and 2015: twice at Wimbledon and again at the US Open in 2015 when a biased and booing crowd in the Big Apple failed to dent Djokovic’s demeanour.

If not for the pesky Djokovic, Federer would be well and truly clear in the race to be the GOAT. He isn’t because of the bendable Djokovic’s refusal to bend.

Djokovic has a 27-23 winning record over Federer in head-to-heads, winning 14 of their past 20 meetings. He has a 29-26 winning record over Nadal, last losing him to outside of clay six years ago. He leads Murray 25-11. In the vicious, cut-throat times of the frazzled big four, he is the only man with a winning record against the other three.

Djokovic is the first man in history to claim three majors three times in succession, first winning Wimbledon and the US Open in 2011, and the Australian Open in 2012. Then he became the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slams when he picked up Wimbledon and the US Open in 2015, and the Australian Open and French Open in 2016.

He has done so much and more in the most brutal era known to men’s tennis with more to likely to come on top of his eight Australian Opens, four Wimbledons, three US Opens and one victory at Roland Garros.

A calendar clean sweep is very much within his grasp, much like it was three years ago when he seemed to lose his sense of purpose in the sport. One suspects he will not lose focus a second time with history beckoning. When the why is clear, the how is easy. Djokovic craves the lot, with the cherry on top. If his health holds up, there is little to dissuade one from the notion that Federer’s haul of 20 is not so much a target for Djokovic, but a matter of time. The 1987 WImbledon champion Pat Cash offered this thought on the Serb.

Djokovic may not be as celebrated as Federer, but that should not blind us to reality. Federer has won four majors beyond the age of 30, but Djokovic has surpassed that regal total at the age of 33.

Federer’s last goals in tennis are probably an Olympic gold medal, becoming the oldest winner of a tennis Grand Slam and finishing as the greatest Grand Slam champion. Two out of three ain’t bad, but the other may be beyond even him.

Djokovic’s last remaining challenge is catching and overtaking Federer. Federer is certainly the most beautiful and bewitching player known to man, but the best is beginning to look like Djokovic

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