Novak Djokovic didn’t want to say it, but by then enough people were already doing it for him. By winning the French Open and claiming a historic 23rd grand slam title, the Serbian became not only the most successful men’s player of all time but the greatest as well.
If you are someone who finds the GOAT (greatest of all time) debate to be tiring, reductive or unnecessary, then good news: Djokovic has taken the first step to ending the conversation. He has the numerical advantage and, at the age of 36, remains just as motivated to stretch out his lead by adding more.
And, yes, if you ignore the records you can still make a case for either Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, due to the style of the Swiss and how he elevated the sport, or the substance of the Spaniard and his unprecedented superiority on clay. Without either player, Djokovic would not have become the player he is today, but that is also part of the point: by setting such an absurdly high bar and having Djokovic chase it for his whole life, it has created a player who in the past year has reached a level that is the greatest the sport has ever seen.
Perhaps Federer and Nadal also had peaks where winning grand slam titles and major finals became this inevitable, but the window for arguing in their favour is closing. It will be impossible for even the most ardent of Federer or Nadal fans to dispute Djokovic if his total ends up at 24, 25, or more. And he is not done yet.
“Those two guys were occupying my mind for the last 15 years quite a lot,” Djokovic reflected. “So it’s amazing to know that I’m one ahead. I don’t want to say that I am the greatest because I feel it’s disrespectful towards all the great champions in different eras of our sport that was played in a completely different way than it is played today.
“So I leave those kind of discussions of who is the greatest to someone else. I have, of course, huge faith and confidence and belief in myself and for everything that I am and who I am and what I am capable of doing. I feel incredibly proud, fulfilled. Of course the journey is still not over. I feel, if I’m winning slams, why even think about ending the career that already has been going on for 20 years?
“I still feel motivated, I still feel inspired to play the best tennis at these tournaments the most. I look forward already to Wimbledon.”
“I think he has a lot more in his body,” said Goran Ivanisevic, Djokovic’s coach and the former Wimbledon champion, who has a way with words when it comes to putting the Serbian’s achievements into perspective after grand slam victories. "He has this software in his head that he can switch when a grand slam comes. The day we arrived here, he was better, he was more motivated, he was more hungry.”
He’s getting better with age: Djokovic had a 12-9 record in grand slam finals when he was in his 20s; he has a 11-2 record in grand slam finals in his 30s; he has won six of the last 10 grand slam tournaments, and that’s including the two he couldn’t enter at the Australian Open and US Open.
“He’s unbelievable,” Ivanisevic said, “and he’s still moving like a cat on the court.” His serve is the best in the world. His mentality is stronger than ever, and gets more impressive the more he wins. He simply does not miss on big points. The standout statistic from this year’s Roland Garros is not Djokovic’s 23rd grand slam, but the fact he won all six tiebreaks he played without making a single unforced error.
It’s all part of his aura. Carlos Alcaraz, who came into the French Open as world No 1 and the tournament favourite, felt it in the semi-finals. Facing Djokovic at a grand slam made the young Spaniard tense and nervous, and caused him to be hit by full-body cramps for the first time in his career. In the final, Casper Ruud played as well as he could have dreamt of in the opening set but was then overcome by the size of the challenge he faced after Djokovic raised his level to win the tiebreak. “You’re thinking, you know, the F word because you just lost a really tough set against Novak,” said Ruud. “He’s going to build on it and it’s tough to bounce back from that.”
“He takes the legs, then he takes your soul,” Ivanisevic said, taking up a famous line from former world No 1 Andy Roddick on what Djokovic does to his opponent and adding a bit more: “Then he digs your grave and you have a funeral and you’re dead. Bye-bye. Thank you for coming.”
That mentality was forged from an early age. Djokovic grew up in war-torn Serbia and his journey to the top has been shaped by adversity. “My upbringing was probably different than most of the other players from my generation,” he said on Sunday, with Djokovic wanting to remember how far he had come. When he achieved his lifelong dream of winning a grand slam title at the Australian Open in 2008, the path to becoming the greatest player in the world stretched far ahead. Federer set the bar. Nadal raised it. Djokovic has spent 15 years chasing them down, ticking off a host of significant records and milestones along the way, but the grand slam race was always going to be the one that swayed final opinions.
Djokovic is the ultimate product of his environment and in 2021, his pursuit of greatness led to him being one win away from completing the first calendar grand slam in men’s tennis since Rod Laver in 1969. Djokovic was beaten by Daniil Medvedev in New York but he will have used the experience to become stronger and is now halfway there once again - having won 21 grand slam matches in a row stretching back to last season’s Wimbledon. Djokovic has made the idea of carrying it on until the end of year not only appear possible but inevitable as well, and that may be his greatest achievement of all.
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