If one were to go by statistical accomplishments alone, mostly the coveted, cherished Grand Slam titles in tennis, then the Greatest of All Time debate, at least for the moment, is done and dusted.
Novak Djokovic, with 24 Grand Slam titles towers ahead of both his fiercest rivals, Rafael Nadal (22) and Roger Federer (20).
In fact, with Djokovic being adept on all three surfaces – clay, hard and grass – it is likely his Grand Slam tally will increase. And therein lies the elephant in the room; the sharp decline in the quality of men’s tennis over the last several years.
It is critical to understand that when dispassionately confabulating on the GOAT debate. It is a complicated conversation.
Federer dominated the Golden Era
Federer competed amidst the greatest of a departing generation before him. There were the likes of Andre Agassi, Marat Safin, Pete Sampras – all Grand Slam winners. There were formidable contemporaries Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, Carlos Moya, Juan Carlos Ferrero, all Grand Slam winners and serial finalists. And easily faced the most outstanding new generation of players close on his heels – Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro, Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic...
In short, Federer played when Grand Slam match winners were interspersed all over the draw, both current and future.
But that by itself is not the end of the convoluted rigmarole; players like Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, Gael Monfils, David Ferrer, Tommy Haas, Thomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, and many more, who did not win a Slam, were deadly threats. A look at their ATP career titles is a manifestation of their talent, tragically overshadowed in the Age of the Big Three.
I have reviewed Federer’s “road-to-the-finals” in several of his Grand Slam triumphs and it is apparent that men’s tennis was on a dizzying high during the period when Federer looked invincible; it makes his achievements unparalleled.
Decline in men’s tennis
A comparison with what Djokovic faced at Wimbledon 2023 and US Open 2023 makes for a compelling case of preposterous contrasts. At the US Open, the only Grand Slam winners in contention against Djokovic were Carlos Alcaraz, Daniil Medvedev, a struggling Dominic Thiem, and three-time Grand Slam winners Murray and Wawrinka, both of whom are finding their way back after recovering from major injuries.
It was a ridiculously under-exposed field against a player who has played and won against the greatest ever.
Or look at Wimbledon, where Djokovic had won more matches than the next top 20 seeded players aggregated together. It was bizarre.
Federer never had such dazzling luxury. It is therefore hardly surprising that Djokovic entered all four Grand Slam finals in 2023 and won the US Open in straight-sets from the quarter-finals onwards.
A decade earlier, such recurring predictability of wins at this level was unheard of. Now it appears de rigueur.
Djokovic has won 12 Majors since 2019; it has coincided with Federer heading towards obsolescence, and Nadal, Murray, Wawrinka, Del Potro and more, either frequently injured, missing in action, or semi-retired.
The counterargument is valid; one cannot fault Djokovic for the abysmal standards in men’s tennis – Alcaraz is a wunderkind, but still a work-in-progress. It is Djokovic’s extraordinary hunger, preternatural fitness levels and astonishing mental strength with which he remorselessly railroads his opponents. But the absence of serious Grand Slam threats, barring an occasional adrenaline rush by one or two, does somewhat take away the sheen of his victories.
The truth is that most of today’s top players have become three-set wonders in the Instagram culture of Tennis TV snippets. Some are fashion icons, Netflix documentaries capture them off-court, they answer vapid rapid-fire questions, and even without a single Grand Slam, they are popular celebrities earning millions of dollars through endorsements.
In Andrey Rublev, Alexander Zverev, Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Matteo Berrettini, there are players who can still beat Djokovic and Nadal in ATP Masters 1000 events. But over five-setters in a Grand Slam, they are easy meat. Underdogs.
They lack the ruthlessness of gritty winners, the mastery of eclectic shot-selection and the unwavering psychological concentration to outlast their opponents seven times in five-setters over a two-week period. Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Murray, had a lot of mutual respect for each other for sure, but they were desperate tigers on the court, playing mind-games, outwitting the other, knowing fully well that every single point won was a herculean moment.
In comparison, the next generation of players tend to give the Big 3 a lot of respect on court. They seem terrified at the prospect of meeting Djokovic and Nadal. Medvedev’s collapse against Nadal at the Australian Open (2022), or Tsitsipas’ loss to Djokovic at the French Open (2021), or even Casper Ruud’s straight-set’s loss to Nadal and Djokovic in consecutive French Open finals (2022 and 2023), were no ordinary happenstance.
They were preordained. I don’t think they believed they deserved to win. Too much respect for your opponent is never a good thing.
So, who is the greatest?
Logically, it should be Rod Laver; a man who won all four Grand Slams in a year, twice. That too after a long five-year hiatus (1963-1967) at his peak. Laver could have conceivably won 20 Grand Slams in the interim, instead of the 11 singles Majors he won overall.
Nadal has won 14 French Open titles on what is probably the most gruelling court surface, which not only tests tennis craftiness, but physical tenaciousness, mental fortitude, and many hours of unending curveball rallies with no end. Nadal’s record is epic in terms of the possibilities of human greatness.
My vote goes to Federer, because he made the hyperpower game of modern tennis look magical, beautiful, poetic, even as he effortlessly pulverized nearly 6-foot-8 Himalayan-heighted opponents to a humbling nothingness.
Irrespective of match score, he refused to play safe or percentage tennis even at match points, because for him, a champion had to win it.
Counterintuitive? Maybe. Perhaps that attitude is not in Brad Gilbert’s operating manual, or the local tennis coach’s instructions to his seven-year old protégé.
“The winner is the one who returns the ball over the net the last time.” Federer redefined that expression.
Tennis greatness demanded a different prose of risk-taking; the flair of a single-handed backhand down the line, a SABR – Sneak Attack By Roger, when Federer would rush up and return a serve early – shot to unruffle a complacent server, a serve and volley against the most dangerous returners of serve. Or out of nowhere, a drop shot.
Federer made tennis a romantic odyssey for the lovers of the game; one travelled continents to watch the man with that trademark headband and the royal wave of his hands, walk onto the courts.
What the hell, even the painful anguish of losing two great Wimbledon finals to his frequent nemesis Nadal (2008) and his famous adversary Djokovic (2019), would only further augment the legend of the Swiss tennis player who made us all cry with him when he won. Or lost. Or even now when he is gone.
At his farewell last year at the Laver Cup in London, a visibly grief-stricken fan pointed out towards her prized possession on her tee-shirt, the RF logo. It said Roger Forever.
It said it all.
Sanjay Jha prides himself on being a decent club level tennis player. He is the author most recently of a novel titled My Illegitimate Son.