There are very few absolutes in modern men’s tennis given the niche carved by the Big Three – as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are called – over the last decade and a half.
Tennis fans may be drawn into a debate to decide who is the greatest of them all but it has been a generally polarising and largely futile argument at a time all three are competing. Most of these are based on Grand Slam statistics, which colours the discussion by surface, era and time passed.
But if there is one benchmark to gauge the consistency and versatility in men’s tennis, it is the Masters 1000 events.
The ATP’s highest rung of events – behind only Grand Slams and the season-ending ATP Finals in terms of points – are nine top-level tournaments spread over the year and countries, played on indoor and outdoor hard courts and clay (no grass). While Grand Slams have largely been a bastion of a few, the Masters events give a more balanced indication of a player’s overall performance in the last few years.
Going by this yardstick, Djokovic’s Masters record is the strongest proof of his unmatched all-court prowess.
If being the first man to complete the Career Masters – a term recently coined to describe winning all nine titles once they became part of the ATP 1000 series – was not enough, the 33-year-old became the only man to win all nine twice last month. And overtaking Nadal with his 36th Masters title in Rome on Monday is more proof of his incredible mental strength.
The world No 1 won his fifth Italian open and 10th clay-court Masters just two weeks after his dramatic default from the hard-courts of the US Open. This is not a feat to be underestimated even on its own, but when seen in conjunction with his recent form and overall numbers, it shows just what a truly sensational tennis player Djokovic is.
Consider these statistics:
- This is his third straight Masters 1000 title, a streak going back to Paris last year.
- This is fifth title of the year, in a pandemic-interrupted season after he contracted coronavirus.
- He has won 31 off 32 matches in 2020, his only loss being the disqualification from US Open for hitting a line judge.
- This is his 10th Masters title on clay, becoming only the second player after Nadal to have double digit trophies on both surfaces.
- He surpassed Pete Sampras (286) for most weeks as world No 1 and is second to only Federer (310)
But these are just recent numbers. Djokovic has been dominating the Masters tournaments for years.
- From 2012 to 2015, he won 12 successive Masters titles, another seemingly unreachable record.
- In 2015, he set the record for most titles (6 of 9) and most finals (8 of 9) in the same season. The only one final he didn’t play was at Madrid Masters because he withdrew from the tournament to rest. His only two losses that year came in finals to Federer at Cincinnati and Andy Murray at Rogers Cup in the North American hard-court yet he went on to win the US Open right after.
- In 2018, he became the first man achieve the Career Masters when he finally won Cincinnati after five runner-up finishes, fittingly beating Federer, the record holder there.
- In 2020, he won his second title there, fighting from a set down against Milos Raonic to extend his unbeaten streak and become the only man to complete the sweep twice.
All of Djokovic's 36 Masters titles
|2007||Miami Open||Hard||Guillermo Cañas|
|2007||Canadian Open||Hard||Roger Federer|
|2008||Indian Wells Masters||Hard||Mardy Fish|
|2008||Italian Open||Clay||Stan Wawrinka|
|2009||Paris Masters||Hard||Gaël Monfils|
|2011||Indian Wells Masters (2)||Hard||Rafael Nadal|
|2011||Miami Open (2)||Hard||Rafael Nadal|
|2011||Madrid Open||Clay||Rafael Nadal|
|2011||Italian Open (2)||Clay||Rafael Nadal|
|2011||Canadian Open (2)||Hard||Mardy Fish|
|2012||Miami Open (3)||Hard||Andy Murray|
|2012||Canadian Open (3)||Hard||Richard Gasquet|
|2012||Shanghai Masters||Hard||Andy Murray|
|2013||Monte-Carlo Masters||Clay||Rafael Nadal|
|2013||Shanghai Masters (2)||Hard||Juan Martín del Potro|
|2013||Paris Masters (2)||Hard||David Ferrer|
|2014||Indian Wells Masters (3)||Hard||Roger Federer|
|2014||Miami Open (4)||Hard||Rafael Nadal|
|2014||Italian Open (3)||Clay||Rafael Nadal|
|2014||Paris Masters (3)||Hard||Milos Raonic|
|2015||Indian Wells Masters (4)||Hard||Roger Federer|
|2015||Miami Open (5)||Hard||Andy Murray|
|2015||Monte-Carlo Masters (2)||Clay||Tomáš Berdych|
|2015||Italian Open (4)||Clay||Roger Federer|
|2015||Shanghai Masters (3)||Hard||Jo-Wilfried Tsonga|
|2015||Paris Masters (4)||Hard||Andy Murray|
|2016||Indian Wells Masters (5)||Hard||Milos Raonic|
|2016||Miami Open (6)||Hard||Kei Nishikori|
|2016||Madrid Open (2)||Clay||Andy Murray|
|2016||Canadian Open (4)||Hard||Kei Nishikori|
|2018||Cincinnati Masters||Hard||Roger Federer|
|2018||Shanghai Masters (4)||Hard||Borna Ćorić|
|2019||Madrid Open (3)||Clay||Stefanos Tsitsipas|
|2019||Paris Masters (5)||Hard||Denis Shapovalov|
|2020||Cincinnati Masters (2)||Hard||Milos Raonic|
|2020||Italian Open (5)||Clay||Diego Schwartzman|
Djokovic has reached 52 Masters finals in his career and lost only 16. The only players to beat him in Masters finals till 2016 were other active world No 1 players – Federer, Nadal, Murray. Since 2017, he has lost a final each to Alexander Zverev (Rome) and Karen Khachanov (Paris).
In what can be described as a poetic touch, Djokovic’s record-breaking title came on the clay courts of Rome.
The Serb’s 10 finals at Rome Masters are his most at any tournament and he has won just five of them. For most players, five titles at on event is a great achievement but in Djokovic’s, the 50% win rate actually tells how difficult a tournament it is to win.
In a normal season, Rome would be the third straight clay court Masters, after Monte Carlo and Madrid, right before the French Open. The clay season is packed with big events and it is King of Clay taking home most of these, winning a record 11 at Monte Carlo and 9 at Rome. Djokovic has reached only three Madrid finals and four at Monte Carlo, but at the Italian Open, he has lost three finals to the Spaniard, and one each to Murray and Zverev.
Therefore it is momentous that he has now won five titles at one clay-court event for the first time. Djokovic has five titles or more at Australian Open, Wimbledon, Miami Open, Indian Wells, Paris Masters and ATP Finals among the big events. All on hard courts and the biggest on grass. To win a fifth title at a clay-court Masters shows yet again why he is the strongest all-court player there is.
It is even more extraordinary that this has come at the Italian Open, where Nadal himself was playing after a six-month break and after a potentially derailing experience in New York. The Serb admitted his error at the US Open, struggled to contain his frustrations early in the tournament, and by his own admission was not playing his best. That’s an unparalleled ability to bounce back from setbacks.
Incidentally, he is also the second man ever after Nadal to win four Masters 1000 events at least five times. This may seem like a small number in comparison to all big ones, but it is significant. The Masters 1000 series, after all, tests a player from March to November on outdoor, indoor and clay courts. An all-round challenge for an all-round player.