Positioning Novak Djokovic in the G.O.A.T debate
Novak Djokovic is an unfortunate tennis legend caught in the middle of the most polarized era of tennis. The 32-year-old warrior, to put it bluntly, is simply a victim of bad timing.
They say greatness identifies greatness before everyone else does. In 2019 August, while the US Open was going on, the Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal 'Greatest Of All Time' debate had resurfaced again. Both the legends were making a comeback of sorts and a lot was expected from the duo, but when ESPN journalists asked the late Kobe Bryant on who he thought was the best, the former Lakers star said, "Novak's my guy."
The Serbian inched closer to the Big Two of Federer and Nadal after he claimed his 17th Grand Slam title, the Australian Open, on Sunday. He is six years younger than Federer and 15 months younger than Nadal, which gives the player ample time to beat the records set by the two ahead of him.
His ascension to the best ever male tennis player in the Open Era seems inevitable.
But somehow his rise to greatness is always a sad story for the racquet sports' fans. He continues to be considered a disrupter of the order, rather than an actual great himself.
The Black Sheep in the Holy Trinity
The Serbian is in some ways the unlucky child of tennis. His rise came at a time when people could not think beyond Nadal and Federer. What aided the duo was their lovable personalities on and off the court. How do you hate an ever-pleasant Federer or a humble Nadal? Tournament organisers were also happy to play along the hype bandwagon, arranging everything to get the maximum number of matches out of the Spaniard and the Swiss.
Two years ago, at the very same arena where Djokovic won on Sunday, American legend John McEnroe accused the Australian Open management for treating Djokovic like sh*t after the Serb was scheduled afternoon matches to accommodate Federer's request for night-time slots. The belief was that Djokovic didn't deserve the special status that Federer warranted.
The Serbian may have won eight Slams in Melbourne, but the crowd once again actively jeered Djokovic during his final against Dominic Thiem.
That would never have happened to a Nadal or a Federer. And sadly, it is not all Djokovic's doing. He isn't a villain like a Daniil Medvedev or a Nick Kyrgios, who have actively toyed with audiences and deserve the jeers. He is just an unfortunate tennis legend caught in the middle of the most polarized era of tennis. Between 2010 and 2020 you could only be one of the following -- Team Nadal or Team Federer. There was no room for grey between the black and the white. And caught right in the middle of the biggest tennis debate is Djokovic - the first player in the Open Era to win a Slam in three decades. The 32-year-old warrior, to put it bluntly, is simply a victim of bad timing.
Djokovic's time is now
Early in his career, the Serbian was seen as a challenger to the Nadal and Federer domination -- that athlete who would push the Big Two to bring out their best but would eventually bow down to their greatness with humility. But Djokovic turning the tables around in the middle part of the last decade -- in some cases defeating the Big Two with ease -- irked their devotees. It is a human trait to resist change, but Djokovic's aggressive, no-holds-barred approach gave the tennis fans more reasons to dislike him.
On Sunday, the crowd at the Rod Laver Arena witnessed everything Djokovic. He was angry, he had a spat with the umpire, but he also refused to give up and kept returning whatever Thiem hit at him. The grit eventually wore down his younger opponent in a battle that lasted almost four hours. Djokovic's mannerisms, including a reminder that he was the best to a fan who screamed 'yes' when the Serb faulted in his first serve, gave the crowd enough reasons to take Thiem's side. But Djokovic is perhaps used to it by now. He knows the fans were doing their bit to ensure he stayed a healthy distance away from their favourite stars.
The fact remains that the Serb is just two titles away from catching up with Nadal. Three from Federer. One would assume, considering the flawless start he has had to the 2020 campaign, that he will be ready to challenge the top guns in the remaining Slams of the year.
But even if he were to surpass both Nadal and Federer in the number of Grand Slam victories, will Djokovic ever be hailed as the best, one wonders. He is a great ambassador for the sport and shows professionalism few others have ever matched, but the unfortunate timing of his greatness might mean a third-placed finish is all he will get in the eyes of the public.
In a world of Avengers, Djokovic would be Captain America -- the epitome of human abilities. But in Federer, he has a Thor, a God with unmatched grace, and a Hulk in Rafa Nadal. Their skillset and charm will remain unmatched despite Djokovic's surreal achievements on the courts. But perhaps as fans, it is best to see their legacy combined -- a team that saved the planet of tennis from mediocrity. One a master of clay and another a God of Grass. But there was also a third who could beat the master and the God in their own backyard.
By the time Djokovic hangs up his racquet, tennis fans will hopefully realise that they treated him unfairly. And that he was on par with Nadal and Federer, if not better.