Men’s Tennis GOAT Debate | Separate Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, analysis 2023
If the GOAT debate is all about numbers, Novak Djokovic is within touching distance of a clear mandate.
Win the Australian Open final on Sunday night and he ties Rafael Nadal with 22 Grand Slam titles.
He edged Nadal in their head-to-head clashes (it’s still very close at 30-29) and overtook Roger Federer at the end of his career, winning 10 of their last 15 clashes for a winning record of 27-23 against the Swiss Master.
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Djokovic also has a winning record against both in the final, although Nadal has a significant advantage in major tournaments, winning 11 of their 18 encounters.
He’s also about a year younger than Nadal and his recent history suggests he’ll continue to play well after the Spaniard’s end, given how injury-prone the king of clay has become.
Dylan Alcott thinks Djokovic could end his career with a total of 24-26 Grand Slams, which would almost certainly put his two great rivals in the shadows.
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Yet put 10 tennis legends in one room and they would all have very different views on who should be in the GOAT debate, let alone who the holder of this prestigious title should be.
Exhibit A was a brief discussion of Nine’s tennis coverage on Saturday night, with Todd Woodbridge suggesting Australian stars Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall shouldn’t be ignored, before arguing that the comparison of eras was flawed, making the coronation of an incredibly complex and perhaps even ill-advised king of tennis.
“Some people would say yes (Djokovic) owns it, but I was at a party today where Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall there, aren’t they also some of the greatest of all time?” Woodbridge asked. “I tend to think this is a debate you can have for eternity because you can’t be as good as you are in your block and these three have played each other and reached new heights, so I don’t know, I don’t feel like going there.”
On Wide World of Sports’ The morning serviceLleyton Hewitt added more nuance to the debate, arguing that the heights achieved by Djokovic and Nadal were only possible because of the existence of Federer, who took tennis to new heights when they first appeared once on the stage and continued to push the bar higher for the next decade after announcing themselves as contenders for his throne.
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“It’s very difficult to compare them all. Roger, he did it in a separate time,” Hewitt said.
“And he really overtook the Sampras, Agassis, all those guys. And then I think he coached Rafa and Novak and made them better players as well.
“I’m so lucky, I think, for the sport of tennis that we have three amazing ambassadors for the game and they’re still playing, you know, in their mid to late thirties.”
Should Hewitt’s point add weight to Federer’s case? If yes how much ? Can a debate based solely on numbers be fair given the wasted years for Laver and Rosewall who were ineligible to enter the slams in their early years because they decided they wanted to make money with their craft and turned professional when the majors were the domain of amateurs.
There are so many layers, but when asked specifically about Djokovic’s case, Jim Courier was ready to make some solid arguments – even if they were driven by raw numbers.
“Numerically, he’s likely to have more majors when all is said and done than Rafa, just based on their health outlook. He’s definitely going to have more weeks at world No. 1 ( Djokovic has spent 373 weeks at the top compared to Federer’s 310 and Nadal’s 209), he’s one game ahead of Rafa in their head-to-head, and it’s a big game, and he has the Head-to-head against Federer, so if you’re just looking for numbers, Novak is probably going to end up with the best job,” Courier said.
Aesthetics is an intangible element that undoubtedly influences the GOAT debate.
Federer was smooth as silk and played a great game on all courts. Where Djokovic is a counter-puncher and Nadal a grassroots warrior, who only developed his net game late in his career, Federer has become the greatest in the minds of many due to his winning method, not just success itself.
Most tennis fans also consider it easier to understand, as ridiculous as that sounds for someone with hundreds of millions of dollars and Federer’s lifestyle. He had a way of expressing himself that his fans found warm. More than Djokovic, Federer showed himself to the world when he failed. With his tears and generous speeches, he lifted the mask and revealed the man under the magic. In some ways he felt like a friend.
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Nadal is revered for his bloody competitiveness and sporting integrity, which we saw again this year in his brief title defense at the 2022 Australian Open. the hip hampering their movements as much as it was Nadal in his second-round match against American Mackenzie McDonald. Not Nadal. If he can do it without aggravating an injury, Nadal will always reach the finish line to give his opponent his moment. Djokovic never seemed to share this mentality.
It is perhaps this side of the debate that irritates Djokovic the most. He wants tennis and only tennis to guide the conversation. He wants it to be black and white, not gray and certainly not colored. Major titles for him and his fans are all that matters when comparisons are made.
This is why many believe that Djokovic does not only want to finish his career with a record number of Grand Slams, on this point he wants to crush his two great rivals, so that, at least in his mind, he can return the pointless debate.
Starting against Tsitsipas, he has his chance. If he can match Nadal at the age of 35, he will support himself to put him in his rearview mirror when he is ready to retire.
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