Novak Djokovic cruised to the Australian Open title last month. Djokovic dropped sets along the way, but he kicked into another gear for the semi-final and final, destroying Lucas Pouille and then Rafael Nadal in straight sets.
Pouille’s demise was expected. Nadal’s was extraordinary. Nadal had been playing some of the best tennis of his career and we looked set for a belting final. Instead, Djokovic tore his old rival apart to lift a record-breaking seventh Australian Open trophy.
Djokovic overtook Pete Sampras on the all-time men’s Grand Slam winners list with his Melbourne triumph. Only two men, Nadal and Roger Federer, have won more Slams than Djokovic.
The Serbian’s career began in 2008, three years after Nadal and five after Federer. He is five Slams behind Federer and just two off Nadal – topping that table is well within reach before the end of his career.
Djokovic should be talked about as one of the greats, in the same breath as Federer and Nadal, it is fitting he has joined the pair with over 14 Grand Slams.
He muscled his way into that discussion. Along with a helping hand from Andy Murray, Djokovic made the ‘big two’ into a ‘big four’, he became the best player in the world and went toe-to-toe with all-time greats.
Peak Djokovic, when he held all four Slams in 2015/16, is arguably the greatest tennis player the sport has ever seen. He was superhuman, capable of returning anything, pushing his body to the extremes.
Even then, though, chronology left Djokovic in the shadows of Federer and Nadal.
Djokovic has the edge (over the course of his career) against Federer (25-22) and Nadal (28-25). He has benefited from playing post-peak Federer, and obviously his numbers against Nadal on clay are less favourable, but it is still a stunning record.
Two of the greats, perhaps the two greatest, have lost more than they have won when they take the court against Djokovic.
The next tier, for want of a better phrase, fared much worse against Djokovic. The Serbian has a 25-11 against Murray and completely dominated Stan Wawrinka, winning 19 and losing just five matches.
Wawrinka is the only non-big-four player to beat Djokovic in a Grand Slam final, as he has done twice. Murray and Wawrinka are two of the best in this generation. Djokovic has proven superior over a decade.
Stamina and resilience are perhaps Djokovic’s most important traits, and certainly his most famous. He has been involved in plenty of epics, including the 2012 Australian Open final against Nadal, which ended just shy of the six-hour mark.
The duration of Federer and Nadal’s rivalry meant they developed their loyal support. Djokovic did not have the same luxury, and might have suffered in Britain, down to his tendency to beat Murray on the biggest stage.
Djokovic beat Murray in five of their seven Grand Slam final meetings, along with several other heart-breaking losses for the Brit, which earned Djokovic respect in Britain, but he was more pantomime villain than idol.
Djokovic always believed he could be this good. He was brash as he crept up the world rankings, happy to talk up his own ability. He was right, he did eventually beat Nadal on clay, proving he was beatable as he said all those years ago.
He does not have the elegance of Federer, nor the awe-striking physicality of Nadal. Djokovic is still a superhuman athlete and freaky, all-around tennis player, capable of the extraordinary on all surfaces.
His game is without frills, at his best he grinds his opponents down, outlasting them in rallies and seldom making an error. It is clinical and without weakness, while that earns praise, it does not necessarily attract fandom and admiration.
Back in 2016, Djokovic became the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slams. He is the all-court player in both meanings, he covers every inch and thrives on every surface. In the same year, Laver declared Djokovic tied with Federer as the greatest ever.
Since then, Djokovic has recovered from injury and loss of form, which looked to have ended his time atop the men’s game. Djokovic is a successful Roland Garros away from holding all four Slams again.
There is an element of subjectivity in greatness in any field. Picking between the current three is splitting hairs. Timing, style and maybe personality have contributed to Djokovic being left out of the conversation despite his achievements.
His victories over Pouille and Nadal were a reminder of his brilliance and should have finally consolidated his place in Federer and Nadal’s exclusive group.