Tennis fans are in full hypothetical mode (some might say there’s a lot of hype, too), looking at comparisons, history, using common sense and bias to try and figure-out where Djokovic ends-up in the big picture of men’s tennis. A very common approach is to compare Nole to Federer and Nadal, looking at age, majors accumulated, at what pace and so on. One source, included a few particular points to consider. This article more or less fired a few warning shots across the bow of those wanting to believe that Djokovic can “make hay” over the next two years and equal or exceed, at least, Nadal. Such comparisons make sense, especially when the players are contemporaries. But such comparisons are equally as hypothetical since we’re still, in the end, trying to predict the future.
I include just these two points (of the article’s seven). If anything, it’s fodder for analysis and conjecture, my two best friends!
1. “DJOKOVIC JUST TURNED 28. AFTER TURNING 28, ROGER FEDERER AND RAFAEL NADAL HAVE COMBINED FOR TWO MAJOR VICTORIES, BOTH FEDERER’S. Granted, Nadal has been 28 for all of one year and Federer may not be done yet either. But Djokovic is approaching the age where the Slams don’t come in bunches, which is why catching the others may be tough. Djokovic got out to a slower start winning two Slams by the time he turned 24, compared to five for Federer and seven for Nadal. At 28, the tally was Federer (15), Nadal (14) and Djokovic (9).”
Looks pretty grim for Djokovic when you put it like that! I remember the same sort of discussion surrounded players and their significant others having babies. Once a baby is born, forget about winning a major. The most obvious flaw in this statistic is the lack of context. No doubt, age is an issue and 28 is not “young” in professional men’s tennis. But it certainly isn’t “old” either. Federer’s numbers are pretty untouchable at this point for either Nadal or Djokovic. I think we can add a little balance to Federer’s numbers by pointing-out that between 2004 and 2007 he was dominating a fairly soft men’s game. Having watched a lot of tennis during this time, or even looking back at some “top tens” from that era (time/distance provides a little perspective) suggests he took advantage of some very beatable foes. His 3 and 4 set wins in major finals is pretty telling, as much as looking at who he was beating. HOWEVER, that does not take away from what he did. 17 majors is incredible. As for that age, 28 for Federer almost certainly coincides with when he found Nadal and Djokovic in his draw, having to face these guys regularly. Of course, his win percentage plummeted. He was no longer #1 and we all saw how clear this case was made time and again in some of those H2H with Nadal, especially.
With Nadal, I will just say that he’s overmatched in this comparative analysis. He’s a clay court guy. He’s lost twice in ten years at Roland Garros. So, there’s his incredible advantage. He’s 28 now and he looks pretty much done on all surfaces. His brand of tennis, which includes limited skill-set and propensity for injury, isn’t sustainable. So 28 in Nadal’s case means something different from what it means in Federer’s case. This age comparison seems legit on the surface, but I think the contextual analysis suggests it’s just as flimsy as one saying Djokovic is going to win 15 majors.
Djokovic at 28 has his own set of circumstances. Like Nadal, he does have a fairly physical style of play from the baseline. But almost anyone can see the similarities end there. Djokovic’s flexibility along with his ability to stay pretty injury-free make him a very different 28 year-old, not to mention that his game is evolving, improving. I don’t know the details of his diet and fitness routines, but we know he’s done significant work in these areas (gluten-free, etc.) to establish a healthy long-term system for competitive tennis. In other words, he and Nadal are not at all comparable in this way at the age of 28.
As for the similarities to Federer: again, Federer at 28 had two all-time greats emerging and starting to beat him consistently H2H. Djokovic doesn’t have that kind of tennis landscape before him. Granted, he’s not blessed with a bunch of pretenders and push-overs, but currently the game sees two of the three GOATs on the serious decline, especially in the five-set format. Even Nadal’s hey day included Federer still winning and Djokovic rising. Djokovic, we could argue, does not have these kinds of in-their-prime nemeses.
In closing, the age does and does not provide insight on what is going to happen. Certainly, Djokovic needs to take care of business here and now (and in 2016-17). Tennis fans should be rooting for this class act to pass his many great tennis tests ahead and graduate! Nothing is guaranteed, but Djokovic’s kairos couldn’t be more significant. The stage is your’s, Nole.
2. “DESPITE THE GREATNESS, ODDS ARE DJOKOVIC WILL BE REMEMBERED AS THE THIRD-BEST PLAYER OF HIS GENERATION. While there was a point where Federer’s status as G.O.A.T. was in doubt, his longevity (with a continued presence near the top of the rankings and his contention in Slams) is likely to set him apart. Djokovic will be known as the better hard court and grass court player than Nadal, but the Spaniard is the best ever on clay, something Djokovic can’t say about his greatness on hard or grass. That hurts his case, even if his best five years in Slams (ongoing) is better than Rafa’s or he eventually gets to Slam No. 14.”
Hmmmm. Not much to say here, other than if he flirts with 14, he will eclipse Nadal and could be considered a huge contender for GOAT though, again, Federer’s 17 is really remarkable, along with his MANY other records. I know the Australian Open does not carry the same weight as the French, but the Serb will be considered the greatest of that tournament’s history. This may sound absurd, but Rafa’s tie to the clay hurts his legacy. I would say just look at the list of French champions over the years. Other than Borg or Rafa, you have an inferior player winning on that surface, in some cases a flash in the pan.
In my humble opinion, Djokovic has to do more at the U.S. Open. I suppose this is a bias of mine, but the U.S. Open hard court tennis is an exceptional test of tennis. I want to argue that’s where the greats display their best game. Federer’s five straight USO is insane, almost more impressive than his grass pedigree. Sampras’ five USO titles put him on the GOAT podium. That’s a super legit surface, a big time venue, and a place where Djokovic needs to make his mark.
Time will tell. I am definitely not buying stock in that claim that he will be remembered as the third-best player of his generation.
That’s what makes this time, right now, so interesting. History-making (significant moves being made on the top of the mountain) is unfolding before our eyes. Whatever you do, do not change the channel.