Is Novak Djokovic the GOAT?
The day before the 2021 Wimbledon final, I read an article in which a number of tennis experts answered the same question, based on the idea of Djokovic pulling even with Federer and Nadal’s Slams record (20 each). Most said the jury was still out, or pointed to Federer’s style and other things that are equally trivial (note: my first article on the subject of men’s tennis GOATs was all about Federer’s style. My second admitted that such a thing was, indeed, trivial). The final person quoted (might have been Renae Stubbs) said that if he won 20 titles, it would make Novak the best of all time, because his head-to-head with the other two legends vaults him above them on the list. I mean, he even beat Rafa at Roland Garros, the place where most of Nadal’s legend was forged.
This isn’t rocket science, and yet, when Novak was closing in on the inevitable history-making moment, the crowd was cheering lustily for Matteo Berrettini, his opponent. Djokovic is the Rodney Dangerfield of elite athletes (yup, I just dated myself). Actually, this isn’t quite accurate, because fans have to respect Novak. Love, however, seems to elude him. I recall vividly his antics as a youth, the bellicose attitude he and his team conveyed when winning, the dramatics in which he’d sometimes indulge when losing. He also did offensive imitations of female tennis stars like Serena Williams (though I suspect he didn’t intend them to be that way). More recently, he hosted an ill-advised tournament in his native Serbia that resulted in a mini-outbreak of COVID among the participants. There are other things I could name, but I won’t — suffice it to say that he’s been on the wrong side of things, as far as many fans are concerned, enough that he may never be beloved.
To me, most of the reasons he isn’t my favorite are far in the past. I also believe that people can, and do, change, if they want to. Anyone who has listened to his many, many recent victory speeches has to admit that he has evolved into a class act. He exudes neither Roger’s elegance nor Rafa’s intensity, but you can’t argue with the results. Pretty soon, he’ll have his 21 or more Slams, which should put this debate to rest, but probably won’t.
Still struggling to give the peerless champ his due? How about saying Roger has the most beautiful game ever, Rafa is the GOAT on clay, and Novak had the best record? That said, c’mon. I’m a die-hard Roger fan, and yet, I have to give it up: what Novak has accomplished is without equal. Period. Whether you love him or not.