- Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
GOAT debates endure for every sport, both because they get people fired up and they don’t ever have a singular, definitive answer. We can argue forever if we want to. That’s doubly true for an individual sport.
Achievements, influence, the era in which you played … lots of things can go into arguing someone is the greatest of all time. And because the three most accomplished men’s tennis players in history — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — have played in the same era, virtually every tennis major results in the resumption of the sport’s GOAT debate. We can’t help ourselves. But really, we’re just buying time: When this three-way marathon is over, the player who finishes with the most Slam titles of the bunch will have a pretty airtight case to make.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve known for a while who is going to finish atop that leaderboard. We also know who probably already has the best GOAT case. It’s the guy who, a decade ago, wasn’t even in the conversation.
At one time, it seemed like Djokovic’s career was destined to end up a giant what-if. He was undoubtedly elite, a spectacular mover and defender with stronger groundstrokes than your average speed-and-defense guy. He was just about the only player capable of taking a Slam away from either Federer or Nadal, and if he had been born 10 years earlier or later, it was easy to assume he’d have been a constant threat. But in the era of the Big Two, he seemed destined to fall short. In all four Grand Slam tournaments in 2007, his age-20 year, he lost to one or the other — Federer at the Australian and US Opens, Nadal in the French Open and Wimbledon. He upset Federer in the 2008 Australian Open and brought home a Slam title but then lost to Nadal at the French Open and Olympics, and to Federer in New York in both 2008 and 2009.
At the start of 2011, Federer had 16 career slam titles, Nadal had six and Djokovic was entering his prime years stuck on one. What-if, what-if, what-if. He was improving, but so was Nadal, and Nadal is not even a year older. But Djokovic transformed his diet, became the fittest player on the tour and slowly kept improving his all-around game (namely, his backhand and serve). He started outlasting even the big boys.
Ten and a half years ago, it seemed Djokovic would finish a distant third in this three-way race. Now it’s hard to imagine that he won’t finish a pretty distant first.
Slam titles since 2011: Djokovic 18, Nadal 14, Federer four. Only one man has won at least two titles at each Slam. Only one has beaten Nadal more than once at the French Open. Only one has beaten Federer more than once at Wimbledon. Djokovic, Djokovic and Djokovic. He has bested the best clay-courter ever, and he has toppled the best grass-courter ever. He might be the best hard-courter ever — his 12 combined Australian Open and US Open titles are the most ever on the surface. He has a winning record over both men — 57-51 overall, 44-21 since 2011.
Djokovic won four of five Slams in a 2011-12 stretch and six of eight in 2014-16, and following injuries and his most sustained loss of form, he responded with his highest level of play yet. Starting with Wimbledon 2018, he has won seven of the past 11 majors. He has won the last three Australian Opens and last two Wimbledons, and he just scored his second French Open title. He is within one Slam title of Nadal and Federer, and he will be a healthy favorite in each of the next three.
In this ongoing GOAT race, Djokovic’s French Open win was maybe the defining moment.
Once Djokovic’s latest surge occurred, it was pretty clear the math wasn’t going to work out well for Federer, who has begun to finally succumb to age. He turns 40 in August, is coming off of a lengthy injury layoff and has reached the finals of only one Slam in the past three years. Even that finals appearance marked a growing trend: He lost in five sets to Djokovic at Wimbledon 2019.
Federer has turned the tables on Nadal in recent years — he has won six of their past seven meetings, including a classic 2017 Australian Open final. But he hasn’t beaten Djokovic in a best-of-five since Wimbledon 2012, and it’s hard to see him finishing with more than the 20 titles he already has, 21 if he has one last miracle run in him.
Until the French Open, the math was slightly friendlier to Nadal. While his all-surface form has wavered over time — he has reached the finals in only four non-clay Slams since his 28th birthday — he had remained virtually bulletproof in France. He won four straight French Open titles from 2017-20, and last fall’s title run at Roland Garros was one of his most dominant to date. His harsh lefty spin, defense and pure aura allowed him to count on at least one Slam title per year. It has allowed him to ease ahead of the other two if we regulate the number of Slam titles by age.
With Djokovic’s hard court form utterly rampant, however, Nadal really needed to keep stockpiling trophies at Roland Garros. The existence of two hardcourt Slams per year gives Djokovic a built-in advantage, and not including his infamous disqualification from the 2020 US Open, he has lost only one match in his past five hardcourt Slam appearances. He has only even been stretched to five sets twice in that span.
Any hope Nadal had for finishing on top in this marathon required two things: more French Open titles and a surge from the rising generation of stars.
When Djokovic was defaulted from the US Open last fall, it left the tennis gods no choice but to crown a new champion. Nadal had opted out to focus on the French Open, Federer was still injured and the only other Slam champion in the field — 32-year-old Marin Cilic, who won the US Open in 2014 — had lost in the third round to Dominic Thiem.
It was Thiem’s moment. The 27-year-old took down a series of younger players — Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round, Alex de Minaur in the quarterfinals, Daniil Medvedev in the semis and Alexander Zverev in a lengthy final — to finally take home a Slam after losing to either Nadal or Djokovic in three other finals. (He then immediately succumbed to injuries and a massive loss of form.)
Incredibly, Thiem is the only current player under 32 to have won a Slam. Thirty-two! The generation behind Nadal’s and Djokovic’s — the Cilics, Juan Martin del Potros, Kei Nishikoris and Milos Raonics of the world — was slowed by injury and an eventual lack of progress. But while Thiem belongs somewhat to a generation of his own (he’s the only player between 26 and 29 to have reached a final), there have been encouraging signs from the group behind him.
* Medvedev, 25, has reached three semifinals and two finals in the last four hardcourt Slams and took Nadal deep into a fifth set before succumbing in the 2019 US Open finals. He has pulled ahead of Nadal to rank second in the world.
* Zverev, 24, had two championship points against Thiem in New York last fall before losing. He has reached at least the semis in three of the past five Slams and currently ranks sixth in the world.
* Stefanos Tsitsipas, 22, has reached the semis of three of his last four Slams, erased a two-set deficit to beat Nadal in this year’s Australian Open and reached the French Open finals by outlasting both Medvedev and Zverev. He currently ranks fourth.
All three of these players have come achingly close, and all three boast plenty of wins over the Big Three in smaller tournaments. If a breakthrough were to occur, it’s not impossible to think it would drive the whole group, not to mention other rising 25-and-under players — No. 7 Andrey Rublev (23), No. 9 Matteo Berrettini (25), No. 12 Denis Shapovalov (22), No. 14 Casper Ruud (22), etc. — to further success. They could begin to vacuum up opportunities for Djokovic to pull ahead of Nadal and Federer.
Djokovic ground Nadal down to win a classic four-set semifinal in the French Open, but Tsitsipas quickly jumped on him in the final, playing the best tennis of his life to go up 7-6, 6-2. It appeared we might be at a precipice in the Big Three vs. Next Gen battle. But Djokovic then played some of the best tennis of his life and took the final three sets, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
“Of course the Next Gen is there, is coming, whatever,” a feisty Djokovic told the media in May, after he and Nadal had weathered tests from players like Tsitsipas, Zverev, Shapovalov and rising American Reilly Opelka to reach the finals in Rome. “But we are still winning the biggest tournaments and Slams. I don’t know what to tell you other than that.”
The promise of this younger group is obvious and growing, and Tsitsipas and Medvedev in particular seem to be getting closer and closer to unlocking the door. But they haven’t yet.
It’s now only a matter of time.
In 2007, Federer came to the All England Club as the four-time defending Wimbledon champion and an overwhelming betting favorite to win a fifth straight. His betting odds were in the neighborhood of minus-250, equivalent to about a 71% chance of winning versus the field. He backed up the odds, sweeping through del Potro and an aging Marat Safin in the early rounds before surviving Nadal for the second straight year in the finals.
Djokovic’s odds this year aren’t quite that good, but they’re pretty overwhelming. Following Nadal’s announced withdrawal last week, they flipped to around minus-110 (equivalent to about a 52% chance).
The message there is obvious: Djokovic has as good a chance of winning as the other 127 competitors combined. Federer’s form has been shaky since he returned to the tour this spring, and while plenty of younger players have the tools to succeed on grass, they have yet to actually do so. Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev are a combined 16-11 all-time at Wimbledon, with just two fourth-round appearances between them, while the big-serving Berrettini’s best showing was the fourth round as well — he made it that far in 2019 but got smoked by Federer.
Wimbledon is Djokovic’s to lose, in other words, and with the US Open and Australian Open on the horizon after that, so is the Slam titles race. The last stand was in Paris, and when Djokovic topped not only Nadal but also the best of the next generation, he all but clinched how the GOAT debate will end.
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