Welcome to the Virgin Media Midweek Kick-off! As Novak Djokovic prepares to defend his prestigious Indian Wells title next week against the biggest names in tennis, we ask sports writers Jack Prescott and Jim Butler whether the unbeatable world number one (with 11 Grand Slam titles to his name, and counting) has done enough to be considered the greatest player of all time…
Yes, he’s one of a kind
“He’s a machine that’s programmed to win” – Jack Prescott, sports writer, Virgin Media
The best of the best
Novak Djokovic used to slog it out against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – each of whom has previously been spoken of as the greatest of all time (GOAT) – with varying results, but in recent times he’s pulled clear of them all. He now has a 51 per cent winning record against Federer, a 51 per cent winning record against Nadal and a 71 per cent winning record against world number two Andy Murray, meaning that his rivalries are starting to become formalities. There will always be the occasional blip – and he’s yet to bag the French Open – but the worrying thing for the rest of the Tour is that he’s only likely to improve on his 94 per cent winning record from last season.
Perfect physical specimen
One word springs to mind when you see Djokovic on the court: bendy. With his elasticated limbs, he’s able to retrieve almost any ball, and salvage any situation. More importantly, however, is his stamina. A six-hour epic in stifling heat? No problem. Two gruelling matches in as many days? Sure thing. Put simply, there is no other player in history who’s possessed the physical attributes of Djokovic. He is a well-greased machine that is programmed to win.
Let’s not pull any punches here: Djokovic isn’t the most popular player on the tour. Regardless of his on-court supremacy, he’s struggled to shake off his reputation of being a brat in his younger days, but you won’t find him complaining too much. Instead, he uses it to his advantage. Against the likes of Federer he’ll always be battling against the crowd, but the antipathy he feels from spectators only seems to spur him on. He never loses concentration, he never gets complacent, and he always has something to prove.
While he may be six Grand Slam titles behind Roger Federer’s Open Era record of 17, the fact that the Serbian is only 28 years old means that he’s likely to surpass his rival’s tally. When he gets to 18 majors (it’s not a case of if) there will be no remaining reason for anyone to argue that Djokovic isn’t the greatest of them all.
No breaking point
The word ‘impossible’ isn’t in Djokovic’s vocabulary. Back him into a corner, stack the deck against him, and the chances are that he’ll come out swinging spectacularly. One of the scarier stats that the Serbian can boast is that he wins 32% of games when he’s 0-40 down on an opponent’s serve. Basically, he doesn’t know when he’s beaten – which is probably why he so rarely is.
He’s good, but not the greatest
“His dominance has coincided with his rivals’ weakening powers” – Jim Butler, sports writer
Right place, right time
People talk about the last few years being the greatest in men’s tennis history. And while Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and, to a lesser extent, Andy Murray have taken the game to new heights, all four were at their peak at different times. Federer is getting on, Nadal is a pale imitation of his former self and Murray, while similar in style to Djokovic, just doesn’t push him close anymore. Obviously the Serbian can only beat what is put in front of him, but his dominant phase has coincided with a weakening of Federer and Nadal’s powers.
Substance without style
Tennis purists love to wax lyrical about the aesthetic charms of Federer, McEnroe and Rod Laver. Rightly or wrongly, their balletic grace on a tennis court is held as the pinnacle of stylish tennis. Djokovic just doesn’t possess such elegance. He might be the best returner of serve the men’s game has ever known and he might be blessed with a suite of powerful ground strokes, but this aggressive modern approach just doesn’t endear him to the game’s classicists.
Where’s the class?
It would be churlish to suggest that greatness for a tennis player is measured in tournament wins. A real champion also possesses that intangible quality: class. Djokovic does an awful lot for charity (which can’t be scoffed at) but he hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory with his on-court conduct in the past. Shouting at ball boys and questionable injury time-outs hardly smack of model behaviour. He could do with taking a leaf out of Federer’s book and start not just playing like a champion, but acting like one too.
Missing in France
How can Djokovic seriously be considered as the GOAT when he hasn’t won all four Grand Slams? He’s excelled at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open, but the French Open still eludes him. Granted, he’s made it to the final three times, but only if he tastes glory at Roland Garros and completes the career Grand Slam can he be mentioned in the same breath as true legends of the sport like Nadal, Federer, Andre Agassi and Rod Laver.
Rivals? What rivals?
Bjorn Borg had John McEnroe; Agassi had Pete Sampras; and Federer had Nadal. Djokovic has… Murray? Funnily enough that just doesn’t scan. If Djokovic was going toe-to-toe with a rival of equal worth and pummelling his way to Grand Slam after Grand Slam, then his greatness would be assured. Unfortunately, he isn’t.
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