The GOAT or not the GOAT?
The debate will rage on ever more. But when Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have all hung up their racquets and their careers and achievements are fully assessed, the numbers look like they might side with Djokovic.
Eighteen Grand Slam titles – two behind Federer and Nadal in the all-time standings but seemingly with time and form on his side to equal or surpass them. A record 36 Masters 1000 titles – and the only player to win all nine of the tournaments. Eighty-two singles titles – putting him fifth on the all-time list. Six-time year-end No 1 – level with Pete Sampras’ record. And 311 weeks as world No 1 – an all-time record.
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That’s a week longer at the top than Federer, 25 weeks longer than Sampras, and over 40 weeks longer than Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors.
And he’s not getting caught anytime soon.
He holds a 2,180-point lead over second-placed Nadal in the rankings and, as he showed at the Australian Open, is still the best player in tennis, even if the gap below is closing slightly.
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When will it close enough to knock Djokovic off the top? At the age of 33 – he turns 34 in May – it’s probable that he will play for a few more years, by which time how many more weeks will he have spent as world No 1? 50? 60? 100? In the era of three of the greatest players of all time, it is remarkable that one has spent so long at the top.
The glimmer of hope for those chasing the No 1 ranking is that Djokovic cuts down on his schedule in his pursuit for more Grand Slams, which he suggested he would do after winning in Australia.
“Now, after achieving the historic [feat of spending] the longest [consecutive] weeks at No 1, it's going to be a relief for me because I'm going to focus all my attention on Slams mostly.
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When you are going for No 1 rankings, you kind of have to be playing the entire season and you have to be playing well, you have to play all the tournaments. My goals will adapt and will shift a little bit.
Djokovic, who is in his fifth stint as world No 1, has had his peaks and troughs too. After one of the greatest seasons of all time in 2015, he suffered the biggest downturn in his career following his first French Open win in 2016, losing early at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, undergoing elbow surgery, and then splitting with coach Boris Becker and long-time coach Marian Vajda. His career appeared to be on the slide as he fell out of the top 20 in the world.
But, having spoken about needing to find a “winning spark” again, he became the first player ranked outside the top 20 to reach No 1 in the same season since Marat Safin in 2000. Former ATP executive chairman Chris Kermode called it one of the “great sporting comebacks”.
Since returning to the top in 2018, Djokovic has only dropped out again for a short period, and Federer’s record has probably been on his mind for a while. He spoke about it at Roland-Garros last autumn when he said staying at the top of the rankings was the "ultimate challenge" in tennis.
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It requires a lot of consistency, requires a lot of determination, a lot of sacrifice throughout the year. It's not enough to play well one month a year, two months a year. You have to play well the entire year in order to be one of the best players in the world.
It’s undoubtedly a prestigious achievement and one that reflects Djokovic’s high-level success throughout his career. Since he first reached world No 1 as a 24-year-old in 2011 he has held the position for 64 per cent of the time, with Nadal (22.1 per cent), Federer (5.1 per cent) and Andy Murray (8.4 per cent) sharing the rest of the time between them. That is consistency of the highest order, against some of the best competition that there has ever been.
And Djokovic is not done yet.
While he continues to accrue more weeks as world No 1 and targets more Grand Slam wins, it’s also possible that in the next few years he will become the first man in the Open era to win each of the four majors twice, if he can win again at Roland-Garros.
Would that push him over the edge in the GOAT debate? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe nothing ever definitively will.
But his latest record is one that may never be beaten, and that should count for plenty.
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