Sports don't get much better than men’s tennis these days. Arguably the three best players in the history of the sport are performing during the same era courtesy of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
And boy, has it been something.
In the latest chapter of the “Big Three,” the trio all advanced to the semifinals of Wimbledon, the most prestigious Grand Slam of them all. Federer won a high-octane, thriller of a match in four sets over Nadal in the semifinals, and waiting for him was Djokovic.
In the longest men’s final in Wimbledon history (4 hours and 57 minutes) that tested the mental and physical will of both players, Djokovic triumphed in a barn burner in five sets 7-6 (7-5), 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 13-12 (7-3). He’s not called the Marathon Man for nothing.
It was the first ever men’s Grand Slam final with a fifth set tiebreaker (when the score reaches 12-12 in the final set). Djokovic astoundingly became the first man to win a Grand Slam final at Wimbledon by saving match points since Bob Falkenburg saved three points in 1948. After facing two match points while down in the fifth set on Federer’s racket, it was Djokovic who held firm, kept his composure, broke and mounted his way to a fifth Wimbledon trophy.
This final was easily one of the five best men’s Grand Slam finals I’ve ever witnessed. Federer kept making unreturnable serves (25 aces) that even the best returner in the game had trouble adjusting to. As Federer got to net at will through 51 points at the net, Djokovic continued grinding with tight, flat groundstrokes.
Ultimately, Djokovic proved to be oh-so-more slightly steady, sound, controlled and efficient in the three tiebreakers – which was the difference – while Federer was a little more wild and unsettled on the crucial points, being off the mark with aggressive shots in untimely moments. The championship was decided by the thinnest of margins, which many of the matches between the two usually are.
In the everlasting G.O.A.T. chase, Fed still leads the pack with 20 Grand Slam titles, followed by Nadal's 18 and Djokovic's 16. Each are first, second and third all-time, respectively for tennis' top crowns.
In a generation reigned by these three cosmic titans, Djokovic has seemingly always been the one who wasn’t as appreciated, not receiving the level of fan adulation that Federer and Nadal have. Still, I believe as all things go on the tennis court, he will eventually pass both as the all-time Grand Slam king.
Here are two reasons each why he’ll surpass both his rivals.
Djokovic is younger than Federer and has his number
Djokovic is 32 years old while Federer will be turning 38 on August 8th. There used to be a time in tennis when once a top player hit their 30s, they were either done playing at a high level or they retired. That notion has been completely ripped to pieces nowadays with Djokovic, Federer and the 33-year-old Nadal all sustaining their spectacular form and keeping a unyielding hold on the men’s game.
However, while Federer is still elite and a top-3 player in the world, he’s well past his physical and athletic prime, while Djokovic is currently in his. Given how he is plausibly the fittest player on tour, I’m betting Djokovic will stay in peak condition physically up until he’s 35. Only four behind Roger in Slam titles, Novak will simply have more chances to win them because he’ll play longer and most importantly he may have at least 2-3 more peak years to do so.
Each year Federer gets older, his chances at winning another big one decreases. Plainly, Novak has time on his side.
Also, more paramount is the fact that the Serb has the Swiss Maestro’s number. Djokovic is basically a fort that Federer cannot bludgeon his way through. In the first half of the rivalry, Federer got the better of the matchup. Now, it’s rocking in Djokovic’s favor. With his fifth win at the All England Club, Djokovic moved to 3-1 versus Federer at Wimbledon and 3-0 against him in Wimbledon finals (2014, 2015, 2019) on his contemporary’s best surface.
Djokovic now has a 10-6 record versus Federer in Grand Slam matches, including five straight wins dating back to 2014 Wimbledon. Four of those five wins have come in finals. Beyond that since 2014 in matches taken place at the major tournaments (Grand Slams, Masters 1000, ATP Tour Championships), Djokovic is an imposing 11-4 versus Federer.
Whether it’s a best-of-three or best-of-five, Djokovic is getting the better of Federer. In Federer’s case, he’s played exceptional tennis at times, coming on the brink of defeating Djokovic on a couple of occasions. Yet at the end, Djokovic seems to summon something that Federer can’t on those key games and points that get him to the finish line first.
Take the 2018 Paris Masters semifinals. The tangle lasted more than three hours and was as high-quality of a match as I’ve seen between the two. On that November day, Federer did not drop serve once while converting on the only break of the match in the second set. Djokovic still found a way through 7-6 (8-6), 5-7, 7-6 (7-3) in a contest decided by centimeters. Even then, Federer’s best was not enough.
Over the last six years, Federer has lost so many gut-wrenching battles on big stages against Djokovic that you have to wonder if his psyche has taken a beating and what that means moving forward. As Federer ages in the sport, it’s looking more difficult to see him reverse his fortune against his younger foe.
Djokovic is healthier and a better all-court player than Nadal
While Djokovic and Nadal are around the same age with the Spaniard being two up in the Grand Slam column, the Serb is the one better equipped to finish with more Slam titles. One main reason is that he has customarily been the healthier player throughout their careers. Because of the unique physical style of play that Nadal has, he’s been prone to injuries in the past and there have been several stretches that he’s missed action.
That mostly comes into effect during the summer after Wimbledon and into hard court season in the fall. Traditionally, Nadal usually peaks during the early part of the season, especially during the spring clay court season and summer grass court period. However, we’ve seen on different occasions during the U.S. Open and onward that his body starts to break down, leaving him unable to finish the season at a high note or forced to withdraw from events.
Djokovic doesn’t have that problem. Other than a period for the majority of 2017 and early 2018, Djokovic has been fairly fit to play tournaments consistently, reliable like betting free slots at a casino with a guaranteed payout. The Djoker has been money.
Moreover, while both are excellent players on all surfaces, Djokovic is the one proven to be the bigger threat as an all-court performer at the significant tournaments. Since 2014, Nadal has only won two non-clay court Grand Slam/Masters 1000/ATP Tour Championship events, the 2017 U.S. Open and 2018 Canadian Open. Djokovic’s big titles, however, have been spread out between hard, clay and grass courts during that run. Above all, Djokovic has been the more reliable and upper-echelon executor on all surfaces. It helps too that he’s 14-6 against Nadal in their last 20 matches.
Diagnosing the next five years, Novak Djokovic - the winner of four of the last five slams - has more working in his favor than his two adversaries, and appears to be in prime position to finish with the most Grand Slam titles in men’s tennis history.