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Opinion: The argument is over, Novak Djokovic is the greatest men's tennis player in history

Dan Wolken
USA TODAY

When he finally reached the end of the climb, Novak Djokovic fell on his back, into the dirt and the grass at the All England Club. He got to his feet, raised his arms to the air and then crouched down to pick a few blades from the court where he had just won his 20th Grand Slam singles title. 

Djokovic proceeded to put them in his mouth, a fitting tribute to what he’s doing to tennis history: Devouring it.

At the end of all this, there’s not going to be an argument. There will be emotional appeals from fans of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, there will be parsing of eras and achievements, there will be equivocations about his quirks or his on-court temper tantrums.

But it’s time to get comfortable with a new reality. Djokovic’s achievements are not just overwhelming, they’re now inarguable in making him the greatest men's tennis player who has ever lived.

It’s possible to say that Federer’s run from 2003-09 was the most dominant any man has ever been on a tennis court or that his significance to the game transcends the numbers. It’s possible to say that nothing in tennis, and maybe in all of sports, has been as difficult as beating Nadal on clay. 

But in terms of overall accomplishment, Djokovic’s 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 victory Sunday over Matteo Berrettini in the Wimbledon final puts him at the top of the heap — and probably for good. 

Technically, the race is still going on. The Grand Slam count is 20-20-20, a mind-boggling tribute to the Big Three era given that Pete Sampras’ 14 Grand Slams once seemed untouchable until Federer came along and obliterated that in 2009. 

At that point, when Federer won his 15th major at Wimbledon that year, Djokovic had just one Australian Open title to his name. 

Since then? It’s been a runaway, and Djokovic looks like he has a lot more gas left in the tank than the other two.

Novak Djokovic is the only man in the Open era to win every Grand Slam twice.

Even so, here’s what Djokovic has already done:

  • He’s the only man in the Open era to win every Grand Slam twice. 
  • He’s the first man in the Open era since Rod Laver to hold all four Slam trophies at once (from 2015-16) and could complete the calendar year Slam if he wins the U.S. Open this year. 
  • He’s the only player to win every Masters 1000 event twice. 
  • He’s now spent 327 weeks ranked No. 1, pulling well ahead of Federer’s 310, Sampras’ 286 and Nadal’s 209. 
  • He’s 27-23 in the head-to-head against Federer and 30-28 against Nadal.
  • He’s the only player to beat Federer multiple times at Wimbledon and the only player to beat Nadal multiple times at the French Open. 

Add it all up, and the evidence is plain to see. Though Djokovic started well behind those two, he’s more than erased the gap. 

“I mentioned this before many times and I have to pay a great tribute to Rafa and Roger,” Djokovic said during the trophy ceremony Sunday. “They are legends of our sport, and they are the two most important players that I ever faed in my career. They are I think the reason that I’m where I am today. They’ve helped me realize what I need to do in order to improve, to get stronger mentally, physically, tactically. When I broke into the top 10 for the first time I lost for three, four years most of the big matches I played against these two guys.

“Something shifted at the end of 2010, beginning of 2011 and the last 10 years have been an incredible journey that is not stopping here.”

This new reality won’t be easy for a large number of tennis fans to embrace. Djokovic, having come along after Federer and Nadal started winning titles and establishing their own fan bases, has been treated like the foil, often facing hostile crowds in big matches. Even after one of his early-round matches at Wimbledon, Djokovic faced an absurd and disrespectful question about being “the bad guy” among the trio. 

Djokovic is no bad guy. He may miss the mark on occasion, like last summer when he launched the precaution-free Adria Tour during the COVID-19 shutdown and a bunch of players ended up getting sick. He may have occasional moments of rage on the tennis court that can be out of place and self-destructive, like last year at the U.S. Open when he got defaulted for swatting away a ball that accidentally hit a linesperson in the throat. 

But most of what fans don’t like about Djokovic seems pretty superficial. In the big picture, he’s been nothing but a positive force for the sport of tennis, for his home country of Serbia and for lower-ranked players who struggle to make a living on tour. In fact, one of the more remarkable things about Djokovic’s performance this year is that he’s done it while trying to launch the Professional Tennis Players Association into prominence as a political force in the game. 

To put so much into that effort — which really won’t benefit him personally — while trying to put together a historic season makes what he’s done the last couple months all the more impressive. 

Djokovic may never be as beloved as Federer or Nadal, but there’s nothing left to knock him for. And it’s time that the respect for his record goes front and center in any discussion about the Big Three going forward. 

About the only significant thing Djokovic hasn’t done is win an Olympic gold medal, which he will certainly be favored to do if he shows up in Tokyo later this month. If he can add that prize — and Djokovic said after winning Wimbledon that he's 50-50 on playing in the Olympics — and the U.S. Open, it will match Steffi Graf’s “Golden Slam” from 1988 and stand as the most impressive single season in the history of the men’s game. 

At this point, it would be hard to bet against it happening. Djokovic has separated himself from both the aging legends he’s spent a decade chasing and the young guns like Berrettini who are making it incrementally more difficult to win titles but aren’t ready yet to take the baton. 

These days, it’s still firmly in the grip of one man whose combination of athleticism, tactical strength and mental fortitude have made him tougher to beat at age 34 than at any time in his career. 

Djokovic’s 20th major title only makes the inevitable official. The Grand Slam scoreboard may show a three-way tie, but the race for the mythical title they’ve all been chasing is effectively over.