Some say it’s the best shot in tennis history.
September 2011, the semifinals of the US Open. For the second year in a row, Roger Federer faces Novak Djokovic; for the second year in a row, Federer has two match points. Rafael Nadal awaits in the final.
It’s 5-3, 40-15 in the Swiss great’s favour. There is hysteria in the stands, the crowd yearning for another Federer-Nadal battle. Djokovic glances around, nodding ruefully at the noise, then settles near the baseline. Federer fires down a first serve at 108mph, and Djokovic slaps back a forehand winner before his opponent has even regained balance.
John McEnroe called it “one of the all-time great shots”. Federer, who went on to lose the match — just as he had in 2010 from the same position — dismissed it as “lucky” and borderline disrespectful. “I tend to do that on match points,” Djokovic said. “It kinda works.”
What’s a forehand winner at the US Open 12 years ago got to do with grand slam finals in 2023? Nothing. And everything.
That match, and the final against Nadal, capped the greatest 12 months in Djokovic’s early career. The man who had reached just three major finals in six years ended 2011 by winning three of the four grand slams, his only defeat coming to Federer in the semifinals of the French Open.
In the 12 years since, he has won another 20, the most recent back at Flushing Meadows. He was a finalist at Wimbledon 2023, defeated in a five-set epic by Carlos Alcaraz. In the end the young Spaniard’s brilliance denied him a calendar Grand Slam. Djokovic is the holder of 24 major singles titles, a record for men in the Open Era.
That shot against Federer was a precursor to all that. So, too, was his reaction at the time: raising his arms to the spectators, a Maximus mimic, daring them not to be entertained.
They didn’t all like him then. They don’t all like him now. But the cold, hard numbers don’t lie: Novak Djokovic is the greatest male tennis player in history.
Djokovic outlasted Daniil Medvedev to win the final slam of 2023, prevailing 6-3 7-6 (7-5) 6-3 after a second set that spanned a mammoth 104 minutes. That victory took him to 24 singles titles at tennis’ four majors — the Australian Open, Wimbledon, the US Open and Roland-Garros — which is more than any other male player in history and level with the all-time record held by Margaret Court.
Nadal has 22 majors; Federer has 20. The closest to the tallies set by the modern game’s ‘big three’ is Pete Sampras, who retired on 14.
Djokovic won his first major at the 2008 Australian Open, defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final. He lost the 2007 US Open final to Federer and the 2010 showpiece in New York to Nadal. In his first six full seasons on the professional tour, they were the only grand slam finals he reached.
Djokovic has won 23 of a possible 52 men’s major singles titles ever since.
*Bold denotes active player
He has won 10 in Australia, which is a record. He has three French Open titles, four US Opens, and seven Wimbledon crowns, making him the only man to have won all four majors at least three times. Having reached the final of every major in 2023, his career tally in that regard now stands at 36, including seven overall at each tournament, both of which are records.
He is the only man to win all four majors in both his 20s and his 30s, and the only male player in the Open Era aside from Rod Laver to be champion of all four majors at once.
The main goal that eludes Djokovic is the calendar Grand Slam: winning all four majors in the same year, something no man has achieved since Laver in 1969. He came closest in 2021, where he won in Australia, Paris and Wimbledon before losing to Medvedev in the final in New York. He had the chance to complete the feat in 2023 after winning in Melbourne and Paris, but the dream was ended when he lost the Wimbledon final to Alcaraz.
As with most sports, it’s difficult to compare tennis players from different eras. The huge evolution of the game, from a pastime for wealthy Victorians with sticks to a global behemoth contested by titanium-wielding warriors, undermines any debate about the best player ever.
Still, the general consensus is the modern ‘big three’ of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal are the three greatest male players in history, so it makes sense to compare their direct records. Djokovic comes out on top.
Nadal’s sensational victory over Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the 2022 French Open was the most recent meeting in a rivalry stretching back nearly 20 years. Given the Spaniard’s injury troubles, it could be the last time they face one another on either side of a net.
If that’s the case, Djokovic will finish with the superior head-to-head record, having won 30 of the 59 Tour-level matches they have played. Nadal led 14-4 until the balance shifted at the Cincinnati Masters in 2009, where Djokovic prevailed 6-1 6-4. The Serbian has since lost just four times to Nadal away from the Spaniard’s favoured clay surface. That’s not to say his record on the red dirt is poor — he is the only player to have beaten Nadal multiple times at the French Open, after all.
Djokovic met Federer 50 times and leads that head-to-head 27-23. Again, he had to play catch-up in this rivalry: Federer led 13-6 before the semifinals of the 2011 Australian Open, where Djokovic won in straight sets en route to the title. Since then, the head-to-head record reads 21-10 in the younger man’s favour. Those 31 matches include three Wimbledon finals won by Djokovic against the record eight-time champion, who only won two of their last eight meetings before retiring in 2022.
The ATP Masters tournaments (or Masters 1000s) are the Tour’s most prestigious competitions behind the majors. There are nine in total: the Canadian Open (hard court), Italian Open (clay), Indian Wells Masters (hard), Miami Open (hard), Monte-Carlo Masters (clay), Madrid Open (clay), Cincinnati Masters (hard), Shanghai Masters (hard) and Paris Masters (hard indoor).
Given the series was only introduced in 1990, it’s not surprising that the winners’ list is dominated by the ‘big three’. As of July 2023, Djokovic has won 39 Masters singles titles, the most of any male player. The latest came in Cincinnati 2023, when he outlasted Alcaraz in a three-set thriller. Nadal has won 36; Federer, 28. The next man on the list is Andre Agassi, with 17.
*Bold denotes active player
Only one man in history has won all nine Masters 1000 titles, an achievement dubbed the ‘Golden Masters’. That player is Novak Djokovic. And he’s done it twice.
In March 2021, Djokovic set a new record for the most number of weeks as the world No.1 in men’s tennis. The Serbian reached 311 weeks at the top of the ATP rankings — which have existed for half a century — to surpass the previous record held by Federer.
As of September 2023, Djokovic’s record stands at 389 weeks at the summit. He has been world No.1 in 12 different years — no other player has even reached double figures in that regard.
Djokovic has finished as the year-end No.1 — in essence, a mark of the world’s most successful player in a single season — seven times, which is also a record. His 2023 New York win over Medvedev moved him back to world No.1 at Alcaraz’s expense.
*Bold denotes active player
Djokovic has made a habit of finishing the year strongly. He’s reached the year-end championships — the ATP Finals — 15 times, a figure only bettered by Federer (17). He shares the record with the Swiss when it comes to ATP Finals titles, with six each. It’s a trophy Nadal has never won.
Djokovic won a record fourth consecutive Finals title in 2015. When he won the Australian Open and French Open in the following year, he became the only man in history to hold all four major singles titles and the year-end championships crown at the same time.
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