Something interesting happened in men’s tennis last month. The first thing: Novak Djokovic obliterated a seemingly resurgent Rafael Nadal 6-1, 6-2 in a relatively minor tournament in Qatar.
A few days ago, at the Australian Open, Djokovic obliterated the legendary Roger Federer in four sets, winning the first two sets 6-1, 6-2.
Djokovic now has winning records against perhaps the two greatest players in tennis history.
So what does that make him?
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Every now and again, we get a thrilling sports convergence. In the 1950s, three remarkable center fielders — Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider — played in New York. All three would end up in the Hall of Fame.
In the 1980s, the NBA was transformed by the singular talents of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. In 1983, three amazing quarterbacks — John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino — all came out of college and into the NFL draft. In the 1990s, while everyone talked about home runs, baseball featured four of the greatest starting pitchers in baseball history — Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, and Pedro Martinez.
It’s exciting now to think about what professional golf might become with Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Ricky Fowler all coming into their prime together. But when you talk about sports convergences, you probably should begin with heavyweight boxing in the 1970s. Joe Frazier was a hard-working son of a South Carolina farmer, and he won Olympic gold despite fighting with a broken thumb. George Foreman was a high school dropout in Texas who knocked out three opponents to win his Olympic gold. And, Muhammad Ali, the son of a sign painter in Louisville, also won Olympic gold and then promised to shock the world.
Their battles were epic. Frazier pounded Ali in the Fight of the Century, knocking him down late in the fight with a massive left hook. Foreman demolished Frazier in the famous “Down goes Frazier!” fight, knocking down Smokin’ Joe six times before it was over. Ali sapped and eroded Foreman’s energy by leaning on the ropes and taking the big man’s best before Big George punched himself out. And finally, most memorably, Ali outlasted Frazer in the Thrilla in Manilla, the fight Ali called the closest thing he knew to dying.
Where do those three boxers place in boxing history? They are top 10 heavyweights by acclimation, and you will usually see each of the three ranked in the top six. We will never know just how dominant Frazier or Foreman would have been in another time. It’s not too hard to imagine Foreman as Joe Louis or Frazier as Rocky Marciano.
But they fought in the time of Ali. And, when it was all done, Ali had gotten the better of the other two men. Ali won two of three from Frazier and beat him in the Thrilla. Ali solved Foreman with a strategy so bold and risky that, like the Trojan Horse, it is unforgettable.
The point is: Ali won the greatest era. And for that, he is almost universally regarded as the only thing he ever wanted to become: The greatest of all time.
More and more, it looks like Novak Djokovic will be this tennis era’s Ali.
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Of course, tennis isn’t boxing. The sport changes too much to be timeless the way boxing often feels. Rackets change. Court surfaces change. Tennis balls change. When you look at the racquets Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were using just 15 or 20 years ago, they seem as ancient and primitive as giant cell phones in purses. Then you go back another 20 years and see the steel trampoline that Jimmy Connors wielded or the graphite stick that Bjorn Borg would use to return every shot for hours and hours at a time or the wood rackets of John McEnroe. And you realize they were playing a very different game.
Because of that, it’s difficult — perhaps even impossible — to imagine Nadal against Borg at the French Open or Federer playing against his coach Stefan Edberg or, for that matter, Djokovic facing his coach, Boris Becker.
But what we can say for sure is that we are at the point where Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are the three most accomplished players of the Open Era.
Look, here are the Top 5 in Grand Slam titles:
1. Roger Federer, 17
2. Pete Sampras, 14
(tie) Rafael Nadal, 14
4. Bjorn Borg, 11
5. Novak Djokovic, 11
Sure, you can say that Sampras and Borg deserve their respect, and they do. But neither of them can match the scope of the big three. Sampras, because of his big serve, powerful forehand and ability to play his best on the big points, was fabulous on grass and hard courts. But he was not a great clay court player. He reached just one semifinal at the French Open and never reached a final. He won one major clay court tournament in his entire career. He had a few moments on clay, but generally that surface is a hole in his giant resume.
Borg retired young and while in his tennis prime, so we will never know what he might have done had he continued playing. But as it was, he never won a grand slam title on hard courts.
When you look at the other greats of the Open Era, you see similar gaps. John McEnroe never won the French or Australian Open and faded after he turned 25. Jimmy Connors never reached a French Open Final and had several long droughts in his career. Ivan Lendl never won Wimbledon. Andre Agassi’s career was a roller coaster with dramatic highs and lows and loops.
Then there are Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. The first two have won the career grand slam while Djokovic lacks only the French Open (he will be the overwhelming favorite this year and has reached three French Open finals already). All three have displayed a mind-blowing consistency that trumps anything else we’ve seen in the Open Era.
Federer once reached the semifinals in 23 consecutive grand slams. He has reached 27 finals, which is the record.
Nadal won nine French Open titles in 10 years and, unlike most clay court wizards, he has also been amazing on other surfaces. He has beaten Federer at Wimbledon and Djokovic at the U.S. Open. He has reached 20 grand slam finals, which is second behind Federer.
And now, Djokovic. He has reached 19 grand slam finals, which is third all-time. He has reached the semifinals in all but one of the last 23 grand slam events — only a surprising quarterfinal loss to Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open kept him from matching Federer’s seemingly untouchable mark of excellence.
Beyond the numbers, there is also a sense of history you feel watching them play. This is especially true of Federer; you see that serve, that forehand, the way he dances on the court, and, yes, you can feel an almost spiritual awakening.
Nadal fans will counter with the obvious: How could Federer be the best player of all-time when he was not even the best player of his own time? Nadal has dominated Federer 23-11 in their matches, and despite Federer fan protests this is not only true on clay but also on the outdoor hard courts, where Nadal won eight of 10. Nadal inspires a different kind of awe from Federer. You see Nadal’s ferocious topspin shots — his shots buzz like angry bees — and the way he chases down every ball like the Terminator after Sarah Connor, and you cannot help but think that he would rather die than lose. He is Joe Frazier in tennis shoes.
But now we have to ask: Where does Djokovic fit? He is younger than the other two — six years younger than Federer and a year younger than Nadal — and so he seems to be from a slightly different era. His first seminal year was 2011, and by then Federer had already won 16 of his 17 of major championships. Nadal had won nine of his 14.
Up to that point, both Federer and Nadal dominated their rivalries with the Djoker. Federer had won 12 out of 18. Nadal had won 16 of their 23 meetings. Djokovic was talented but flawed. He was the youngest player to reach the semifinal at all four major championships. He won the Australian Open at age 20. But he seemed fragile, both physically and emotionally. Until 2011, he fit better with the second tier — with Andy Roddick and Nikolay Davydenko and Andy Murray and David Ferrer — than with Federer and Nadal.
Then, Djokovic transformed. He started a new diet. He reworked his body. Djokovic often talks about how tennis is a battle between conviction and doubt. He somehow found his conviction. In the biggest moments, he would not miss.
In 2011, he beat Federer at the Australian Open. He followed by beating Nadal in three consecutive Grand Slam finals. He began his domination of the tennis world in his personal style. He does not float around the court like Federer or throw heavy topspin grenades like Nadal. Instead, he runs down every shot — has there ever been a faster player? He returns serves with fury — has there ever been a better counterpuncher? He overwhelms opponents with so many different kinds of shots — has there ever been a more complete player?
More and more, it is Djokovic who looks to be the Muhammad Ali of his time. He now leads in head-to-head competition against both Federer and Nadal. And with Djokovic at his peak, it is unlikely either one will catch him now. Many will say, with justification, that Djokovic is beating up on lesser versions of Federer and Nadal, and that is true. But, of course, it is also true that in the early years, they beat up on a lesser version of Djokovic. The final score is the final score.
It is hard to imagine that anyone — even going back to before the Open Era, to the greats like Rod Laver and Roy Emerson and Bill Tilden — played better tennis than Djokovic did in the semifinal and final of the Australian Open. In the semis, he overwhelmed Federer, who may be somewhat diminished but who still seems to dominate just about everyone else in the world. In the finals, he crushed the No. 2 player in the world, Andy Murray, in three straightforward sets.
The gap between Djokovic and the rest of the world is gaping, and it’s expanding. A young player or two may yet come along to challenge him but for now, it’s clear sailing. No active player younger than Djokovic has won even one grand slam title. If Djokovic doesn’t get bored or injured, he could reign supreme in tennis’ greatest era. And that will make him the greatest tennis player of all time.