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When Roger Federer lost to Rafael Nadal in the Wimbledon final in 2008, some thought that Federer would pack it in in a few years when the legs went, with his money and his legacy secure.
Yet fast forward 11 years and Federer is still taking part in gruelling five-set thrillers on Centre Court, with no obvious retirement date on the horizon. The Swiss star, who is 38 in August, would say he still competes because of a “love of the game”. But what will primarily be on his mind is his legacy of being regarded as the best player ever is under considerable threat.
In 2008, Nadal seemed Federer’s only realistic rival to the crown. A young Novak Djokovic had shown his talent in winning the Australian Open that year but had just lost in straight sets to Marat Safin in the second round of Wimbledon.
Nadal was the perfect rival for Federer, the contrast of power and finesse was the perfect narrative on which to shape a rivalry. Djokovic’s talents were less obvious, more like Nadal but not the same brute force, a certain elegance to his movement but could never strike the ball with Federer’s flair. He was meant to settle alongside Andy Murray, a superb player, but a class below.
Yet after Sunday’s victory, Djokovic has now reached 16 Grand Slams to Nadal’s 18 and Federer’s 20. The Serb is almost six years younger than Federer and a year younger than Nadal. Nadal with 12 French Opens, is likely to pick up a few more. But that is one of only four possible Grand Slams in any given year, and Nadal has only won one of the other three in the past six years. Meanwhile Djokovic has won four of the last five Slams and doesn’t look like stopping anytime soon.
With every passing year and every additional major victory against Federer and Nadal, it is harder not to think that Djokovic could well be better than both of them. The Serb leads in head-to-head against both players, not bad considering Nadal and Federer both won five of their first six matches against him when he started on Tour. Djokovic leads Federer 26-22, while he leads Nadal 29-26. In Grand Slam matches, Djokovic has now beaten Federer 10 times out of 16 attempts.
In terms of highest peak performance, Djokovic in 2011 had perhaps the greatest season of all-time. Some of his achievements included a 10-1 record against Nadal and Federer; a 41-match winning streak, not losing a single match until June; 10 tournament wins, three of them Grand Slams (Australian, Wimbledon, US Open); winning 70 matches and losing only six.
In 2015, he reached every Grand Slam final, winning three of them. He won six Masters 1000 tournaments; reached 16 consecutive finals; won 31 times against top 10 players, including a 4-0 record against Nadal, 6-1 against Murray and 5-3 against Federer. In 2016, he became the only player in history to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time on different surfaces. All of this was achieved in one of the strongest eras of tennis history where two of the best players ever have also played, and Murray and Stan Wawrinka were no mugs either.
It is also the nature of his victories that makes them so impressive. The first sign Djokovic showed he would be the ultimate pressure player came at the 2010 US Open semi-final, when he saved two match points against Federer, pulling off amazing winners to save the match. When a similar situation came up in the Wimbledon final, out came the nerveless cross-court shot again and Federer left aghast at Djokovic’s will to survive.
On Sunday, Federer played close to his best possible tennis, winning more points and games than Djokovic and having two match points in the fifth set. Yet there he stood with the plate in his hands rather than the trophy, scratching his head once more. Memories of the 2015 US Open final would have come flooding back, where Federer had 23 break points, but took just four as Djokovic won in four sets.
“I don’t know what I feel right now,” a downbeat Federer said after his loss on Sunday. “I just feel like it’s such an incredible opportunity missed, I can’t believe it.”
Federer knew he needed to win, because 21 vs 15 would have left Djokovic with a very tough task. Now his record is vulnerable.He also knows he has just lost three times in finals to Djokovic on his favoured grass on Centre Court at Wimbledon, an unavoidable blot in his career copybook.
Djokovic will never win the popularity contest and he may never be considered “the greatest”. There are many intangibles that will always make Federer “Mr Tennis” in terms of cultural impact, playing style and personality. Djokovic will never inspire a 10,000-word New York Times piece on watching him play as a religious experience from a writer of the quality of David Foster Wallace.
To read a Guardian report from that US Open match in 2010 that launched the current Djokovic shows little has changed in the public perception: “With all due respect to Djokovic, his deserved win spiked the near-universal hunger for a Nadal-Federer final, a showdown that would have gone a long way to settling the debate about who deserved to be called the greatest of all time.”
This hunger for the natural Federer-Nadal narrative to be fulfilled, and the idea that Djokovic came too late to the party for the public’s affection, has meant that Djokovic has always been an outsider. As a young player, Djokovic was quite expressive on the court and was known for some funny impressions of other Tour players. As he got older, he became more reserved on the court, but winning matches didn’t bring with it the hearts of the public.
It has reared its ugly head at times, particularly at Wimbledon and the US Open against Federer and Nadal. On Sunday, Djokovic had to deal with the crowd cheering his double faults and booing his query to the umpire, for having the audacity of trying to beat Federer. At Flushing Meadows in boisterous New York, it has been even worse at times.
Yet it is Djokovic who continually lets his tennis do the talking for him on the court. There is an unrelenting brilliance about the Serb – from the depth of his groundstrokes to his incredible flexibility and agility to his peerless returning. Djokovic at his best has no clear weaknesses. He may never be loved, but it’s time for the crowds to respect that they may be watching the best men’s tennis player of all-time.