Who is the ‘GOAT’ (Editor’s note: Greatest Of All time)? This debate is endless and particularly uncertain. Everyone could come and feed it based on personal and subjective memories that tip hearts towards this or that player among the extraordinary trio that dominates current tennis. Some would evoke the different records, others the character of one or a particular stroke of the other to try to decide between them. If we start from the premise that the Grand Slam is law, there is no doubt that the debate is between Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Despite all their genius, the Lavers, Borg, Connors, McEnroe or Sampras will have to be content with runners-up.
On paper, Djokovic ahead
With a new prestigious record in his pocket since Monday, March 8, Novak Djokovic collects the many distinctions that could make him the greatest. For Stéphane Houdet, wheelchair tennis player, the answer is obvious. “Yes, mathematically that’s him. If we are factual, he is the one who has the record for longevity and he will potentially have the number of Grand Slams at the end of his career. “ With two units behind these main competitors in this ranking (editor’s note, 20 for Nadal and Federer, 18 for Djokovic), it seems reasonable to think that the Serb can come to take the lead in the years to come.
“Federer and Nadal have other records, such as at Wimbledon (editor’s note, 8 titles) or at Roland Garros (editor’s note, 13 titles) but for the moment, on the accounting aspect, there is no debate” assures Stéphane Houdet. In view of the various exploits achieved by the Swiss and the Spaniard, Sébastien Grosjean wants to be more nuanced. “There are records among the three. In addition, Federer will take over and Nadal is still playing ” notes the Marseillais, “You have to wait until the end of their career to decide between them and see what we put on the table.” It is not excluded to see these two players compete with the Serbian for some time in the Grand Slam.
According to the criteria established a few years ago by James Blake, former American player, Novak Djokovic would be this ‘GOAT’. “The number of weeks in place of world number 1 is a very important data. It means you are the best and not just in a tournament ” he confessed in 2019. Marat Safin, born in 1980, is of the same generation as Roger Federer and, despite a slight weakness for his former rival whom he has been around much more than the other two, the Russian does not want to decide . “No matter how you count, the number of tournaments, they are all on the same level” he said before adding, “This whole group is already history.”
Djokovic, a less beautiful but more effective game
“There is no doubt that Federer is the most beautiful to watch but Novak is the best player of all time” Tennys Sandgren had reacted after his loss to the Swiss at the Australian Open in 2020 before adding, “We try to hit a winning shot, he (Djokovic) puts the ball in difficult areas where it is impossible to surprise him. It suffocates you slowly. ” Stéphane Houdet supports the words of the American: “We got into our heads that a good volley, a good forehand matched Federer’s game, but it is clear that with different strokes, we can be world number 1 for longer.”
Several years ago, Marin Cilic, close to the Serb, sided with his friend. “He has incredible tennis with very few faults. For me at his peak, Djokovic is the best player of all time ”, he confided in 2016 while for John McEnroe: “He’s the best defender in history.” According to Sébastien Grosjean, on this point again, it is difficult to find a player who stands out. “They have all won the four Grand Slams. Even though ‘Rafa’ prefers clay and Roger grass, they are all court players ” he indicates while specifying,“Djokovic may need less time than the others to adjust from one surface to another.”
For a long time the ‘Big 3’ had been extended to a ‘Big 4’ as Andy Murray had come to disrupt the established hierarchy by managing to ascend the throne of the ATP ranking and afford several major. The main stakeholder who battled with the three players on each surface was also undecided on this issue. “The three best players in history are playing at the same time. I felt like I was playing the best of all time on clay, the best of all time on grass and the best of all time on hard ” had entrusted the Briton in a live organized with Novak Djokovic on Instagram during the confinement of the year 2020.
Federer-Nadal rivalry overtakes Djokovic
Before the Serbian came to titillate his two rivals, Federer and Nadal already offered duels at the top on the circuit. “I remember that final in Miami in 2005” says Sébastien Grosjean. At that time, Rafael Nadal was only 19 years old and had lost to the former world number 1 after leading two sets to zero in the final at Key Biscayne. Djokovic was still young and too tender to join in the battle. This rivalry between the Swiss and the Spaniard already had all the ingredients to satisfy all tennis observers.
“I think people were so used to seeing Roger and ‘Rafa’ that they liked that contrast between the two styles of play. It was always exciting games like the Borg-McEnroe games, there was opposition. of style” notes the old French number 1. On the sidelines of Djokovic’s eighth coronation in Melbourne in 2020, Mats Wilander also mentioned the similarities with the rivalry between the American and the Swedish in the 1980s: “It is above all the contrast of styles that makes Federer-Nadal unique, much more than their clashes with ‘Djoko’.”
This competition, Stéphane Houdet sees it, between the three players. “I am a tennis fan, what marks history are the rivalries and there, we cannot take a player out” affirms the wheelchair tennis player adding that these are beneficial, “There always has to be a real fight that is ongoing and interesting. When there isn’t, you don’t sublimate a player’s potential. ” “The rivalry pushes them to push their limits and seek records. They need each other to keep moving forward ” explains Sébastien Grosjean.
Popularity, a stone in Djokovic’s shoe
Novak Djokovic has long struggled to win the hearts of a large audience. Much more demonstrative than his competitors on the court, his excess of anger and his attitude did not work in his favor. “What bothers people on the court is also the expression of the physical complaint where we saw him almost in agony before finally going on to the final”, explains Stéphane Houdet with reference to the Serbian abdominal injury at the Australian Open before winning his 9th coronation.
“People perceive him as fake and demonic. At Roland Garros, he filmed us saying that the wheelchair tennis players were fantastic. The comments were very critical explaining that he wanted to clear his conscience. As soon as he moves, there is a problem ” adds the 50-year-old. “There are little moments when we saw him break his racket and lose control” insists Sébastien Grosjean, “Federer and Nadal control their emotions.” For Stéphane Houdet, “Nadal is a great man on and off the court, especially in the locker room where he respects everyone. (…) Federer does not flinch, we can hardly see him breaking a racket. It may influence some fans. ”
“Roger and ‘Rafa’ have an exceptional aura and are so high in popularity. It goes beyond tennis ” Grosjean confides. For Dominic Thiem, Federer is the greatest: “On and off the pitch, he’s an icon, a real superstar.” In a New York Times article, journalist Christopher Clarey recounted an anecdote showing the extraordinary popularity of the two players around the world: “I was on vacation in a small isolated village in Laos in 2013. We were so isolated that there was nothing! Not even electricity! And I remember in a conversation with locals mentioning tennis, and immediately hearing them exclaim: ‘Federer, Nadal!’ Epic! ” A popularity which tilts in favor of the Spanish and the Swiss but which does not end a debate very far from it.