The mark of a player’s greatness is often measured in longevity.
For how long can they defy the chasing pack?, and live as the hunted at the top of the game.
The big three in Men’s tennis have produced a level of consistency and domination that the game will never see again, and the current flag bearer shows no signs of slowing down.
With Roger Federer retired and Rafael Nadal seemingly near the end, Novak Djokovic serves not just as a reminder of this magical era, but he has also rubber stamped his position at the top of the mountain.
A 23rd major, and in the process becoming the first man to win all four slams at least three times each is probably enough, without delving into the rest of it.
The purpose here though is to emphasise the role of best of five-set tennis in elevating the very best players above the rest.
Like winning a couple of rounds against Muhammad Ali only to be knocked out in the end, the challenge of taking three sets off Djokovic has been beyond nearly all of the chasing pack.
Since the start of 2020, the following players have been able to defeat Djokovic in best of three-set matches.
Holger Rune (twice), Daniil Medvedev (twice), Alexander Zverev (twice), Rafael Nadal (twice), Dusan Lajovic, Lorenzo Musetti, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Carlos Alcaraz, Andrey Rublev, Alejandro Davidovich-Fokina, Jiri Vesely, Pablo Carreno Busta, Aslan Karatsev, Lorenzo Sonego, Daniel Evans and Dominic Thiem.
In best of five set matches, only Nadal and Medvedev have been able to claim his scalp in the same time. (Carreno Busta got him via walkover at the US Open when Djokovic struck a linesperson with a ball).
Djokovic’s record in best of three set matches during that time is an imposing 89-19. In slam matches it is a staggering 68-4 in the same period (and one of those losses was the disqualification).
To further emphasize the challenge of getting Djokovic over the course of a 3–4-hour struggle is evidence in the fact he has won his last eight five-set matches. In four of those matches he would have been beaten had they been best of three, due to trailing two sets to zero or two sets to one.
Most famously, Stefanos Tsitsipas won the opening two sets against Djokovic in the French Open final of 2021, as did Jannik Sinner during the 2022 Wimbledon tournament. Dominic Thiem also led two sets to one in the Australian Open final of 2020.
In fact in the last nine years, only Dominic Thiem (2019 French Open) and Denis Istomin in the greatest upset of all time at the 2017 Aus Open, have beaten Djokovic in a five setter. His record is 17-2 since 2014 when a match has gone to a fifth set.
In further evidence of his dominance, Djokovic has won 97 consecutive matches after winning the first set. If he gets a stranglehold on a contest early, the challenge of overhauling him has proven impossible, even for the game's best players.
Even Nadal has only beaten Djokovic once since 2007 after dropping the first set against him at a major, and Federer never did it to him at a slam.
The recent French Open final win over Casper Ruud had that same familiar feel to it. With Ruud leading 4-1 the feeling was he had to take the first set. When it went to a breaker it felt like the match rested on that result.
If Ruud couldn’t get that tiebreak he stood little chance of getting back into the contest.
In most sports the margin at the top is small, and usually measured by the ability to sustain the level for long enough.
Alcaraz cramping up during the semi-final at Roland Garros is an example of a player falling away when their opponent maintains the level.
Thiem’s French Open final loss to Nadal in 2019 is another such example.
There are quite a number of players who can go with Djokovic for periods of time, or trouble him for lengthy patches.
But whilst they touch his level, they don’t stay there. He does, and that’s why beating him over five sets might as well be climbing Mount Everest.