With Novak Djokovic’s record-breaking 10th Australian Open and record-equalling, 22nd grand slam title, the Serbian continues to defy the odds and dazzle the tennis world.
What’s even more extraordinary is that Novak, along with long-time rival Rafael Nadal, has captured 16 of the last 19 grand slam titles. An astonishing feat that may never be surpassed. Throw in Roger Federer, and the big 3 have now won a staggering 64 of the past 78 grand slam tournaments. Add Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka to the equation and that’s 70 of the past 78 grand slam titles. In fact, so dominant has the big 3 been, that they have featured in a staggering combined total of 94 grand slam finals, 23 times against each other. That’s 71 times at least one of the big 3 has been in a final since Roger won his first Wimbledon in 2003.
This then begs the question: Has men’s tennis become boring?
It certainly never used to be.
Indeed, men’s tennis has been blessed with so many great champions and classic rivalries since the open era began in 1968.
The ‘60s saw Aussie gents, Laver and Rosewall share an epic rivalry, which culminated in a 1972 WCT finals match that Laver claimed, “made tennis in the United States.” From there, the ‘70s featured many great rivalries from the American upstarts of McEnroe and Connors to the fire and ice of McEnroe and Borg. The 1980s generally featured Lendl and any number of his predecessors and successors, while the legendary Wimbledon showdowns between Becker and Edberg are the stuff of legend. And, of course, who could forget the unstoppable force Vs. the immovable object that was Sampras and Agassi in the ‘90s.
After Sampras retired, there was a brief but fascinating changing of the guard in the early 2000s where players like Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, Carlos Moya and Juan Carlos Ferrero all traded slams. The elder statesman, Andre Agassi won 3 Australian Opens in that time too.
Then Roger Federer came along in 2003, followed by Rafa in 2005 and Novak in 2007. It’s an era that has produced 3 of the greatest players of all time, all in the same generation. No one could have foreseen such an era of dominance and it has been something special to witness. In fact, so high have Roger, Rafa and Novak raised the bar, that the next generation is still struggling to catch up.
The women’s game, of course, had a similar period of dominance when Serena Williams ruled the roost. Even so, between 2002 and 2015 when Serena won 20 of her 23 grand slams, there were plenty of players who won multiple grand slams. Great champions like Justin Henin, Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters and, of course, Serena’s sister Venus each won at least 4 grand slams during that period.
There was also a myriad of great rivalries in that time that kept women’s tennis interesting, from the all-Belgian Henin/Clijsters match-ups to the Azarenka/Sharapova scream-fests and, of course, the legendary Williams sisters battles.
Not to mention that in that time, Serena won 20 of 56 grand slams played, which is still a staggering achievement (especially from just one player) but nowhere near the same dominance as in the men’s game. Well, she was just one player after all.
The men’s side, on the other hand, has basically had the same 3 guys winning slams for the better part of 20 years. This hasn’t left much room for the next wave of champions to come through. Neither has it created a fresh set of rivalries that didn’t include Roger, Rafa or Novak. While their achievements are simply astonishing, it has become tiresome watching the same guys winning all the time.
Now, one man stands alone: and his name is Novak Djokovic.
After the incredible records set by the big 3, Roger has now retired and Rafa has won 2 of his last 11 matches since Wimbledon last year. Indeed, the Spaniard’s days appear numbered, his body succumbing to more and more frequent injury woes. Novak, on the other hand, is now back to his best, despite a hamstring injury, and looks set to have another big year, with seemingly no one left to challenge him. With Roger out of the game and Rafa nearing the end, Novak is the last man standing. So who are his closest challengers?
This year, the French Open is basically a two-horse race between Novak and Rafa, (Casper Ruud, Stefanos Tsitsipas and a fully fit Carlos Alcaraz their closest competitors) and Wimbledon is still Novak’s domain, having won the past 4 tournaments. Perhaps the only open-ended grand slam is the U.S. Open, with COVID-19 vaccination restrictions still barring Novak from entering, although they may be lifted in the coming months.
While there is a raft of exciting young players like Carlos Alcaraz, Holger Rune, Jannik Sinner, Felix Auger-Alliasime and Sebastian Korda coming up, none of them are proven commodities at grand slams. And the fact remains, none of these players has beaten either Novak or Rafa at a Grand Slam. Their time will come, but not just yet.
Even the players who have beaten Novak multiple times at grand slams can no longer keep up. Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka have both been on a steady decline in the last few years, physically slowing down and nowhere near the heights of their best tennis. Of the remaining champions, Dominic Thiem is on a similar decline and Daniil Medvedev has had a shaky 12 months since losing to Rafa at last year’s Australian Open final.
Now that Novak stands on the brink of breaking the all-time slams record, no one is really knocking on the door.
And then there’s another factor to consider: popularity. Rightly or wrongly, while Novak Djokovic’s physical endurance and mental fortitude are routinely admired, he is simply not as popular or adored as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal among tennis fans, and may never be. This is probably a combination of factors. His game style can be described as a slog-fest, playing mostly from the baseline with, it can be said, little flair (but pinpoint accuracy). His personality can also come across as arrogant and in-your-face, especially his wild, animalistic celebrations. And of course, there is his stance on the COVID-19 vaccination and the whole Australia deportation debacle which didn’t endear him to the Australian public. (Although, in fairness to Novak, that was Australia’s cock-up and his vaccination stance shouldn’t be held against him.)
Of course, Novak is not without his legions of faithful tennis fans from all walks of life, and he is probably more humble and gracious than people give him credit. That said, while his age-defying feats are nothing short of astonishing, the world is still waiting for the next generation of great champions to take over.
For now, the wait continues.