Statistics in sport seem to be more popular than ever in current society.
When it comes to social media, stats are everywhere – and the growing number being publicised seems to dilute those that recognise truly unbelievable feats.
One that I came across recently stood out more than any other – and it would have to be as remarkable as any sporting statistic I have heard:
Novak Djokovic has not lost in the first round of an ATP or Grand Slam event since January 2009.
That’s over 14 years and 91 consecutive opening round victories, including 72 over top-100 players.
However, the streak does exclude the once-in-four-year Olympic games – where in 2016 Djokovic fell to world number 141 Juan Martin Del Potro in round one.
Including that match or not, it’s an incredible feat.
While the Serbian would have been expected to win most – if not all – of these matches, his ability to constantly convert is unprecedented.
Sport is naturally built on unexpected victories. If the favourite won 100% of the time, it wouldn’t be the same.
And while tennis is no exception to sporting upsets, Djokovic himself, just about is.
He hasn’t lost in the first round of a Grand Slam since the 2006 Australian Open (64-0 since).
And he hasn’t lost a completed Grand Slam match to a player ranked outside the ATP top 5 since Roland Garros in 2018 (85-0 since).
The 22-time major champion’s record stems from one key characteristic – a trait privy to many all-time great athletes – being the ability to still win or succeed when not at your best.
We know how good Djokovic is at his peak – there may be no better player in tennis history – but his capacity to always progress in tournaments despite his level, deserves similar recognition.
The nature of professional tennis makes performing at one’s top level every single week impossible.
There are too many changes in event significance, opponent, and surface to expect a player’s peak performance at the start of every tournament.
Additionally, the current tennis tour is deeper than ever - where most of the top-100 at their best are capable of beating a top-10 player if they are even slightly off their game.
Yet every week – when a new player draws Novak Djokovic in round one and dreams of creating headlines with a scalp over the 93-time tour titlist – he continually crushes any sentiment of hope.
For comparison, the next generation of current and potential major champions have struggled to move into the second round of events at the same rate.
Daniil Medvedev is 26-9 since the beginning of 2019, and Stefanos Tsitispas is 29-5 in the same period.
While neither record is overly worrying, they are a shade of Djokovic’s 14+ year unbeaten streak.
But how exactly does Novak do it? Well, there are a few key factors.
The first is that he’s incredibly clutch – in fact more so than any player in men’s tennis history.
The ATP’s ‘under pressure’ rating – a measure of break points converted and saved as well as tie breaks and deciding sets won – has Djokovic as its all-time leader.
The full list:
248.3 – Novak Djokovic
241.9 – Pete Sampras
240.5 – Rafael Nadal
238.9 – Roger Federer
236.2 – Carlos Alcaraz
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the four leaders in men’s open era Grand Slam titles occupy the top four places on this list – and the fifth may be the most talented male teenager in tennis history.
Ultimately, tennis comes down to winning the right points.
The likes of Nadal and Djokovic will lose approximately 9 of every 20 points in a given match.
But winning those that matter most goes a long way to getting through matches, particularly when motivation levels may be lower, in the opening round of an event.
Throughout his career, Djokovic has illustrated an ability to lift his level just when needed – usually on those significant points.
Be it an exhaustive rally to convert a break point or a big first serve to save one, we’ve seen time and time again the 35-year-old’s ability to eliminate any trouble on the court.
The second factor for me is his toughness – both mental and physical.
There’s no doubting that he is one of the more self-confident players to grace a tennis court – and rightly so.
Djokovic will often drop a set here or there – sometimes even two – and his belief never wavers, to the point where fans – and bookmakers – still expect him to win from two-sets-to-love down.
In combination, the Serbian’s physical health is impeccable. Over a 20-year professional career, injuries have caused him few major issues - and when they do, he simply seems to fight through it.
The 2023 Australian Open was a perfect example of that resilience.
Just as the hamstring looked to be derailing his campaign, Djokovic reeled off 17 straight sets to lift his 10th title in Melbourne.
That physical durability – combined with his mental fortitude and clutch gene – allow the 35-year-old to almost never find himself on the wrong end of an upset.
Ultimately, there are no certainties in sport, but they don’t come much closer than Novak Djokovic triumphing in the opening rounds of a tennis tournament.