August 20, 2018
When Novak Djokovic jumped for joy after beating Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4 in Cincinnati, he knew he had made history.
The first man to win all nine Masters 1000 titles.
Not forgetting that he was already the first man in the open era to hold all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously.
So that begs the question: is Novak Djokovic the greatest player of all time?
On the face of it, the Grand Slam count says no. Roger Federer has 20 and Novak “only” 13. Case closed. Or is it?
Remember that 37-year-old Federer is so much older than 31-year-old Djokovic – and has therefore enjoyed significantly more years at the top to amass his outstanding collection.
If Novak starts to dominate the next few years like he did some of those before, he is going to come close to reaching twenty Slams himself.
What about Rafael Nadal? Nearer to Novak’s age at 32 and already sitting on sixteen Slams.
But the vast majority of those have been won at Roland Garros, on the Spaniard’s favoured clay surface.
Does that have any bearing on Rafa’s right to be called the greatest of all time, should he manage to surpass Roger’s total at some point?
Debatable. But that discussion is for another day.
For now let’s look at the head to head counts between Novak and his great rivals.
Cincinnati was the first time Federer and Djokovic had played each other for more than two-and-a-half years.
Roger had the chance to level at 23 wins apiece. He didn’t.
Broken in the seventh game, Roger buckled temporarily under the pressure. That key break came due to a double fault and a complete mishit.
And the great Federer showed he was only human again in the second, as his forehand faltered and he squandered a 2-0 lead to fall further behind in that head to head against Djokovic. Novak now leads 24-22.
Let’s face it, Novak gets under Roger’s skin. We have seen it in relatively recent Wimbledon finals, and we saw it again in Cincinnati.
Federer was uncharacteristically tight. Some of the basic components of his game just didn’t look right.
Djokovic has the upper hand in the all-important mind games, where Roger is normally so strong.
But how does Novak fair against Nadal? He leads Rafa too, 27-25. And that statistic would weigh more heavily in the Serb’s favour were it not for Nadal’s dominance on clay.
So yes, when we’re talking about the big three, Djokovic does have the right to be considered top of the pile.
Most will say that Federer is the most beautiful player to watch. He is also the most decorated in terms of the biggest honours.
But is Roger the most complete player? The most graceful, sure. But does he have Novak’s superhuman defence and elasticity? Even the most ardent Federer admirer could not say so.
Maybe no one does possess, or ever has possessed Novak’s supreme athleticism at the back of the court.
And that is why Djokovic was able to break straight back against Roger when he was briefly in trouble in Cincy. And why he was able to confound Federer once more, later in the second.
It will pain many to so much as entertain the thought that Novak is better than Roger.
But the fact that we are able to conduct this debate again shows that we have all three of our most precious jewels – Federer, Nadal and Djokovic – playing at a level very close to their all-time best again.
How lucky are we to be able to say that? Does it matter who is best? Shouldn’t we just enjoy the show and make our final decision when they all eventually retire?
What we can say with confidence is that Novak Djokovic is the greatest player in the world right now, going into the US Open.
The rankings may not say so. But Novak has just beaten Nadal at Wimbledon and Federer in Cincinnati.
Rafa and Roger will be keen to make amends at Flushing Meadows, of course. But Novak should now be considered favourite.
The US Open will be truly fascinating to watch. What will be the next big twist in this glorious story?
Last word should go to Djokovic after collecting that elusive ninth Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati.
He said: ‘It feels unreal to be playing at this level again.’
Most of us never thought we would see it. So let’s enjoy a true master for what he brings to tennis.
There is no one quite like Novak.