After Novak Djokovic produced a stunning performance to beat Rafael Nadal at the French Open, it’s harder than ever to deny him his due.
There is a school of thought presented by American civil rights activist Dorothy Height that goes a little something like this: Greatness is not measured by what a man or woman accomplishes, but by the opposition he or she has overcome to reach their goals.
By every measure of that definition, Novak Djokovic achieved greatness on Friday night when he overcame Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.
Of course, Djokovic’s greatness was already cemented well before that. It should have been, at least, but it would be remiss to ignore the axiomatic and suggest there are not those among the tennis media and further who consider Djokovic the poor relation in the ‘Big Three.’
Let’s get one thing straight here before we delve any deeper. Beating Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros when he is not at his best is one thing. It can happen. Robin Soderling, by no measure, is a tennis great and he has done it. But to beat Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros at his best… well that’s something else entirely.
And that is a very important distinction to make. In fact, when analysing the extraordinary events that we saw on Court Philippe-Chatrier on Friday night, it is the important thing.
This was not a Nadal who is fading, short of form, or struggling with an injury. I mean, to be fair, one look at his Roland Garros record tells you he’s just about unbeatable when he is afflicted with any of those anyway.
No, the Nadal that Djokovic overcame was one who had lost one set in his last 39 at the French Open, and who former world number one Mats Wilander had, just 48 hours earlier, described as ‘unbeatable’.
Entering into the match, all the talk was that Novak Djokovic was certainly capable of winning the match, although he’d likely need Nadal to drop a few percent in terms of his level, and even then the Serbian would still probably be an outsider to progress into the final.
As it happened, Nadal brought his very best tennis for much of the match. As it turned out, Djokovic’s best was just better than his.
That is not a slight on Nadal either. How could anyone possibly even start to dismiss anything about what he has achieved? Add this loss into his record, and another 50 more for that matter, and he will still be the greatest French Open champion of all time by a frankly obscene distance.
But Nadal has had more than anyone’s fair share of great nights at Roland Garros and, we dare say, he will still have more to come. This was a night that belonged to Novak Djokovic, though, and it’s one he has earned.
Djokovic was already the only active player to beat Nadal at the French Open, and now he has done it twice. He is the only player to win a French Open semi-final against Nadal. He may go on and become the only man in the Open Era to win every major multiple times, although Stefanos Tsitsipas is sure to have something to say about that. It may even put him to within striking distance at Wimbledon to join Roger Federer and Nadal on 20 majors.
No man has won more Masters titles than Djokovic, no man has been the year-end world number one more times than Djokovic, and no one has spent more time at world number one than the Serbian.
He has beaten Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros – twice. He has beaten Roger Federer at Wimbledon three times, which is more times than Federer has beaten him there. Meanwhile, Federer and Nadal between them have beaten Djokovic just once in ‘his’ stronghold Slam of the Australian Open.
If we consider these players to be great, and we do – in fact it is about the only thing tennis fans agree on these days – then what do we consider the player who beats them to be?
Nadal and Federer have strong cases to be considered the greatest, and no one should ever deny that. The foundations of those arguments are subjective, which is fine. However, the numbers belong to Djokovic. The achievements belong to Djokovic.
And ultimately, the key deciding factor may be a matter of self-fulfilment, because while Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal appear happy to be great, Novak Djokovic has the look of a man who will accept nothing less than being the greatest.
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