The question of legacy and greatness has never felt more relevant than it does right now in tennis, but without Novak Djokovic, it wouldn’t be.
Novak Djokovic is a divisive figure in tennis and there is no getting away from it.
Speaking personally, I have no favourite among what we call the ‘big three’ in tennis. I have loved, and continue to love, watching them all. I sometimes feel like a rarity in that regard though, because tennis has never felt more partisan.
To describe Novak Djokovic as ‘unpopular’ would be wrong, but there is no question that I spend more time defending the Serbian to fellow tennis fans than I do Federer and Nadal. That’s not to say Federer and Nadal have fewer flaws than Djokovic, because they don’t – they are just given more forgiveness for them.
“Whether he likes it or not, he’s going to be the bad guy the rest of his career,” John McEnroe said of Djokovic after his US Open defaulting this year.
It was a surprising comment, not because it wasn’t true. Let’s face it, McEnroe knows a thing or two about being the bad guy. The reason it was surprising was because Djokovic, in terms of the wider perception, particularly from the media, has been cast as the bad guy in tennis for his whole career.
Whether it’s a fair thing is another matter, but it’s far from a bad thing. Show me a great movie and I’ll show you a great villain who made it better.
As with anything else that involves Novak Djokovic, it all leads back to Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. People can talk about the ‘iconic’ rivalry between Federer and Nadal all they like, but the three, not just the two, are intrinsically linked now, and will be forever.
That may be an inconvenience for some, but it’s always been a mystery why. I suppose it’s neater when a rivalry is of two players, in whatever sport you want to mention, particularly when they are as popular as Nadal and Federer.
Maybe that is an overinvestment in the ideal, though. Maybe if Djokovic hadn’t come along, and Federer and Nadal contested final after final for 15 years while constantly at their peak, maybe that would have been special.
Reality, though, is not ideal, and Federer and Nadal have not, and were never going to have been, able to idealise their rivalry. Romanticise it in sporting lore, yes, but not idealise it.
Federer suffered with back injuries earlier in his career and couldn’t win a Grand Slam for nearly five years between Wimbledon 2012 and the Australian Open in 2017. Nadal, similarly, has had his struggles with injury and inconsistency.
But, you know what? That didn’t matter – because of Novak Djokovic. He picked up the baton and became the custodian of the standard.
Had Djokovic not emerged, what would men’s tennis have looked like over the last ten years? I’m sure it would have been in good health, but we wouldn’t be talking about the golden age of men’s tennis like we are now.
Without Djokovic, we would have had spells when one of Federer or Nadal dominated almost unchallenged. What fun is a two-horse race when one of the horses is lame?
Djokovic has been the insurance policy that has ensured that never happened. He was the rock to paper and scissors, the Jimmy Connors to Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.
And that remains the case even now. Roger Federer, after all will be 40 years old this time next year. Brilliant as he is, and has been, he has not been in a position to regularly challenge for major honours for a while now, and he’s not going to be again.
It would have seen so easy for tennis to have slipped into a routine of Rafael Nadal dominance, much the same as the women’s game did when Serena Williams was unchallenged at her peak. We consider Williams a great, but the same cannot be said of her era.
Would Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic be regarded as they are had they not had to go through each other to achieve what they had? Of course not. Had they had little competition and been untested, even for large spells of their careers, had they beaten players in major finals who were not able to stretch them, their legend would not be what it is today.
So cast Novak Djokovic as the bad guy if you want. Hate him if you must. But never underestimate his importance to tennis.
He has made a great rivalry a golden age for tennis in its entirety, for all fans, not just for fans of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Djokovic has helped turn great players into almost untouchable legends – and for that alone, never mind the fact he is also a great player himself, he has every right to command the same respect as they do.
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