Anantakrishnan Narayanan‘s search for the male GOAT
I vividly remember the first tennis match I ever saw — it was the first one that was broadcast live in India on Doordarshan — the 1979 Wimbledon final between Roscoe Tanner and Bjorn Borg. Without really understanding the nuances of the game, one just fell in love with Wimbledon, tennis and Iceman Borg, with his long locks and hair band. The fascination with Borg, a man, who we learnt had won 4 French Open and 4 consecutive Wimbledon titles till then, lasted for just a year as we found a new hero in the brash and extremely talented youngster — John — you can’t be serious — McEnroe. And so it began, the love of watching the sport — for a very long time it was just Wimbledon that was telecast — and growing particularly fond of one special player in each era, so to say.
While I liked most of the top players in any era, there always was one favourite, who I liked a little more at any given point of time. So, McEnroe was followed by Becker and then Sampras and then Roger Federer as a favourite. Unsurprisingly, all of them had great records at Wimbledon and all of them were serve and volley players, so that bias was evident. In fact, there was a spell in the eighties when Lendl and Wilander would be having such long baseline rallies in the French Open finals that one really felt that this was one boring Slam. Then there was a long line of clay court specialists mainly Spanish, who kept winning the French Open and nothing else.
So, back to Federer. In 2001, the favourite and holder of 7 Wimbledon titles, regarded by many as the greatest ever player, Pete Sampras faced off against a 19 year old pony tailed, Swiss kid in the 4th round and remarkably lost in 5 sets. We didn’t realise then that it was the ending of one era and the beginning of the next one as the kid, Federer went on to lose in the very next round. It was two years later, in 2003 that Roger Federer won his first Wimbledon title. Naturally talented, suave, like a precision Swiss machine, Federer with his delightfully elegant style dominated the tennis world for the next few years winning all the Wimbledon titles from 2004 to 2007, all the US Opens and 3 out of 4 Australian Opens. He was the favourite of all, universally liked and already widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time. What about the French Open? In these four years, Roger reached one semi final and 3 finals of the French Open! He lost all of them to one man – Rafael Nadal.
Rafa Nadal. Remember my general dislike of the French Open — so this was another Spaniard, who was winning French Opens. But this guy was a little different. While he was beating Federer in the French Open finals, he was also reaching the Wimbledon finals and getting beaten by Federer. But still Rafa was this annoying kid wearing sleeveless vests, below knee shorts, having an OCD about everything, grunting away on the court — it was so much easier to love the Swiss gentleman. And then in 2008 Rafa beat Roger in an epic Wimbledon final! And then again in the Australian Open final in 2009. And then in 2009, when one of the only two men to ever beat Rafa in Paris, Soderling met Roger in the finals, Federer seized his chance and won the French Open completing his career Grand Slam. Surely, he was now the GOAT.
But over the next few years, Rafa began to grow on me. Not having the natural athleticism or effortless grace of Federer, Rafa had to work that much harder for every point. His game took a heavy toll on his body (knees in particular) and he had to keep working more on his fitness just to be able to compete. He came across as extremely honest and humble, gracious in victory and defeat. Maybe I began to appreciate how much harder it was for Rafa to match Federer and I started liking him more and in any case everybody else was a Federer fan anyway. And then there are the records, of course. Both have 20 Grand Slam titles. On the other’s favourite surface — Rafa has two Wimbledons to Roger’s solitary French open. Their Grand Slam head to head stands at 10–4 with Rafa leading 6–0 in the French, 3–1 in the Australian and trailing 1–3 at Wimbledon. GOAT?
In the 2008 Australian Open, Novak Djokovic broke the stranglehold of Roger and Rafa (they had shared the previous 11 Grand Slams between them) but that was just a blip as the duo went on to win 10 of the next 11 Grand Slams (the exception being Roger’s 5 set defeat to the Argentine Del Potro in US Open Finals of 2009). So, a serious challenger to the dominance of the Big Two — let alone a potential GOAT, seemed rather far away. It was from 2011 that Novak started coming into his own, winning three Grand Slams that year and trying to carve out a fan base for himself from the Roger- Rafa fan universe. But he found it tough. Maybe it was his clinical but “boring” style of play, his “questionable” injury time-outs at crucial junctures (although others do it to), his over the top, shirt ripping, Hulk like celebrations at the beginning of his career or maybe his over eagerness to be liked by the crowd. Whatever the reasons, he remained a distant number 3 as a fan favourite. This was still only 2012. Over the next few years he dominated the other two and when he won the French Open in 2016, he held all 4 Grand Slam titles — a Nole Slam. After his “peak” form, he suffered injuries, seemed to lose some mental edge and motivation, lost early and then underwent an elbow surgery putting him out of the game for a long time. His 2016 French open triumph was his 12th Grand Slam title.
In the period from the 2017 Australian Open (which was a classic final) till the 2018 French Open, Roger and Rafa shared the 6 titles equally between them and with no guarantee of the form or motivation with which Novak would return, their dominance, even at their advanced ages, seemed there to stay. But return Djokovic did — in the 2018 Wimbledon. At this stage Roger had 20 titles and Rafa 17. Novak went on to win the next 3 Grand Slams, losing to Rafa in the French final and then overcoming the highly partisan crowd and two match points to beat Federer in the 2019 Wimbledon finals. Rafa meanwhile added some titles and got to his 20th Grand Slam title to be level with Federer, and as he looked to go past him at his favourite venue, Novak came back from a set down to beat him in the semi finals and then went on to overcome a two set deficit to defeat the young Greek Tsitsipas in the 2021 French Open final. With the latest Wimbledon title, Novak Djokovic now joins Roger and Rafa at 20 Grand Slams each!
Even Stevens? Not really — just look at the head to heads. Djokovic leads Federer 11–6 in Grand Slam matches (27–23 overall) and on Federer’s favourite surface, he has a 3–1 record against him at Wimbledon. There is no way one can rank Federer as a better player than Novak based on these records. Against Nadal, Novak has a 7–10 Grand Slam record (but that includes a 7–2 dominance by Nadal in the French Open) and an overall 30–28. Still, Novak remains the only person to have beaten Rafa twice at the French, a surface which the Spaniard absolutely owns. Novak has been the number 1 ranked player for 329 weeks (Roger 310) compared to Nadal’s 209 weeks, which puts him as a better all surface and all-round the year ATP player. Novak is more than likely to add a few more Grand Slams, and maybe even complete a Calendar Slam later this year, to completely shut out any debate, but even now he has done enough. Never one to hide his ambition for winning titles (he almost seems to love winning more than the game itself), he marches on. So, while you may swoon over the silken grace of Federer and admire the never-say-die attitude of Nadal, while you may love, hate or be indifferent to Novak Djokovic, you just can’t deny him his status — the GOAT! (Well, if Rafa wins the next US and Australian Open, I will be happy to revisit this!).
Anantakrishnan Narayanan is an engineer and entrepreneur by default. Cruciverbalist, ardent sports fan, arm chair critic, movie buff, binge watcher and traveller by choice.
This piece was first published in Medium.