After securing his 11th major title with victory over Andy Murray at the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic has started 2016 in the same rich vein of form that saw him dominate men’s tennis in 2015. His straight-sets victory over world No.2 Murray reminded everyone of just how far ahead of the rest, he really is. The Serbian superstar has dominated in a way not seen in the sport since Roger Federer strolled through tournaments in the mid-noughties. With Djokovic dominating in an era where there is so much competition, many are beginning to wonder whether he will surpass Federer in becoming the greatest player of all time?
As a young tennis fan I have been very lucky to grow up watching a ‘Golden Era’ of men’s tennis. Watching Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray compete for Grand Slams has never been dull. In a sport as physically and mentally demanding as tennis, the fact that these four players have dominated for so long should not be understated. All four have had their moments in the limelight, and continue to push for more titles.
Starting with his first major title at Wimbledon as a fresh-faced 21-year-old in 2003, Roger Federer went on to win 11 of the next 17 majors in an incredible sequence of five years. His feats over that time included five consecutive Wimbledon titles as well as four consecutive US Open titles. The emergence of the young Spaniard Rafael Nadal however, gave Federer his biggest challenge in the sport with Nadal securing his first major title at the 2005 French Open at the age of 19. In 2008, after cementing his position as Federer’s closest rival with his fourth consecutive French Open title, many began to wonder whether the balance of power was starting to shift in men’s tennis. For three consecutive years between 2006 and 2008, the two players met each other in the finals at both the French Open and Wimbledon. Going into their Wimbledon final in 2008 – and their sixth major final meeting – Nadal held a 3-2 record with all his victories coming at the French Open, with Federer securing his two victories at Wimbledon. Either Federer would continue his remarkable reign as champion, or Nadal would take further steps to creating his own legacy within the sport. What followed was probably the greatest game of tennis ever seen. Following final defeats in 2006 and 2007, Rafael Nadal made it third time lucky at SW19, as he overcame the five-times champion in five pulsating sets. A few months later and Federer’s record-long stay as world No.1 was over. Over the next two years, landmarks would come for both players. In 2009, Nadal won his first Australian Open title, suffered his first defeat at the French Open and had to pull out of the defence of his Wimbledon title through injury, while Federer finally secured the Career Grand Slam with his first French Open title before surpassing Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles with his sixth Wimbledon title and 15th major. After losing his No.1 ranking to Federer, Nadal hit back in 2010, winning three of the four majors to usurp Federer and end the year as No.1 again. His victory over Novak Djokovic in the US Open final of that year also saw Nadal become the youngest man to secure a Career Grand Slam at the age of 24.
As 2011 began however, Nadal and Federer’s dominance came under threat from two young rivals in Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Both players had experienced success over either Federer or Nadal in majors, although unlike Djokovic who won the 2008 Australian Open, Murray had yet to win a major despite appearing in two finals (2008 US Open, 2010 Australian Open). Surprisingly the year started with both Federer and Nadal not making the Australian Open final, although less of a surprise that there places were taken by Djokovic and Murray respectively. A straight-sets victory for Djokovic over the British No.1 saw the Serb secure his second major title, and prolonged Murray’s wait for his maiden triumph. The year itself proved to be a defining one for the young Djokovic. Having tasted Grand Slam success at a young age, much was expected of Djokovic. However despite winning his first major in 2008, Djokovic failed to build on this initial success with his next major final appearance coming in the 2010 US Open. With Murray seeming to overtake him as the nearest rival to Federer and Nadal, Djokovic’s victory at the Australian Open was vital as it paved the way for a glorious year for the Serb as he secured two more major titles at Wimbledon and the US Open, before ending the year as world No.1 for the first time. The new world No.1’s form then carried over into 2012 where he secured his third Australian Open title with a five-set victory over Nadal in a final that lasted five hours and fifty-three minutes. Despite the victory, the world No.1 failed to win any of the remaining major titles that year, losing to the eventual winner in each major. The year itself proved to be a successful one for Andy Murray as the British No.1 reached three of the four major finals before he finally secured his maiden Grand Slam title at the US Open where he defeated Djokovic in five sets. Although Djokovic added another Australian Open title to his major haul with victory over Murray in 2013, signs were beginning to show that Murray in particular was closing in on Djokovic at the top. Despite Murray ruling himself out of the French Open through injury, Djokovic once again failed to secure the title at Roland Garros and with it the Career Grand Slam as he lost to Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals before the Spaniard went on to secure his eighth title at Roland Garros. With Murray returning fit and firing for his home Grand Slam at Wimbledon, it was no surprise that he made it to his second consecutive final. Having appeared in the last four finals of majors that he had participated in, and having won his first major at the 2012 US Open, Murray went into the final against Djokovic high on confidence and – backed by the fervent home support – won his second Grand Slam with a comprehensive straight-sets victory over his rival. The manner of the victory along with Murray’s recent record at majors led to many pundits believing that Murray could go on and add many more majors to his name. However the year ended badly for both Murray and Djokovic, with Murray surrendering his US Open title at the quarter-final stage, while Djokovic lost out to a rejuvenated Rafa Nadal in the final – a match which also saw the Spaniard replace Djokovic as world No.1.
2014, once again proved to be a defining year in men’s tennis. Djokovic returned to world No.1 with a five-set victory over Roger Federer at Wimbledon – his first major title since the 2013 Australian Open. Despite continuing to struggle with injuries, Rafa Nadal won an unprecedented ninth French Open title, while the year finished with two new Grand Slam champions in Stan Wawrinka (Australian Open) and Marin Cilic (US Open).
Since then it has been one-way domination by Djokovic. Five consecutive major final appearances, with four major titles secured in that time. Like Federer and Nadal before him, Djokovic has reached a level where at this moment in time he seems unbeatable. Yet both Federer and Nadal had their time in the limelight only to be shot down by younger rivals. With both Murray and Federer still competing with Djokovic for major titles, and the likes of Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic and Nick Kyrgios improving all the time, Djokovic must continue to maintain his imperious form. Ironically, for someone who has reached the top of his sport and achieved so much, there is still much more to be achieved. Djokovic may be classed as one of the greats of the game, but to become one of the greatest and emulate his rivals, many believe he must first secure that elusive Career Grand Slam. On current form it looks increasingly likely that the long wait will come to an end at this year’s French Open, where Djokovic will once again go searching for his maiden title at Roland Garros. However, having been defeated in three French Open finals – including a shock defeat to Stan Wawrinka in 2015 – and with younger players starting to fulfil some of their potential, it is not a foregone conclusion. If Djokovic does go on to complete the Career Grand Slam in June, he will move one step closer to becoming the greatest tennis player of all-time. With 11 Grand Slam titles to his name at the age of 28, it looks increasingly likely that Djokovic will surpass Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal’s joint-records of 14 majors, which would then leave only Roger Federer’s record of 17 majors to chase down. With Djokovic at the peak of his powers and surely a number of years left to compete at the top, the Serb is tantalisingly poised to break a record which many believe to be unbreakable. At this moment in time, Federer’s record looks under severe threat but in such a physically arduous sport, time may be Djokovic’s biggest obstacle. When Rafael Nadal was at the peak of his powers, many fans and pundits expected the Spaniard to push past Federer’s major haul, however with injury and poor form seeing the ageing Nadal begin to slip down the rankings it seems unlikely that the former world No.1 will win even one more major, never mind the three he needs to equal his Swiss rival. It remains to be seen whether Djokovic can maintain this level of form for long enough to break the record and with Federer rolling back the years to produce some truly astonishing tennis over the last year, it is not inconceivable to see Federer adding to his major record.
In many ways Novak Djokovic has reached a cross-roads in his career. Fail to win this year’s French Open and the doubts will grow as to whether the Serb can handle the pressure that comes with chasing the Career Grand Slam. Win the French Open and suddenly Federer’s record and the greatness that goes with it will creep into sight for the world No.1.