The debate about who was, is or will eventually be crowned the ‘Greatest of All time’ in men’s tennis has been ongoing for years, even more so recently. What if Rod Laver was allowed to play more Grand Slams between 1962 and 1969? What if Bjorn Borg didn’t walk away from the sport at 26? All legit questions, but in competitive sport at the highest level, statistics don’t lie.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have continued to push the bar to dizzying heights and in the process have given us the Golden Age of men’s tennis. I for one have had a front row seat during this amazing time.
I’ve watched them come on Tour and make their mark, competed against them (in doubles) and interacted with them off the court. So, when I was asked to answer who I think the GOAT is, I thought it was important for you all to understand their impact individually and collectively on tennis.
Federer is the fan favourite
I had my first encounter with Roger in the third round at Wimbledon in 2000. This was three years before he won his first Grand Slam so he was still playing doubles to try and improve parts of his game.
My partner David Prinosil and I were the favourites to win that match, but we didn’t. All I remember is my partner telling me multiple times during the match “This kid is good.” He has an ability to see an opening and make shots you could never expect which is not something you can plan or prepare for as an opponent.
Off court, his warm and friendly demeanour with his fans pretty much extended to the locker room as well. There was no player or coach or locker-room staff he wouldn’t greet or even have a chat with. He was always one of the boys in the locker-room, cracking jokes or discussing issues the sport faced.
The respect he had from his peers off the court for his contribution to the sport was on a par with the respect they had for his tennis and holds true to this day. Needless to say it translates into why he has won the ATP Tour’s Fans’ Favourite Award 18 years in a row.
Nadal is the king of clay
When Rafa played his first big match in Monte Carlo at 16 against Karol Kucera I still remember the entire locker room was huddled around the TV to watch the new kid on the block. Carlos Moya who was in the top-five at the time proudly announced, “He is from my town.”
Rafa is probably the most humble and down-to-earth champion I have ever interacted with. The respect and courtesy he shows everyone off the court doesn’t reflect the warrior-like killer instinct he shows on it.
His mind-boggling record on clay might’ve earned him the nickname ‘king of clay’ but four US Open titles, two Wimbledon titles, one Aussie, five Davis Cup crowns, an Olympic Gold and a career-winning record against Roger of 24-16 will forever keep him in the debate.
Djokovic is mentally the toughest
Novak completes the trinity. Arguably the toughest of the three mentally when it comes to dealing with big match moments. I have seen him beat Federer twice at Grand Slam events from match-points down.
His ability to absorb pressure and constantly evolve as the most complete athlete of the three both physically and mentally has given Nole a winning record against both his rivals and possibly the edge in the debate.
He already has most of the records locked up. Most weeks at No 1, most prize-money won. However, Novak will always rank three in the popularity context.
That’s not because he’s not a good guy, it’s because he has been a street-fighter when it comes to digging out matches from the start of his career and has since then developed a love-hate relationship with tennis fans.
There is no doubt these three have pushed each other to become better players and take tennis to a level we would struggle to consistently see again. I personally would never pick out one of them. This past weekend as Novak tied Roger and Rafa at 20 Grand Slam titles I once again felt blessed to have been treated to these three rivalries.
Regardless of who inches ahead, I will constantly remind myself of how good they actually are to be able to dominate like they have in an era where we had Andy Roddick, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Martin del Potro and many more champions.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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