It isn’t a question as to who the male tennis GOAT is anymore. In recent years Novak Djokovic’s almost-robotic dominance as he continues to age has pushed him ahead of his contemporaries and predecessors. One of Djokovic’s greatest challengers to the crown conceded the throne recently when Rafael Nadal stated the 36-year-old Serbian is on top of the all-time list. The stats speak for themselves now that the four majors of the calendar year are done. Djokovic, the current No. 1 player in the world, has held that spot for nearly 400 weeks during 12 different years. He’s also won a record 24 Grand Slam singles titles. In the final stretch of Djokovic’s career, his mission isn’t to determine whether he’s the best, it’s to extend that margin for the next challenger to his mantle.
There’s no need to make arguments for Nadal, Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, John McEnroe, or Jimmy Connors. Djokovic beats them all. The closest resume to Djokovic’s belongs to Federer. Head-to-head, they’re pretty damn even, only with Djokovic’s consistency outpacing Federer’s by a smidge. Djokovic holds a 27-23 record over Federer, getting the better of the Swiss superstar toward the end of his career, while Federer gained a substantial early advantage while Djokovic was a youngster. That’s the same way Djokovic is now the old head beating up on the next wave of tennis greats. And identifying who will be the next grizzled veteran to try to outlast a future generation is straightforward.
Djokovic already holds victories over Carlos Alcaraz and Ben Shelton, who I see as the two most likely candidates to be in Djokovic’s spot in a dozen years. Alcaraz has more momentum behind him as he’s already defeated Djokovic as well and has two Grand Slam titles before he’s able to buy a drink after competing in the US Open, so that $22 Grey Goose Honey Deuce will have to wait. And for journalistic purposes, of course, I’ve had one. It’s delicious, especially with how much of a sweatbox Arthur Ashe Stadium can become. At this year’s US Open, Shelton announced himself to the tennis world as a possible future Hall of Famer. He turns 21 in a few weeks.
I’ll give the nod to Alcaraz being the one who can next challenge Djokovic for his throne. Alcaraz’s path to one day besting Djokovic in the GOAT conversation depends on how much ground he can make up before the elder statesman retires. Federer dominated a young Serbian and it took until Federer lost a step after the age of 35 for Djokovic to make up all that ground. If Alcaraz can keep it even against Djokovic until he won’t have to face him any longer, it’ll be an easier route into the 20s for individual Grand Slam titles. It’s not a matter of early signs of talent for Alcaraz, as there’s never been a player who has shown the outright athleticism that Alcaraz has before turning 21. The only question mark is long-term sustainability.
Djokovic staking his claim as tennis’ GOAT is almost a slam-dunk answer that Nadal didn’t miss up. Beyond his assertion, the proof is undeniable, with an argument over generations or lack of competition rendered irrelevant. Djokovic in his prime could beat any of the men I listed earlier consistently. His game isn’t pretty or flashy, but it’s effective. And that’s why Djokovic has been able to leverage as much from his career as he has. Alcaraz is the opposite and his chase to be tennis’ GOAT is just beginning.
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