Revisiting the GOAT Debate in Men’s Tennis after Djokovic Breaks Federer’s No. 1 Record

published: Mar, 08, 2021

by: Charles Blouin-Gascon

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon congratulates the best player in the world on yet another milestone.

Take a bow, Novak Djokovic.

While we had predicted a week ago that men’s tennis might be entering a new era if Daniil Medvedev could merely make the final in Rotterdam—instead, he crashed out in the first round—it turns out that we weren’t quite far off the mark.

Because the week of March 8, 2021, is indeed historic and it’s not quite, or only, because Roger Federer has returned to the sport in Doha. No, rather it’s all mostly thanks to Djokovic.

The Serb wakes up this morning in the exact same spot atop the ATP rankings he was when he went to bed last night, but everything’s changed now. You see, today marks the 311st week that the 33-year-old has occupied the No. 1 ranking. 

Just any other week? Yeah, not quite.

Why is it such a big deal?

The answer here is pretty simple. Djokovic is now officially the man who’s been ranked No. 1 the most weeks in the history of men’s tennis. (In the grand scheme of things, his tally of 311 weeks is still more than one full year behind Steffi Graf, who’s at a cool 377 weeks at No. 1. In other words, Graf was and still is ridiculous and ridiculously underrated.)

In a sport like men’s tennis, where attention is a currency and where attention is typically hogged by the daily goings of Rafael Nadal and Federer, this is monumental for Djokovic. Not only does it give the Serb another rung to his list of career achievements, it also takes one away from one of his biggest rivals. Sites like follow the tennis calendar annually and always highlight your favourite players.

What does it mean in the grand scheme of things?

Well if you mean what does it mean in the scheme of things like the history of the world and the universe, this doesn’t mean anything. We are but a speck of light in the universe, etc. etc.

But what does it mean in the scheme of things in men’s tennis? It’s pretty massive, really.

Because men’s tennis tends to crown and rank its champions by the number of major titles they have won, and because Djokovic currently trails both Nadal and Federer there, he must make up ground wherever he can.

Look, that’s pretty much what he’s doing. He’s the player with the most weeks at No. 1, but Djokovic has also won the most career prize money and the second highest career winning percentage behind Nadal. He has completed the career Grand Slam, which both Nadal and Federer did, and at one point held all four major titles, which neither Nadal nor Federer did.

Do you want more?

Djokovic is the greatest serve returner of all time and has the second most ATP World Tour Finals titles (behind Federer) and the most Masters 1000 titles. He also sports a winning head-to-head record against both Federer and Nadal, and his decade from 2010 through 2019 is as dominant as anything we’ve ever seen.

In other words, just about the only place where the Serb doesn’t have the edge is in the all-important Grand Slam titles. Otherwise, he’s almost cleaning house. Does that all make him the clear greatest men’s tennis player of all time? Probably, but it’s still subjective. If Djokovic can grab the edge for Grand Slams, then it shouldn’t be all that subjective anymore.

But what if Djokovic doesn’t get the Grand Slam titles?

What’s crazy about all of this is that ultimately, Djokovic might finish his career one Grand Slam behind Nadal and Federer. If, say, he passes Federer and gets to Grand Slam No. 22 but still lags behind Nadal, who spends the next few years adding French Open titles to his name to get to a tally of 23.

Do you know what that would mean?

That’s right.

This would mean that the one thing preventing Djokovic from being hailed as the clear-cut best player in men’s tennis history would be… wait for it…Djokovic’s disqualification at the 2020 US Open.

What a wonderful world and sport this one is.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Charles Blouin-Gascon

I'm the mastermind (I use this word very generously) of the 'Tennis Elbow' column, which looks at the previous week in the world of tennis. I try to bring humor to my coverage, because life's much better when you're smiling. I can also hit a mean backhand down the line.

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