Novak Djokovic has vaulted past Steffi Graf for most weeks at number one in the world at 378 and counting, but is it legitimate to compare men and women? More importantly, is it fair?
Professional tennis is unique. Men and women play side-by-side at the world’s biggest tournaments and even together in mixed doubles.
But this Djokovic record is a singles mark, straight up. And in singles, men and women play on separate tours. Different competition, different number of sets in Grand Slams and even a different ball at the U.S. Open.
Men’s and women’s tennis: Is it even the same sport?
For his part, Djokovic said he was proud to tie and pass Graf, so he definitely views it as a worthy comparison. He even got a cake with truffles, some of which were dipped in what appears to be pistachios. That’s legit.
“I’ve managed to achieve many fantastic achievements throughout my career, the most recent one breaking the record– 378 weeks on No. 1 rankings, surpassing one of the greatest, most legendary tennis players, both men and women, that ever played, Steffi Graf. So I’m flattered, obviously extremely, extremely proud and happy for this achievement,” Djokovic said in a video posted on social media.
Let’s keep it real. The fact is, in sports, there’s no such thing as an apples-to-apples comparison. Players compete across eras with different equipment and levels of opponents. Comparing Graf and Djokovic is no more fraught than comparing Rod Laver with Rafael Nadal or Serena Williams with Margaret Court. It’s all got issues, mitigating factors and “but-but-buts.”
Graf’s record has always carried the albatross of the horrific events surrounding Monica Seles. She was stabbed so Steffi could re-take number one, and that’s disconcertingly what happened. Even though the very private Graf has yet to comment on the Djokovic record, on some level, it’s possible that she’s relieved by Novak’s accomplishment. It takes the pressure “of history” away from a record that probably never felt as satisfying as it should have. Fans, media and the larger tennis world are giving both players tremendous respect by legitimizing the achievement. It’s sort of a win all around.
Finally, this Djokovic record really does deserve the fanfare because there is a strong precedent in other sports. In the US, big time college basketball remains a top draw, and coaches at established programs are glorified celebrities. It could be argued that men’s and women’s college basketball are even more different than men’s and women’s tennis. Yet in 2018 when former Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski passed the late Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt, the achievement was widely recognized across the sport of basketball.
Coach K even suggested if Summitt hadn’t died from early onset Alzheimer’s, he might not have passed her. “She would have won hundreds of more games. Pat could have coached men. She was as good a coach as there was in the country,” Krzyzewski said at the time.
The grouches and the naysayers don’t want men and women anywhere near each other in sports. But the truth is, all sorts of factors complicate and mitigate comparisons of records. This is simply a number in context for us to analyze. It’s a jumping off point for a fun and meaningful discussion over truffles dipped in pistachios.