As he sealed victory in last month’s French Open final, and as the final beads of sweat fell to the hot baked clay of Roland Garros, Novak Djokovic climbed to the summit of tennis. With 23 Grand Slam titles — more than any other male player — the Serbian now stands clear of his two great career rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
In those terms, Djokovic is the greatest men’s tennis player of all time. And yet it feels as though both Federer and Nadal still outstrip him in terms of their popularity and impact on the sport. The Serbian’s grip on the world number one ranking and consistency over the last decade and a half is unrivalled, but still, it feels as though Djokovic has something to prove.
As Wimbledon gets underway, with Djokovic the firm favourite in the men’s Wimbledon 2023 odds, it’s a chance for him to extend his record of titles. But it seems like no matter how many Grand Slam crowns he ultimately amasses, Djokovic will still be third in the popularity stakes.
There’s no denying that the 36-year-old courts controversy. His response to the coronavirus pandemic lost him a lot of fans, and he has always been forthright in his views. Much of his success is owed to that same bullheadedness, but the trade-off is that many won’t hold him in the same esteem as Federer or Nadal — two players who have done and said all the right things throughout their respective careers.
But there is a sense that, due to his personality, and the various controversies that have clung to him over the years, Djokovic does not get the credit owed to him from a purely sporting standpoint. After all, his personal opinions and politics shouldn’t detract from his sporting merit, and few in the history of the game boast a career as glittering with honours as Djokovic’s.
Should he win Wimbledon this year, it will be his fifth successive triumph at The Championships, equalling the record shared by Federer and Bjorn Borg. It would also be his eighth Wimbledon victory in total, again equalling Federer’s tally.
But ask anyone who the king of SW19 is, and they’ll firmly tell you it is the Swiss player. Whether it’s the elegant style in which Federer played the game, or just the fact that Djokovic has not been able to endear himself to the London crowds in the same way, the Serbian will always play second fiddle to Federer on the green grass of Wimbledon, even if he does eventually pull clear in terms of titles won.
Of course, Djokovic is no total pariah. He still has legions of fans who will cheer him to the bitter end, but it’s among more neutral sections of the tennis community that he seems to be held in lower regard than the two legends of the sport he has now surpassed. Such is his single-mindedness, Djokovic won’t care about any of this. He’d trade all the popularity in the world for a few more Grand Slam titles. But with no end in sight to his dominance in tennis, there may come a day when even Djokovic’s most ardent detractors are forced to admit through gritted teeth that, yes, this is the greatest tennis player of all time.