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The debate continues – is he or will he be?

Goran Ivansevic hinted at 30. John McEnroe reckoned 25. Either way, if Novak Djokovic achieves even the lesser of those two figures in the number of singles Grand Slam titles won by the end of his career it would, as it stands, put him top of the winners’ lists in either the men’s or women’s game.

This one (2021 Wimbledon title) was huge. This is 20 to tie these three unbelievable guys. Now going to the US Open, first time in his career, winning three in a row in the same year, having the chance to win four – that would be unbelievable Goran Ivanisevic

There are younger rivals capable of challenging the world No.1 who moved to No. 20 alongside Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal with his sixth Wimbledon triumph.

And a two of them – Matteo Berrettini and Denis Shapovalov – showed flashes of being capable of leading a changing of the guard in the final and semi-finals of the 2021 Championships against Djokovic with now 61 of the last 75 men’s Grand Slams won by either the Serbian Iron Man, Federer or Nadal.

But when it came to the crunch at the All England Club, it was Djokovic who flew the flag for the oldies.


Goran Ivanisevic watches his charge during a match

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Goran Ivanisevic, who claimed the 2001 crown in London SW19 and is now Djokovic’s coach, reckoned it has a lot to do with the Serbian’s seemingly insatiable appetite to remain unbeatable.

Croatian Ivansevic said: “Novak’s like the guy in the movies – you have to kill him 27 times and still he gets up and you have to kill him again and he gets up.

“It’s impossible that you can even believe you can beat him because the guy is unbeatable at the moment. When he’s like this, when you see he is not playing well – and it was tight also against Shapo little bit – he still he comes up with some unbelievable shot, he produces some unbelievable things on the court. He’s amazing.

“And he’s not going to stop. He just doesn’t want to stop. He’s always saying, ‘I’m going to reduce the schedule’. But he wants to play. He likes to be on the court.

“Working with him is a privilege, is an honour, is everything, but it’s not easy. It’s a lot of pressure. Final is not good enough. We count only wins.

“But it’s fun. It’s a challenge. He is writing history. Unbelievable. When he won the French, sure, he came (to Wimbledon) very confident, played with a lot of confidence, played good. Some matches he didn’t play well, but still won. That’s why he’s such a champion.

“This one (2021 Wimbledon title) was huge. This is 20 to tie these three unbelievable guys. Now going to the US Open, first time in his career, winning three in a row in the same year, having the chance to win four – that would be unbelievable.


Novak Djokovic's coach, Goran Ivanisevic in the Players'Box at Wimbledon

Visionhaus/Getty Images

“Nobody expected in the 21st century that it would be possible, but it’s possible. We are from Balkan. People from Balkan, everything is possible. When nobody expects anything, we create everything.

“For me, Novak is the best ever. He’s going to do it in the US Open. I strongly believe he’s going to do it, he’s going to win all four in one year. Then I think the story (of who is the greatest ever) is over.

“Everything is possible. I’m not going to say 30 (Grand Slam wins) because it’s long way. But five, six, seven years ago we were talking only about Federer. Now you have Nadal and Novak competing who is going to be the best ever.

“For me it (The Greatest of All Time debate) was over a long time ago. It’s just who you like more. It’s unreal. Maybe you like Nadal, Federer more, maybe somebody else.

“Novak is the best ever. But Nadal is going to fight. Nadal is going to come to the French next year. He wants to win more.

Margaret Court (24), Serena Williams (23) and Steffi Graf (22) are the only players to have won more major singles title than Djokovic, Federer and Nadal.


John McEnroe: "I think he will probably win at least four or five more, obviously depending on staying healthy"

Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

And McEnroe believes he will top them all, one ahead of Court.

McEnroe said: “Djokovic is playing better than he has ever played. I think he will probably win at least four or five more, obviously depending on staying healthy.”

Djkovic is on course to emulate Graf’s 1988 Golden Slam, although he was “50-50” about playing the Olympics this month, on Sunday.

McEnroe, a seven-time major champion, said: “Djokovic has put himself so far out in front of everyone in terms of his ability to embrace what he is doing – in terms of creating history – and being able to execute under a lot of stress. You’re trying to break the all-time records – there is a lot of pressure. He’s able to play his best tennis at this point.

“You expect that to go on for another couple of years, unless someone steps up and realises how great they are.”

Judging who is the sport’s GOAT is not just about the stats, says McEnroe.

He said: “It is incredible because in all other sports you have debates. Lionel Messi or Maradona? Michael Jordan or LeBron James? It’s rare when you get three guys who are playing at the same time and it would be hard to argue they aren’t the best three players ever.

“That’s not just based on the number of majors, which obviously is a big thing, but their overall bodies of work. It is just amazing.

“Finishing the year as world number one is important, but people like to talk about records – in all sports, not just tennis. There is plenty to talk about with these guys.

“If someone had said to me when I was playing that there would not only be one guy to win 20 majors but there would be three, I would have said the same thing as what I said to the umpire in 1981 – you cannot be serious!”

Tim Henman, a former Wimbledon semi-finalist, said: “Novak talks about his hunger and desire and motivation. He’s drawn level with Rafa and Roger but there’s no doubt he wants to be the leader in that conversation. The calendar Grand Slam is definitely on the cards and that would be in the men’s game one of the greatest achievements in this sport.”


Jurgen Klinsmann, former professional German football player and Boris Becker, watch the action from the side of the court

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Boris Becker, a former multi-Slam champion who coached Djokovic to six of his major titles, said: “Novak is a great student of the history of tennis. He knows a lot about Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and McEnroe – and a little about my history, of course. He is aware of who has done what. That’s important for him. Where does he get the motivation? It’s only from competing against the history of the record books. That is similar to Roger and to Rafa. It is a sign of greatness.”

Djokovic has become the first player since Nadal to win the French Open-Wimbledon back-to-back since Nadal 11 years ago. Rod Laver managed it in 1969 but only Bjorn Borg and Federer have done so since the start of the Open era.

Becker, who made the last four three times in Paris, said: “To come from a two-month clay-court season, where you have won the final in Paris and then win the Wimbledon title is incredible. Especially this year, where Novak had a couple of days to recover and get his senses back, and then to play on a completely different surface. It is almost impossible. Borg did it three times, Nadal twice, Federer once and now Djokovic – again it speaks volumes of the quality of these players.

“You always have a certain mindset when you play a tennis match – how you want to win. On clay you usually win a match if you push your opponent into an unforced error – that’s the mindset. Or if you outlast, or outrun your opponent.

“On grass, it is completely the opposite. You usually win a match when you hit more winners than your opponent. You go for the ace, you go for the winner, you go for the riskier shot. It’s a completely different mindset. Added to that it is completely different movement and completely different play. Matches are shorter on grass, they change quicker. It is like a western shootout on grass – who shoots the quicker tends to win.

“Most find the movement very difficult on grass, we saw earlier in the week when lots of player slipped. It wasn’t the grass was more slippery, it was because there is totally different movement on grass. Then there is court positioning – on clay you want to be four or five feet behind the baseline, on grass you are going to slip so you need to be further forward. It is almost a completely different game. That’s what makes Novak’s achievement this year so impressive.”

Laver has predicted Djokovic “is on his way” to the Grand Slam this year.

The Australian, the last player to win the opening three majors, which he achieved in 1969, said: “Congratulations Novak. Amazing achievement, you are on your way to a Grand Slam. Matteo, you played a fantastic tournament and I have no doubt your time will come.”

Federer and Nadal have also sent congratulations to their rival on his 20th Slam triumph.

Nadal tweeted: “Congrats @DjokerNole on this amazing achievement. 20 Grand Slam titles is huge and it is amazing that we are 3 players tied on this. Well done and, again, congrats to you and your team for this!@Wimbledon.”

Federer tweeted: “Congrats Novak on your 20th major. I’m proud to have the opportunity to play in a special era of tennis champions. Wonderful performance, well done!”

Bur Djokovic has maintained his hunger for more.

He was asked: “Do you consider yourself the greatest male tennis player of the Open Era? Do you think one of you three will actually break Margaret Court’s record of 24 singles Slams at one stage?”

The Serb said: “I consider myself best and I believe that I am the best, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking confidently about winning Slams and making history.

“But whether I’m the greatest of all time or not, I leave that debate to other people. I said before that it’s very difficult to compare the eras of tennis. We have different racquets, technology, balls, courts. It’s just completely different conditions that we’re playing in, so it’s very hard to compare tennis, say, from 50 years ago to today. But I am extremely honoured to definitely be part of the conversation.”

* Quotes from The BBC, The 42, Daily Mail

About the author
Mike Donovan is an author and award-winning journalist who has covered Wimbledon for more than 30 years, working for a variety of newspapers and the Championships official website. He has also written on football and his latest book on the sport, Football’s Braveheart: The Authorised Biography on Dave Mackay, is about a legend with Tottenham Hotspur, Heart of Midlothian, Derby County and Scotland. It is out on Pitch Publishing on 26 July.


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