Sporting legacy is determined by how you play the game as it is by how much you win.
Last night, tennis world number 1 Novak Djokovic continued his relentless march towards sporting immortality after ruthlessly dismantling one of the sport’s all time greats, Rafa Nadal, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, to win the Australian Open for a record seventh time. His pulverising manner of victory was the kind of humiliating punishment the best players dish out to the also-rans of their sport, not its legends. It moves Djokovic to clear third in the all-time list with 15 Grand Slams, just two behind Nadal and five behind Roger Federer.
So emphatic was his domination in Melbourne that it is not inconceivable that he will surpass both Nadal and Federer within the next 2-3 years, health permitting. Such a prospect was almost unthinkable this time last year when Federer was winning his 20th Grand Slam in the same Rod Laver Arena, while Djokovic was struggling to compete in the aftermath of an elbow injury. Should Djokovic eventually overtake Federer it would be difficult to dispute his status as tennis GOAT (that’s nothing to do with billys but an acronym for greatest of all time).
GOAT debates are all the rage in tennis right now. Usually GOAT arguments are cross-generational: Laver v Borg; Fangio v Senna; Maradona v Messi. Tennis though is currently blessed with a GOAT era, with not one, or even two, but three players staking a claim for the ultimate honour. For a long time, it had been a Federer v Nadal hegemony, but Djokovic has steamrolled his way into contention.
Yet, for all his relentless success and supreme domination Djokovic does not capture the public imagination like Federer and Nadal have done over the years. Djokovic is not loved in the same way as his nemeses, particularly Federer. Djokovic’s tennis is not as exciting, as captivating. He does not stir the soul. His metronomic perfection is admired and respected rather than worshipped. He may get the accolades, but adulation in sport is conferred upon artists, not artisans.
This phenomenon exists across sports and generations. Agassi was more loved than Sampras; Palmer more than Nicklaus in golf; Senna more than Prost in motor racing; Jimmy White more than Steve Davis in snooker; Brazil more than Germany in football. Winners may achieve greatness in their sport but artists transcend it. Djokovic may very well end his career as the most successful tennis player in history, but Federer’s elegance and artistry, his creativity and effortless grace of movement that accompanied his 20 Grand Slam wins will always make him the greatest in most people’s eyes.
Still, there is a place for all styles in the pantheon of sporting greats. Sports needs players who defy its boundaries as much as those who illuminate its infinite possibilities.