If Tom Brady says that Djokovic is sport’s ultimate alpha, whether you like it or not – then that is good enough for me – so says Oliver Brown in her article, chief sports writer for The Telegraph.
Of all the A-listers luxuriating on Court Philippe Chatrier, all anxious to witness Novak Djokovic’s latest piece of history in the flesh, the most conspicuous was Tom Brady.
Until his retirement this year at the age of 45, the seven-time Super Bowl winner had explored every avenue to find the elixir of eternal youth, preaching the virtues of anti-inflammatory nutrition as he extended his career into a 23rd season.
But as the Serb seized his 23rd major title at the French Open, the greatest quarterback, sitting in the players’ box beside Djokovic’s wife Jelena, knew he was watching perhaps the most indestructible athlete of all.
”From one GOAT to another,” their subsequent handshake was captioned. And it would be hard to disagree, such is the growing consensus that Djokovic is, as the only man to win every major at least three times, the finest player ever to pick up a racket.
As Chris Evert, who shares the record with Djokovic of competing in 34 Grand Slam singles finals, puts it –
”Over the past 50 years, I’ve seen and studied every champion in tennis. I have never seen anyone like Djokovic. The combination of mental, physical and emotional strength that goes into every shot is unmatched. Time to appreciate this man.”
It took the absence of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in Paris for Djokovic to receive the adulation he was due.
As he gave a wide-ranging champion’s speech in multiple languages, dwelling on his philosophy to ”visualise every single thing in my life, not only to believe it but to feel it with every cell in my body”, it felt as if the crowd’s acclaim was unconditional at last.
And why not?
In the six tie-breaks, he contested at Roland Garros, he did not make a single unforced error. That is a level of psychological armour-plating with which nobody can live.
As ever, Djokovic was generous in his tributes to Nadal and Federer, explaining how they had driven him to such mind-bending levels of quality and consistency.
Indeed, one of the most staggering statistics in sports is that over the past 20 years, 65 of the 76 major titles have been won by just three men.
The case is mounting, though, for Djokovic to be regarded as out on his own – the Greatest of All Time – not just in the raw numbers but in the adversity he has had to surmount.
In three of the past 11 slams, he has been disqualified, deported, or blocked from entering because of the Biden administration’s ban on unvaccinated foreigners.
When Djokovic was thrown out of Australia last year on the unproven pretext that his presence could galvanise anti-vaxxers, Scot Morrison, then the country’s prime minister, used the spectacle to trumpet the toughness of his Covid-19 border policies.
It was pure political opportunism. While Morrison has since been voted out of office, the player he demonised would return to Melbourne 12 months later to win his 10th title. People impugn Djokovic at their peril.
Where most would find notoriety a heavy cross to bear, he uses every controversy as motivation to fight even more ferociously. No sooner did he encounter the controversy of his father fraternising with a pro-Putin mob in Australia than he swatted aside Andrey Rublev in straight sets.
And for all the blowback he endured for claiming in Paris that Kosovo was still part of Serbia, he reacted with barely a shrug, beating every opponent – including Carlos Alcaraz, widely predicted to be his usurper this time – with room to spare.
While Djokovic’s inexorable brilliance can breed a certain ennui, it should never be taken for granted. Tennis is a sport whose scoring system and slender margins punish the slightest drop-off.
Djokovic was reminded of this himself over one bleak period starting in the summer of 2017 when, amid widely reported turbulence in his personal life, he lost to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon, Denis Istomin in Melbourne and Dominic Thiem in Paris.
Yet Djokovic’s obstinacy ensured he returned to the summit an even more fearsome force. His pre-eminence does not lie solely in the fact he holds winning records over Federer and Nadal.
It also owes much to his experience of having the audience against him in just about every final he has played. In his three Wimbledon finals against Federer, the atmosphere was more pro-Swiss, as if it had been staged in downtown Geneva, but still, Djokovic prevailed every time, famously rebounding from two match points down in 2019.
”Unreal,” said Victoria Azarenka after his third Paris coronation. ”The greatest mental strength of any athlete ever seen.” It is still fashionable to damn Djokovic with faint praise, to pine instead for the luscious strokes of Federer or the fizzing top-spin forehands of Nadal.
Loyalties to that regal pair can be fiercely tribal, and with good reason, given how both were far more wedded to the codes of diplomatic politesse than Djokovic has ever been.
But the figure widely perceived as the third man of the triopoly now takes his place as sport’s ultimate alpha. If his supremacy is impressive enough for someone of Tom Brady’s pedigree, it should be for the rest of us, too.