Op-ed: Why Djokovic isn’t the GOAT despite Federer’s departure

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During his trophy acceptance speech at the 2017 Australian Open, newly crowned champion Roger Federer acknowledged the competitive nature of the match against longtime rival, Spain’s Rafael Nadal in a simple yet meaningful way: “Tennis is a tough sport, there are no draws. But if there was going to be one, I would have been happy to accept a draw tonight and share it with Rafa, really.”

Federer’s victory in Melbourne, his first Grand Slam title since 2012, began one of the best tennis comebacks ever. He went on to win six more titles in 2017, including a record-breaking eighth Wimbledon title. During this trophy ceremony, Federer was asked if he had any words for his opponent, Croatia’s Marin Cilic, who had noticeably suffered beginning midway through the match with a foot injury. His reply was genuine and sincere: “It is cruel sometimes but [Marin] fought well and he’s a hero, so congratulations on a wonderful tournament Marin.”

In my time as a Federer fan, I’ve always noticed, in addition to his remarkable tennis abilities, that he carries himself on the court as if the entire world was watching. His grace and charisma make him likable, and his never-ending desire to win matches makes him supportable. His persona on and off the court is close to perfection. As a result of his disposition, the whole world has watched him. I firmly believe that the same cannot be said about Novak Djokovic. 

To the surprise of many, in 2020 and 2021, Djokovic was the center of various controversies and embarrassing moments. In June 2020, Djokovic hosted a charity event in his home country, Serbia. The event took place as if the pandemic was not a thing: The primary stadium was packed with thousands of fans with no social distancing, while mask-less professional players who were involved contracted COVID-19. In August, he declared his anti-vaxxer status, receiving copious criticism. 

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At the U.S. Open, Djokovic hit a ball in anger that struck a nearby lineswoman. After the head referee defaulted him, he stormed off the court and ignored the press, resulting in a fine. Most recently, at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2021, Djokovic lost his cool on multiple occasions, culminating in the annihilation of his racquet against the net post. Despite no default from this match, he went on to lose in three sets.

The Big Three — Federer, Nadal and Djokovic — are each separated by one Grand Slam, with Nadal in the lead at 22. We thus arrive at our central question: Who is the Greatest Of All Time? Many former tennis players who commentate on ESPN believe it is Djokovic. After all, he’s the youngest of the three and was in near-perfect form in 2021, winning three consecutive Grand Slams and reaching the final at the fourth. 

However, these biased commentators have magically learned to ignore Djokovic’s horrendous off-court track record. They constantly praise his athletic achievements, with some even declaring his sportsmanship impeccable. When he’s winning, Djokovic’s demeanor is unappealing: He frequently roars at the crowd, making spectators feel that they owe Djokovic their support. 

Unlike Djokovic’s, Federer and Nadal’s behavior is sportsmanlike while still competitive. Their fans and fellow players love them both: Federer has been voted fans’ favorite player for the last 20 years, and since 2004, Federer and Nadal have been the only two winners of the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award, an honor that is voted on by fellow tennis players. 

When they have big wins, while Djokovic only shows that he’s conquered his opponent, “Fedal” often show their true emotions. When he reached 20 Grand Slams in 2018, Federer barely made it through his Australian Open speech before bursting into tears. When Nadal reached 19 at the 2019 U.S. Open, the tournament showed a montage of his Grand Slam triumphs, reducing the Spaniard to tears. This isn’t to say that Djokovic isn’t overjoyed to have won the tournaments he’s won, however, his persona conveys a stronger sense of arrogance. 

Though I know I let my Federer-fan status slip through early on, I’ve tried to remain as unbiased as possible. To be frank, I think Djokovic is unworthy of being the GOAT. Many of my friends choose to ignore the off-court aspect and focus solely on the statistics: total Grand Slams, titles and weeks ranked world number one. While these criteria are certainly useful for analysis, I think I’ve proven that they’re only part of the picture of sportsmanship. 

Serena Williams, known herself as the GOAT of women’s tennis,  also joined the debate. She said of Federer: “He’s just a synopsis of greatness and class. … The guy is [a] genius. … You can’t not like the guy, that’s how I feel. His game is so fantastic. If I could only play like him.”

When Federer bid his farewell at the 2022 Laver Cup, the world mourned. The Big Three became the Big Two. There was not a dry eye in the sold out O2 Arena in London. Even Nadal, with whom Federer had just played doubles, couldn’t hold back tears. 

Though Federer may have hung up his racquet, his legacy will continue to inspire future tennis players globally. Federer transformed the game. His dominance from 2004 to 2009, during which he attained 237 consecutive weeks ranked world No. 1, cannot be matched in terms of title count, win percentage and overall consistency. His sportsmanship, on and off the court, is certainly unmatched, regardless of Djokovic’s statistics.

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