When John McEnroe suggested that Roger Federer’s defeat by 20-year-old Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas marked a ‘changing of the guard’, he was given short shrift: “I’ve heard that story the last 10 years. Nothing new there,” responded Federer. That the Australian Open final was contested by 31-year-old Novak Djokovic and 32-year-old Rafael Nadal would seem to support the Swiss genius’ dismissal of the notion that the new kids on the block were ready to take over.
In one sense, though, McEnroe might well have been right. It is looking increasingly possible that Federer, now 37, will not add to his 20 Grand Slam titles. Admittedly it was only a year ago that he notched that 20th success, but at the 2018 Australian Open Nadal had retired injured from his quarter-final and Djokovic wasn’t even in the tournament. The only top-10 player Federer faced was sixth seed Marin Cilic, who he beat in a five-set final. Since then he has been beaten by Kevin Anderson at Wimbledon, John Millman at the US Open, Sasha Zverev at the ATP Tour Finals and now Tsitsipas at the Aussie Open.
More significantly, that record of 20 Slams, which had once looked unassailable for generations to come, might not even survive this current generation.
Nadal has long been the most obvious threat. Three behind on 17, the Spaniard is the greatest clay-court player of all time and could undoubtedly add another two or three French Open titles before he calls it a day. That means he only needs to pick up one or two more elsewhere and he will equal or even surpass Federer.
But for me, Djokovic is an even greater danger. He may be back in third place on 15 Slams, but right now the Serb is comfortably the best player in the world. He has won the past three Slams convincingly, and in the Australian Open final produced tennis from another planet.
Yes, Nadal was a little bit flat, but it wouldn’t have mattered on the day. Djokovic was nailing the ball from the very first point, hitting to within inches of the baseline shot after shot, driving the Spaniard back so that he could rarely get into the rallies, let alone take control of them. The noise of the ball on Djokovic’s racket was all the proof we needed of how sweetly he was striking it.
Is style a consideration when discussing the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) issue? Federer is surely the most aesthetically pleasing tennis player. But really, it’s all about the numbers – Djokovic has five more Masters1000 titles to his name than Federer, and a superior head-to-head record (25-22 overall and 9-6 in Grand Slams). Admittedly Federer has spent considerably more weeks at No1 but that stat might also shift in Djokovic’s favour too over the next couple of years.
If Djokovic can repeat his 2011 feat of winning three Slams in a year, the gap to Federer is going to close fast. Very fast.