Elite sport is not a popularity contest, and if it were Novak Djokovic would be missing from the conversation about who is the greatest of all time.
Despite all that he attracts a fanatical following, even in his own sport, he wouldn’t rank among the most popular performers among mainstream audiences.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are the kings of hearts of their remarkable generation. It’s something that has rather eaten away at the 36-year-old Serb over the years, while fueling his motivation.
Asked about being booed sporadically by crowds in Paris last week (he wasn’t the only one to do so), he replied defiantly: “I don’t mind. It’s not the first, probably not the last. I’m just going to keep winning.
True to his word, he picked up a third French Open title on Sunday, and in the most important metric of all – pure achievement – he edged out Nadal when it comes to Grand Slam titles.
Novak Djokovic made history by winning his 23rd Grand Slam singles title at Roland-Garros
Djokovic cannot compete with Roger Federer (left) or Rafael Nadal (right) in terms of popularity
Djokovic, however, continues to claim his position as the greatest individual male sportsman
Indeed, his oeuvre and the longevity that comes with it increasingly support the claim that he is now the greatest individual sportsman of modern times. This is, of course, an imprecise debate about the saloon bar, but the evidence keeps piling up.
Djokovic operates in a solitary sport of global proportions (there are 23 nations represented in the men’s top 50 alone) with no subdivisions or categories.
In a time of two other generational talents, he is the only man to have won all four Grand Slams, played under their varying conditions, at least three times each, between 2008 and present.
On Monday, he climbed back to No. 1 in the world, making it his 388th week in the slot.
There’s no sign his appetite is yet sated, and it’s become a parlor game within tennis to estimate how many Majors he’ll end up with (26-27 is a fair call).
Outside of this sometimes insular parish, there are valid counterclaims to the best of all time performing in an arena with no teammates to call on.
Golf majors are, by their nature, more random and less easily bent to a player’s will. Jack Nicklaus won a phenomenal 18, followed by Tiger Woods on 15.
You could argue that no one has dominated like Woods did in his prime until 2008. Yet one facet of greatness is keeping your balance away from the competition. The big American blew that afterwards, and with it his hopes of catching Nicklaus.
(Djokovic got closer, but never quite imploded).
Boxing is more of a popular sport, but the subdivisions within it are confusing. No one can doubt the genius of Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Robinson, but the same pound-for-pound debate doesn’t exist in the world’s most played racket game.
Djokovic (right) is the only one of the iconic trio to have won all four Grand Slam titles at least three times each
Despite his greatness on the pitch, he continues to polarize opinion and receives boos
You could say no one has dominated like Tiger Woods but he’s been on the decline since 2008
The greatness of Lewis Hamilton or Michael Schumacher cannot be debated, although there is always a question of what role their machinery plays
Muhammad Ali (right) was a genius but the same pound-for-pound debate doesn’t exist in tennis
The greatness of Lewis Hamilton or Michael Schumacher in Formula 1 can also not be debated, although the question is the role the machinery plays. It’s not that Djokovic has ever played with a racquet significantly superior to any of his rivals.
One thing the Serb doesn’t have is an Olympic gold medal. Swimming could therefore offer the extraordinary Michael Phelps, who won 23 between 2004 and 2016. Squash would point to Jahangir Khan, who once recorded 555 consecutive victories, but in a pursuit with less global competition.
Of all the above, no one has such a polarized opinion, or provided opportunities to distract from their greatness, like Djokovic.
These range from the innocuous – his cheesy post-match victory celebration – to the wacky, subscribing to the theory that the composition of water can be changed by the power of positive thinking.
Even during the French Open fortnight, he courted controversy, scribbling on a court camera his support for Serbian claims to disputed territories in Kosovo.
Most controversial of all was his adamant refusal to take a Covid vaccine, making him a hero to some and an irresponsible nuisance to others (many tennis players only took the vaccine reluctantly, to maintain the show on the road during the pandemic crisis, but he still refused.)
Djokovic’s stance on the Covid vaccine has made him a hero to some and a nuisance to others
It saw him kicked out of Australia eighteen months ago and also barred him from playing at the US Open, where in 2020 he was disqualified for slipping a ball over a linesman. If he had acted out these events, we probably would have had this conversation sooner.
As with everything Djokovic, any character assessment is complex. He has been a generous humanitarian and is often a sporting opponent, when not injured. He is highly intelligent, a brilliant thinker and linguist with an engaging sense of humor.
He’s cut off from something different, which is why he continues to champion being the greatest solo entertainer among male athletes.