This past weekend, Novak Djokovic had to face his first bit of failure of 2021. The 20-time Major winner fell short in his quest to win an Olympic gold medal for his country, losing in the singles semifinals to Alexander Zverev.
Adding salt to his wounds, Djokovic failed to bag a bronze medal either, as he succumbed to Spain's Pablo Carreno Busta in the playoff. The Serb also lost in his mixed doubles semifinals alongside partner Nina Stojanovic, before withdrawing from their bronze medal match due to a right shoulder injury and fatigue.
After winning pretty much everything in sight for two months, Djokovic ended his 2021 Olympic campaign without a medal. It was a brutal 24 hours for the best tennis player in the world, to say the least.
But what followed on social media after Novak Djokovic's losses was even more disturbing - not just for fans of the man, but for any lover of tennis. In what seems like the millionth such instance, too many people are angry with Djokovic for absolutely no fault of his.
Those who have closely followed Djokovic's career would know that he has always been the subject of irrational negativity. The World No. 1 is even hated for being too 'perfect' a player.
Much of the vitriol spewed against Novak Djokovic is beyond any argument or reason. But what can be argued against is the notion that failing to win an Olympic gold medal somehow carves a dent in Djokovic's claim to being the greatest tennis player of all time or 'GOAT'.
Sure, the Olympic gold could well remain an unwritten page in Novak Djokovic's biography by the time he calls it quits. But literally every legendary athlete has that one achievement in their career that they are forced to hang up their boots without.
The crux of the matter is whether that one unlocked achievement is big enough to sway the biggest debate.
Does the Olympic gold really matter in the GOAT race?
The Olympic Games are the pinnacle of world sport. It goes without saying that any kid who dreams of excelling at sport also dreams of excelling at the Olympics.
But does anyone really think of tennis when they think of the Olympics? Conversely, does anyone think of the Olympics when they think of tennis?
I don't mean to undermine the prestige of the Olympics; they are and always will be the peak manifestation of sporting greatness. But there are certain sports that are seen as inherently 'Olympian', where success at the Games is paramount to the athlete's legacy.
The likes of athletics, swimming and gymnastics can't do without the Olympics, because all their participants consider a gold medal to be the ultimate achievement in their sport.
But tennis is definitely not among those sports.
For instance, Usain Bolt wouldn't have been THE Usain Bolt without his astonishing Olympic records. And Michael Phelps wouldn't have been the point of reference in American sport without his legendary Olympic feats. But Roger Federer is still the majestic Roger Federer, even without a singles Olympic gold to his name. And Pete Sampras was considered the greatest tennis player of all time for a good 10 years despite never having won a medal of any color.
By the same token, Novak Djokovic's status as the greatest tennis player of all time should remain intact even if he never gets an Olympic gold medal. That's simply because the rest of his achievements are too colossal to be outweighed by 500 grams of gold.
During their formative years, a tennis player's first dream is to win one of the four Majors. And if that player does go on to win one of them, their immediate next goal is to win the remaining three Majors - and thus be immortalized in the history books as one of the handful of players to have completed the prestigious 'Career Slam'.
Of course, a few tennis players do dream of winning the Olympic gold medal. But that dream is limited to only a small part of their career (once every four years), and is fueled primarily by the patriotic desire to win an honor for their country. An individual sport like tennis doesn't provide that opportunity round the calendar, so Olympic success is seen as a refreshing change of pace.
But to say that a player desires an Olympic gold medal as much as, say, Wimbledon or Roland Garros, would be overstating the importance of the Games for a sport like tennis.
That's not to say Novak Djokovic doesn't want to win an Olympic gold medal. Djokovic would probably lay his life down on the court to win one at the Paris 2024 Games. I would even go as far as saying that he would be ready, in a heartbeat, to trade one of his 20 Majors for OIympic gold.
Novak Djokovic has a great and unfettered love for Serbia, which is symbolized by his desire to do well at the Games. It is Djokovic's passion for his country that drove him to Tokyo, despite the other three members of the legendary ensemble - Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - all withdrawing over a variety of valid concerns.
An Olympic gold medal will, of course, make Djokovic's stellar CV even more impressive. It will make his career as complete as an athlete's career has ever been, in any sport. It might even give him a greater sense of relief than any of his 20 Grand Slam wins did.
But at the end of the day, Novak Djokovic's current stockpile of gigantic achievements already stands out enough to make him the indisputable 'GOAT' in men's tennis.
Novak Djokovic is the most accomplished male tennis player of all time, even without an Olympic gold
Novak Djokovic has won everything there is to win on the regular tennis calendar. And he's won all of it at least TWICE each.
With his historic win at this year's French Open - beating a certain Rafael Nadal en route - the man from Belgrade became the only male player in the Open era to win the 'Double Career Grand Slam'. He is now the only player ever to win every Major, every ATP Masters and the ATP Year Ending Championships (or the ATP Finals) at least twice each.
A few weeks before that legacy-defining Roland Garros triumph, Novak Djokovic had overtaken Roger Federer's record for most weeks as World No. 1. For many years, the Swiss Maestro's 310 weeks at the top of the sport seemed like an unassailable record; one that his legacy was based around. But Djokovic's unbreakable dominance enabled him to surpass the record and extend it even further.
Novak Djokovic has currently spent 332 weeks (and counting) as the ATP tour leader. And he looks set to surpass the 350 mark - or even Steffi Graf's all-time mark of 377 - without much trouble.
That's not the only ranking record the Serb holds. Novak Djokovic also shares (with Pete Sampras) the record for most years ended as the No. 1 player in the world, at six. Barring an unlikely Herculean effort from either Daniil Medvedev or Stefanos Tsitsipas, Djokovic looks set to dismantle Sampras and take that crown for himself come the end of 2021.
When it comes to the most important statistic in tennis - the total number of Grand Slams won - Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are equals on paper. The 'Big 3' currently share the all-time record in men's tennis with 20 Majors each. But if you look a little deeper into their tallies, you realize that the difficulty of Djokovic's Slam wins and his surface-wise spread are significantly superior to the other two.
Djokovic is the only one of the three to have won every Slam at least twice. And the level of opposition that the Serb has faced in his Slam triumphs is, as the ATP rankings suggest, higher in quality than both his chief rivals.
For instance: Federer has won nine of his 20 Major titles without facing any players in the top four of the then-live ATP rankings. Djokovic, however, has only one such Major triumph - his most recent one, at Wimbledon 2021.
Rafael Nadal, meanwhile, won the 2017 US Open without facing any players in the top 20 of the then ATP rankings.
When it comes to beating the best to win Slams, Novak Djokovic stands the tallest of the three. He has beaten at least one other member of the famed 'Big 4' - the three players in the discussion plus Andy Murray - en route to 17 of his 20 Slam titles. In comparison, Federer has won 13 of his 20 Majors without beating a single member of the Big 4, whereas six of Nadal's 20 triumphs have come without facing any other member of the quartet.
Taking all these nuances into consideration, Novak Djokovic's tally of 20 Majors looks more imposing in the GOAT debate than that of Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal.
Another honor that Djokovic currently shares (with Nadal) is the record for the most ATP Masters titles won, at 36. However, Nadal has failed to win three out of the nine Masters tournaments currently played on the ATP Tour - namely, the Miami Open, the Shanghai Masters and Paris Bercy. On the other hand, Djokovic has won all of the nine Masters - and won them at least twice each.
The Spaniard has also never won the year-ending championships, a tournament held every year as opposed to the Olympics. Many would argue that the lack of the year-ender undermines Nadal's GOAT claim much more than the lack of an Olympic gold does Djokovic's.
The Serb has collected 61 of his 85 career titles from the four Grand Slams, nine Masters and the ATP Finals - an assortment of tournaments that the ATP calls the 'big' or 'elite' tournaments. That is another record where he trumps both of his biggest rivals; Federer has won 54 'big' tournaments while Nadal has won 57.
Novak Djokovic is currently 34 years old. Although only a year younger than Nadal, Djokovic has shown no signs of burnout the way the Spaniard has shown this year. Instead, the Serb is on course to complete the greatest season ever recorded in men's tennis; the unprecedented 'Calendar Slam' is still in his sights.
It is possible that by the time he calls it a career, Novak Djokovic will own every single record in the history books, whether vital or trivial. But even if he doesn't, he already holds all the important records, either alone or shared.
The Double Career Grand Slam and the Double Golden Masters (winning all nine Masters at least twice each) make Djokovic more accomplished than the other two. The record for most weeks at No. 1 also makes him the most dominant player of all time; his prime has lasted more than a decade now.
If he wins the US Open in a month, Novak Djokovic will simultaneously hold all four Slams for the second time in his career. He will also become the first player since Steffi Graf and second man in the Open Era to win the Calendar Slam.
The lack of an Olympic gold medal does leave a tiny dent in Novak Djokovic's CV. But that dent is insignificant in comparison to the weight that his achievements hold over those of his two biggest rivals.
Novak Djokovic is the greatest male tennis player to have ever lived, despite never winning an Olympic gold medal. That's a statistically-backed fact whether you like it or not.