Why it is time for Roger Federer fans to accept that Novak Djokovic is the GOAT

Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic at 2019 Wimbledon
Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic at 2019 Wimbledon

The art of acceptance has been dying a painful death in the world of sport for a few years now. People have favorites and they like to stick to their favorites, come hail or storm. But there comes a time when your favorite is outdone by someone else, and outdone in such emphatic fashion, that you have very little choice but to accept that your favorite no longer ranks on top.

That is precisely what Novak Djokovic has done to alter the greatest of all time (GOAT) debate in men's tennis.

For several years, I believed it was Roger Federer alone who could lay claim to the GOAT title. And when he had his resurgent run in 2017, I couldn't imagine how the struggling Novak Djokovic or the aging Rafael Nadal could ever overtake the Swiss.

But Djokovic has gone on a belief-defying run at the Slams since 2018, winning eight of the last 12 Majors on offer. He has also surpassed Federer's all-time record of most weeks as World No. 1, and will probably better it by quite some margin by the time he calls it a day.

When the US Open arrives next month, the Serb will be the overwhelming favorite to win his 21st Major. That would take him, for the first time in his career, ahead of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the Grand Slam race.

But regardless of whether he gets to 21 or not, I have little doubt that Novak Djokovic will go down as the greatest male tennis player of all time. He could well end up with 25 or more Slams, but even if he doesn't, he has already done enough to put both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the shade.

Novak Djokovic with his 2021 Wimbledon title
Novak Djokovic with his 2021 Wimbledon title

Some claim that Novak Djokovic's on-court and off-court controversies have dented his claim to be the GOAT, while others point out how Roger Federer's game is more aesthetically appealing than the Serb's. But neither of those things truly counts towards athletic 'greatness'.

Yes, Federer's game is far more watchable for me, and for all of his other fans. Some of the Swiss' shots make you wonder what exactly his wrists are made up of, and whether he is even human. But that doesn't in any way supersede what Djokovic has done in molding his game to a virtually unbeatable level.

As for the matter of his controversies - some of which, like his stance on vaccinations, have been largely misconstrued - should they really have a say on his tennis achievements? I don't think so.

In any case, Novak Djokovic is by all accounts a well-meaning and genuine person off the court. He helps people in need, spends time interacting with his fans on social media, and is always respectful to his opponents - especially Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

We (the fans of Federer or Nadal) often misunderstand Djokovic due to his blunt nature and occasionally unfiltered comments. And as Ben Rothenberg recently pointed out, the obnoxious behavior of some Djokovic fans on social media subconsciously adds to our dislike of the man himself.

But none of that is the Serb's fault. And it is time we broadened our horizons and gave Djokovic the respect he deserves for all the work he has put into his career.

No matter how much Roger Federer fans may hate Novak Djokovic, the fact remains that he is carrying forward the Swiss' legacy

Novak Djokovic celebrates his Wimbledon win against Matteo Berrettini
Novak Djokovic celebrates his Wimbledon win against Matteo Berrettini

Given the passionate nature of Federer-Nadal or 'Fedal' fans, I fully expect many of you to get worked up by everything I've said so far. Novak Djokovic has, after all, been the biggest adversary of both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for over a decade now. So how could I as a Federer fan possibly have a soft spot towards him?

Novak Djokovic (occasionally in his early years) and his father Srdjan (till today) have also been fairly uncharitable in their comments about Roger Federer. How could I show any love to a man whose fans look to tear you and your favorite player (read: Federer) apart at the drop of a hat?

The answer again lies in Novak Djokovic's tennis. I believe the Serb has carried forward Roger Federer's legacy in a way that no other player has. Djokovic has poured his heart and soul into tennis over the years, and like Federer, is constantly driven by his immense love for the game.

The Swiss legend gave tennis huge global reach, and Rafael Nadal followed in those same footsteps; the two legends played a big part in making tennis as popular as it is today. Federer changed the very fabric of tennis, and as he broke one record after another, made fans expect excellence of a whole new standard.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer

But father time takes no prisoners, and we always knew that Roger Federer would eventually come down to earth. And tennis sorely needed someone to take up the Swiss' mantle when he did decline.

Novak Djokovic did just that, and he did it with aplomb and humility. The Serb himself frequently claims that he is where he is today because Federer and Nadal showed the path and set lofty targets; how can I possibly deny the greatness of such a man?

Roger Federer will always be the player who first pushed the boundaries of what is possible in tennis, and he will always be regarded very highly for that. But the time has come to admit that he is (sadly for some, including me) no longer the greatest male player to have ever played this sport.

Novak Djokovic's best tennis may not be as beautiful as Roger Federer's, but it is more sustainable

Novak Djokovic stretches to hit a backhand
Novak Djokovic stretches to hit a backhand

Roger Federer's tennis, as I mentioned earlier, is widely considered the tennis equivalent of poetry. Moreover, his aggressive and varied shot-making is one of the very few methods that can counter Novak Djokovic's all-round brilliance.

You can't beat Djokovic just by hitting the ball hard, as the Serb's magnificent defense and athleticism will keep neutralizing that. You also need to mix things up, come to the net and take time away from Djokovic if you hope to disrupt hiim of his rhythm.

That is exactly what Roger Federer did during the 2019 Wimbledon final; he put away most of the short replies he got, but he also maneuvered the ball to all parts of the court to keep Novak Djokovic off-balance. And yet, despite playing a tactically perfect match and even arriving at two match points, Federer eventually fell short.

Most believe that Federer choked in the big moments while Djokovic displayed nerves of steel, which is what made the difference. And that is true to an extent, especially given the fact that Federer had choked against the Serb earlier too. But what is often ignored is how Djokovic's game remained steady till the very end, while Federer's experienced numerous peaks and valleys.

Roger Federer committed 62 unforced errors over five sets that day, while for Novak Djokovic the number was 52. More importantly though, in the three tiebreakers combined, the Serb committed zero unforced errors - in sharp contrast to Federer's 11.

Roger Federer in full flow against Novak Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon final
Roger Federer in full flow against Novak Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon final

Sure, Federer hit 40 more winners than Djokovic, and was quite visibly the more proactive player for large parts of the match - as he usually is against any player. But the Swiss' game tends to unravel from time to time, making him cough up a huge number of unforced errors - and often at the wrong moments.

Djokovic may not produce as many winners or beautiful putaways as Federer, but he will rarely give you as many free points as Federer either. And that is the biggest key to the Serb's success; he forces you to be at your very best throughout in order to stand a chance, which is just not sustainable.

Even at the recent Wimbledon Championships, we saw Novak Djokovic play at a level slightly below his best throughout the event. But he still dropped just two sets en route to the title, showing how sustainable his game is from one match to the next.

Djokovic doesn't need to go gung-ho at any stage or try and win points in an aggressive manner. He beats his opponents by just playing his base game in the most efficient manner possible.

The Serb is like the Black Widow spider in this regard. He just goes about his job, carefully weaving a web to trap his prey. And no matter how hard they try to break free, they ultimately fall deeper and deeper into his web.

Roger Federer will always remain my favorite, but I won't hesitate to say Novak Djokovic is the GOAT

The mantle of GOAT has passed from Roger Federer to Novak Djokovic
The mantle of GOAT has passed from Roger Federer to Novak Djokovic

Roger Federer doesn't need to finish his career as the GOAT to remain my favorite player. In fact, he would have remained so even if he had called it a day after winning his 15th Major back in 2009; everything he has done since has been a bonus.

Federer's tennis, when he is feeling well - like he was against Lorenzo Sonego at Wimbledon or against Marin Cilic at Roland Garros - is still a sight to behold. However, I have come to terms with the fact that he will probably not win another Slam.

And I don't particularly mind that. In fact, I would be more than delighted if he manages to win even a 250 event in some corner of the world.

Regardless of my infinite love and admiration towards Roger Federer, I know and fully accept that Novak Djokovic is the GOAT right now. I also believe the Serb is likely to make the entire GOAT debate completely irrelevant by the time his career is over, unless Rafael Nadal discovers a second wind.

Over the next couple of years, Novak Djokovic could well get past Margaret Court's Grand Slam record and Steffi Graf's all-time record of most weeks as World No. 1. And given his current form, he will likely even win gold at the Tokyo Olympics, thus ensuring there is absolutely nothing missing from his already formidable CV.

By listening keenly (and thoroughly) to his press conferences, I have also realized Novak Djokovic is not the demon that many make him out to be. He is a good guy, a good ambassador for the sport, and the greatest player we have ever seen.

I have no hesitation in admitting any of that despite being a Roger Federer fan, and I don't think anyone else should have any hesitation either. Let's give Novak Djokovic the respect he deserves, let's stop jeering him in stadiums, and let's just be grateful to him for taking tennis to new heights.

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Edited by Musab Abid