The query was swift and direct. Novak Djokovic’s reply was slow, thoughtful and revelatory, delivered in paragraphs.
“How does it feel,” a reporter wanted to know, “to be the greatest male player in history?”
First, a quick bit of background: Djokovic’s championship at the 2023 French Open, earned via a 7-6 (1), 6-3, 7-5 victory over Casper Ruud on Sunday that included a so-so start and then a cascade of brilliance, provided his 23rd Grand Slam title.
No man has won as many. After spending his entire career trying to accumulate as much hardware as rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Djokovic now stands alone atop the list. He had been tied at 22 with Nadal; Federer, who announced his retirement last year, has 20.
So, now, back to that question. For years, as that so-called Big Three dominated men’s tennis, the debate has swirled over which should be considered the “GOAT” — “Greatest of All-Time.”
Federer has his backers. So does Nadal. Djokovic, too.
There are those who want to make it purely about numbers, and Djokovic earns that crown: In addition to the majors count, he has spent a record number of weeks at No. 1 in the rankings and has won each of the Masters 1000 events twice, while the other guys haven’t won each once.
There are those who want to make it about style. There are those who want to look at other intangibles.
Then there are those who believe all three men deserve to be lauded and appreciated equally. No need to take a side.
And so, let’s hear Djokovic’s reply.
“I mean, I don’t want to say that I am the greatest, because I feel — I’ve said it before — it’s disrespectful towards all the great champions in different eras of our sport that was played in a completely different way than it is played today,” Djokovic said Sunday night, wearing a red jacket with “23″ stitched on the front. “I feel like each great champion of his own generation has left a huge mark, a legacy, and paved the way for us to be able to play this sport in such a great stage worldwide.”
He was just getting started.
“So,” the 36-year-old from Serbia continued, ”I leave those kind of discussions of who is the greatest to someone else. I have, of course, huge faith and confidence and belief (in) myself and for everything that I am and who I am and what I am capable of doing. So this trophy obviously is another confirmation of the quality of tennis that I’m still able to produce, I feel.”
He went on to say what he’s said before about the significance of the four major tournaments — the Australian Open (which he’s won 10 times), French Open (three), Wimbledon (seven) and the U.S. Open (three) — and called them “THE biggest priorities on the checklist for not just this season, but any season, especially at this stage of my career.”
There was more.
About how he didn’t fare particularly well during the clay-court portion of the season leading up to Roland Garros. About how he is a different player when the best-of-five-set format arrives at majors (“He has this software in his head that he can switch (on) when a Grand Slam comes,” was the explanation offered by his coach, Goran Ivanisevic). About the inner and outer pressure and expectations he feels leading into the tournament. About the satisfaction and relief and pride and fulfillment he feels when it’s over and he’s won it.
And then Djokovic veered again.
Although he was not asked about what the future might hold, he did spin things forward a bit, certainly implying he is intent on continuing to add to his trophy total.
“Of course, the journey is still not over. I feel if I’m winning Slams, why even think about ending the career that already has been going on for 20 years?” Djokovic said. “So I still feel motivated. I still feel inspired to play the best tennis (at) these tournaments, the ... Grand Slams. Those are the ones that count, I guess, the most in history of our sport.”
In the end — 450 words into a response to a question of 12 — he gave some insight into his mindset. Remember: He is halfway to a calendar-year Grand Slam, something last done by a man in 1969, and play begins at the All England Club on July 3.
Djokovic wrapped up by adding six more words to form a sentence that should make every other player wary: “I look forward, already, to Wimbledon.”