Just a little over a year ago we could have safely called this Generation Nadal. After Djokovic’s remarkable 2011—and even more remarkable 2015—he is now vying with Rafa for the best player of their generation.
Expectations around Novak keep changing. When he won the 2008 Australian Open at the tender age of 20, sneaking a Slam title at the height of Fedal dominance, it looked like the sport had a third superstar. But then the next few years were a disappointment, with Novak unable to win another Slam or break out of his No. 3 role through 2010. Ending that year, it looked like Novak would be an “almost-great,” not unlike his closest contemporary, Andy Murray. But then 2011 happened and Novak stole the mantle of the game’s top player from a peaking Nadal. After Novak plateaued as merely the “first among equals” from 2012-14, expectations settled in as an all-time great, but more akin to Edberg/Becker than Sampras/Nadal. But then he had what is now widely considered the best season in Open Era history in 2015, and looks to continue the trend in 2016, having just won the Australian Open and with a 12-0 match record as of this writing. But the year is early.
Best Players by Birth Year
1984: Robin Soderling (SWE), Mario Ancic (CRO), Gilles Simon (FRA), Janko Tipsarevic (SER), Juan Monaco (ARG), Andreas Seppi (ITA)
1985: Stan Wawrinka (SWZ, 2), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA), Tomas Berdych (CZE), Nicolas Almagro (ESP), John Isner (USA), Marcos Baghdatis (CYP)
1986: Rafael Nadal (ESP, 14), Gael Monfils (FRA), Richard Gasquet (FRA)
1987: Novak Djokovic (SER, 11), Andy Murray (UK, 2), Fabio Fognini (ITA)
1988: Juan Martin del Potro (ARG, 1), Marin Cilic (CRO, 1), Ernest Gulbis (LAT), Roberto Bautista Agut (ESP)
This is one of the strongest generations in Open Era history. In fact, I think you could make the argument that it is the second strongest after the first, or at least comparable to the great 1969-73 generation. I would also argue that it has the best 1-2 punch of any generation since Laver-Rosewall.
Much has been written about Nadal and Djokovic. Nadal was, for the better part of a decade, the most fearsome opponent on a specific surface that the game has ever seen. Consider his 70-2 (97%) record at the French Open – he’s lost only two matches in eleven years! Or consider his 346-31 (91.8%) overall record on clay. Compare that to the second best record on a specific surface, Roger Federer’s 142-20 (87.7%) on grass – Rafa’s is over 4% points higher. Rafa dominated clay like no other player has dominated a particular surface, and was pretty good on other surfaces as well.
Rafa’s 14 Slams are tied with Pete Sampras, and his 27 Masters are an ATP record, although one which Novak will likely break this year. He is also well-known for his utter dominance of Federer, with a 23-11 record in the head-to-head against the player who is still the most popular choice for the GOAT label. His naysayers claim that while he was great on clay, he was merely very good on other surfaces. This isn’t exactly true, considering he won 5 Slams and 8 Masters on other surfaces. The real hole in his resume is probably his lack of a World Tour Finals trophy – he’s been to two finals, but lost both.
We’ll talk about Novak more in a moment when we look at the generational rankings.
After Nadal and Djokovic, there’s a strong supporting cast that begins with Murray, then Wawrinka, del Potro, Cilic, Tsonga, Berdych, and Soderling. It drops steeply after that to “third tier” players like Monfils, Gasquet, Almagro, and Isner, but overall it is a very talented bunch. Murray in particular is on the shortlist of players whose overall career accomplishments have been most impacted by his own peers. Still, as much as people like to criticize Andy for being the weakest of the Big Four, he has had quite a career in his own right: two Slam titles, one Olympic gold medal, eleven Masters, and 35 titles overall – and counting. He is unlikely to enter the inner circle of Open Era players who won six or more Slams, but he could end his career as the best of the rest. How fitting would that be?
This is also a generation of Slam-less players who might have won Slams if they had been born at a different time. Tsonga, Berdych, and Soderling fit this profile in particular.
Underachievers and Forgotten Players
I’d like to first mention two players that aren’t so forgotten: Robin Soderling and Juan Martin del Potro. Soderling was the fifth wheel of the Big Four for a couple years, between Nikolay Davydenko and David Ferrer, and best known for upsetting Nadal in the fourth round of the 2009 French Open. Unfortunately his career was derailed by mononucleosis while in his prime, so we’ll never know if he could have won a Slam.
In 2009, after defeating Roger Federer in the US Open final, del Potro looked like he was ready to vie with Andy Murray for at least the “best of the rest” category. But injuries have derailed his career and he’s never been the same since.
Soderling and del Potro aren’t truly forgotten, but I would like to mention one player who probably is: Mario Ancic. A 22-year old Ancic finished 2006 ranked No. 9 on account of two Slam quarterfinals and two ATP 250 titles, and looked to at least be a Top 10 fixture for years to come. But he missed the US Open that year due to a back injury and then contracted mononucleosis early in 2007. He struggled onward for a few years but couldn’t recovery, finally calling it quits in 2011. He’s definitely in the “what could have been” category. Maybe not an elite player, but certainly a regular in the Top 10.
Several others could be considered disappointments: Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils, Alexander Dolgopolov, and Ernests Gulbis all come to mind. I’d even mention Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has the big game to win a Slam but has not managed to do so.
Did You Know?
Gael Monfils has played in 18 finals, including 2 Masters, 5 ATP 500s, and 11 ATP 250s. He’s won only 5 of them, all ATP 250s. That’s a 5-13 record in professional finals, and 0-7 in finals higher than an ATP 250. In fact, Monfils wasn’t the only Frenchman of this generation to struggle in finals of big tournaments. While the top four Frenchmen of this generation—Tsonga, Gasquet, Simon, and Monfils—played very well in ATP 250 finals, with a combined 38-21 record, they have not faired well in ATP 500s (2-9), Masters (2-9), World Tour Finals (0-1), and Slams (0-1), for a combined 4-20 record in finals ATP 500 or higher.
Top Ten Players of the Generation
- Novak Djokovic
- Rafael Nadal
- Andy Murray
- Stan Wawrinka
- Juan Martin del Potro
- Tomas Berdych
- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
- Marin Cilic
- Robin Soderling
- Richard Gasquet
Honorable Mentions: Gael Monfils, Mario Ancic, Janko Tipsarevic, Gilles Simon, Juan Monaco, Andreas Seppi, Nicolas Almagro, John Isner, Marcos Baghdatis, Kevin Anderson, Fabio Fognini, Ernests Gulbis, Juan Bautista Agut, Alexandr Dolgopolov.
Yes, I did it: I ranked Novak Djokovic over Rafael Nadal. Why? When I first started working on this series several months ago, I would have given Nadal the edge in terms of current (at the time) career accomplishments. But there are two reasons why I now consider Novak as the best player of his generation:
- Most importantly, I think his overall career accomplishments are better, right now. In other words, if both retired today, I’d rank Novak higher (although just by a hair). More on that in a moment.
- I’m taking the liberty to speculate a bit as this generation is far from through. Even if I focus only on Rafa’s 14 Slams to Novak’s 11, I feel confident predicting that Novak will surpass Rafa before not too long, probably some time in 2017. So given current performance level and even accounting for inevitable decline on Novak’s part, his career numbers will soon surpass Rafa’s – and perhaps even Roger’s.
And why do I think Novak holds the edge even now, especially considering that Rafa leads in both Slams (14 to 11), Masters (27 to 26), and overall titles (67 to 61)? Well, to start, Novak has four year-end No. 1′s to Rafa’s two, and, barring something unforeseen, will almost certainly get at least one more. Novak also has five World Tour Finals to Rafa’s zero and has been a far more consistent performer at Slams, reaching the QF or later in the last 27, and only two first-week losses going back to his first SF appearance in the 2007 French Open. Furthermore, Novak also already has 45 more weeks at No. 1 and counting, and is the only member of the “Big Four” who has a winning record against the other three.
Given their current respective levels of play, Novak will surpass Rafa in Slams, Masters, and overall titles within the next year or two. He is the greatest player of his generation, if only by a slight and arguable margin right now, but will almost certainly have surpassed him in every meaningful category.
After these two, Andy and Stan are the clear #3 and #4. If Wawrinka is able to win another couple Slams and Andy none, then “Stanimal” might surpass him as the third greatest player of the generation, but right now Andy’s overall career is significantly better. In fact, they’re a good comparative case study as to why Slam count alone is not a good indicator of overall greatness.
Del Potro very well could have been #3 on this list if it hadn’t been for injury. After him, Tsonga and Berdych are closely linked. Tsonga has had brighter moments of brilliance, but Berdych is aging a bit better and is more consistent – so I’m giving Tomas the edge. Then we have Soderling and Cilic, with Gasquet a good bit behind. Soderling was a more brilliant player than Cilic, but the big Croat has his Slam and is far from done – so he gets the edge. Gasquet is the best of the rest of the pack.
Cover Photo (Creative Commons License): Marianne Bevis