This analysis is based on numbers available til 1-Apr-2016
“In terms of playing ability there is nothing to choose between number one and 100. Instead, it's a question of who believes and who wants it more? Which player is mentally stronger? Which player is going to fight the hardest in the big points? These are the things that determine who is the champion.” Plain and simple, in Djokovic’s own words.
If playing ability does not separate the good from the great, what separates the legends of the game from the rest, is their temperament. And temperament is not quantifiable. When Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in the 2008 epic at Wimbledon, it was more about how he stayed strong and won the big points, at the big moments. There was no number comparing their mental fortitude, but in the end, the audience in London and across the world knew.
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have won 9 out of the last 12 grand slams, winning 25 slams altogether, so there needs no introduction to their supremacy as top tennis players. But how do they compare to each other?
Only last night did Novak lift his sixth Miami title, overtaking Nadal as the most successful player in Masters tournaments. Nadal himself hasn't added to his tally of 27 since the summer of 2014.
While Djokovic has won 4 of the last 5 Grand slams and would be looking to win the French Open to hold all 4 slams together, Rafael Nadal is a different beast in the clay of Roland Garros. 9 of Rafa’s 14 slams have come at the Phillipe Chatrier, and he has an unmatched legacy in Paris. But his legacy as a tennis player looks under threat, from none other than the indomitable Serb, who continues to rack up titles like there is no tomorrow. And at 28, there might not be a tomorrow. Just ask Rafael Nadal. Putting all that aside, how closely does Djokovic match up to Nadal especially in the bracket of legends?
At the rudimentary level, one might find it very difficult to separate the two. The number of titles won, the number of masters won and the number of slams won by each compares very very closely and is thus difficult to bifurcate.
With the numbers being so close, there’s a need to scratch beneath the surface and scale deeper. What all things define a legend beyond what meets the eye? Performance sustainability, the oh-so-famous clutch gene, adaptability, performances when the big boys come to town are some of the things that come in to play. Exactly why we have devised 4 broad parameters to judge these two players and see how they match up.
1. Longevity (or Consistency)
2. Performances against top players
3. Versatility (or Adaptibility)
4. Performance under pressures
Now longevity is a broad term and has several subsets to it. So we start off looking at the different facets, starting with the most important one, year-end rankings over the years.
As can be easily inferred here, Djokovic has been the more consistent of the two, finishing four seasons as #1 in the world despite turning pro two years after Nadal. Having said that Djokovic’s average ranking since turning 19 is 2.65 compared to Nadal’s average ATP ranking of 2.45 since his 19th birthday. Though that can be attributed to the meteoric rise of Nadal in his teens.
The early rise of the Mallorcan leftie is also well documented in their year-on-year trophy collection, as the Spaniard won a slam and a masters title every year till 2014, when injury in some form or the other kept Nadal off the courts for long stretches. Djokovic capitalizing on Nadal’s blip and Federer’s decline, has accumulated most of his slams and masters titles gleefully in the past 24 months.
Also, since we mention age is catching up with Rafa, it needs to be mentioned that the difference in their ages is just about one year and yet while Nadal looks on the decline for almost 2 years now, Novak has onlt grown stronger. Interestingly, Djokovic is one of those rare breeds who have won 3 slams or more after their 28th birthday. Among those who have won atleast 2 slams before turning 28(so as to eliminate late bloomers or players who have started late since we are judging their longevity) only 4 others have won 3 slams or more after turning 28.
Andre Agassi perhaps had one of the best careers for a 28+ player and won his last slam aged 32. There is no reason to believe Djokovic can't better that feat. With the top players in the game still not at the same level, Djokovic, provided he maintains his fitness, can get an almost free pass to at least a couple of slams. But credit where credit is due, the Serb world #1 has dominated and beaten the top players at will, and holds a better record against top-10 ranked players than Nadal, winning 165 and losing 80 of his 245 meetings.
While the performances against the big, or rather, higher ranked players matter, what also matters is how they played each other. And when the pair have gone head-to-head the current world #1 has come out on top more frequently. Not so long ago Rafa led the contest 22-15, but Djokovic’s upturn in form and fortune combined with Nadal's downward spiral, have seen Djoker win 10 of their last 11 meetings and leading the head-to-head 25-23 now.
As is evident, Djokovic makes merry on hardcourts, while clay is the go-to-surface for the Spanish bull. That is where the adaptability/versatility meter is ticked. Or unticked.
Different surfaces aren’t the only challenges tennis players face, the stadium being closed or open, also has a bearing on the result of a match. With very few indoor tournaments played on the tour these days, it’s natural that both players have won majority of their titles without a roof overhead. But even then, the contrast in the numbers is stark.
Finally it’s the big points and the pressure moments that decide who goes on to win the title. So we look at 4 separate parameters to define their under-pressure performances. Reaching the finals of a tournament and thereby winning the final is the first determinant. Wins in deciding sets(both 3rd or 5th) and wins after losing the first set constitute the second category, while winning tiebreakers is the last factor.
Clearly Djokovic's performance under pressure is is at a level unseen and unmatched in recent years and despite Nadal's strong-headedness and insane persistence he doesn't stand close to Nole. So after analyzing all the different parameters, there is little doubt left that Djokovic is up there with the best and edges Nadal in most fields, especially when the going gets tough. Djokovic has nerves of steel and the numbers speak for themselves. With the Serb looking fit and healthy, with not much competition at the very top it won’t be a surprise to see him trump Nadal in the Grand Slam tally in the near future. That's all Nadal has got, to hold on to right now and with his beloved French Open to look forward to in May, another triumph there would not only broaden the gap between him and Nole but also make the catching-up for Djokovic much more daunting. Neither men look to have it in them to catch Federer though. You can Roger that!
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