When he's in form, it feels like a Novak Djokovic win is inevitable. He might be the best returner of serve the sport has ever seen, and his defense is impenetrable. His serve has become a genuine threat, and his backhand is elite as well. He has no weaknesses to attack, and he forces you to play outside yourself. Worse, if you actually manage to take a set or two from him, he seems to settle down and raise his game by about 5000%.
On Sunday, Djokovic won his fourth straight Wimbledon crown and his 21st overall Slam title, taking down Australia's Nick Kyrgios in four sets. He remains one career Slam behind Rafael Nadal, due largely to his decision not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 -- a decision that forced him out of this year's Australian Open and might keep him out of the next two Slams, too. Despite this, he's still one of only two men to win more than 20 Slams; as we did when Nadal won No. 21 in January, let's take a look back and rank Djokovic's grand wins.
Simply Nole. pic.twitter.com/6X7f9LTsHC— US Open Tennis (@usopen) July 10, 2022
21. 2018 US Open
Result: def. Juan Martin del Potro (6-3, 7-6, 6-3)
Still on his rise back to the top following an elbow injury, Djokovic was the No. 6 seed in this tournament and dropped sets in each of his first two matches. But by his third-round meeting with Richard Gasquet, he was in full gear. He won the last 16 sets of the tournament, and only one even went to 5-all. In the final, del Potro did very little wrong, but Djokovic took advantage of rare break opportunities, won eight of the match's 13 break points and won six of the last seven points of the second-set tiebreaker. Quality: high. Drama: minimal.
20. 2021 Australian Open
Result: def. Daniil Medvedev (7-5, 6-2, 6-2)
Medvedev would turn the tables in the fall's US Open, but first he had to learn a few more lessons. Djokovic spent much of the tournament looking as vulnerable as he had the previous fall, when he lost four times in an eight-match span. He dropped sets in four straight matches and blew a two-set lead against Taylor Fritz before winning in five. But he drubbed Aslan Karatsev in the semis, weathered a back-and-forth first set against Medvedev, then broke early in each of the next two to cruise.
19-18. 2016 Australian Open and 2011 Australian Open
Result: def. Andy Murray (6-1, 7-5, 7-6) and def. Murray (6-4, 6-2, 6-3)
Murray landed plenty of shots against Djokovic through the years, going a solid 8-11 against him in finals matches and beating him to win both the 2012 US Open (in five sets) and 2013 Wimbledon (in three). Their 2012 Australian Open semifinal -- Djokovic won 7-5 in the fifth after four hours and 50 minutes -- was a classic as well.
Both of these finals were anticlimactic, however. Djokovic started his amazing 2011 season by winning a dominant 58% of points in the 2011 Aussie final, and after plowing through Roger Federer in the semifinals, he won 55% of the points in the 2016 Aussie final as well. Murray played his way into that match, but Djokovic closed out his sixth title in Melbourne with a 7-3 tiebreaker win.
17. 2019 Australian Open
Result: def. Rafael Nadal (6-3, 6-2, 6-3)
This is where it really began to seem like Djokovic catching Nadal and Federer was just a matter of time. He was still two back of Nadal's 17 and five back of Federer, but this was his third consecutive Slam title, and after losing just four games to Lucas Pouille in the semis, he dropped just eight to his longtime nemesis, winning 63% of all points, rendering Nadal's brilliant return almost entirely moot and cruising.
16-15. 2022 Wimbledon and 2021 Wimbledon
Result: def. Nick Kyrgios (4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-6) and Matteo Berrettini (6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3)
Everything that happened in between these two titles -- Djokovic getting swept by Medvedev in the US Open final, missing the Australian Open and much of the spring season due to vaccination mandates and losing his elite form (he won only six of 10 matches at one point), then falling two Slam titles behind Nadal again -- was topsy-turvy and full of self-inflicted stress. But these two Wimbledon bookends played out in awfully familiar ways.
In 2021, Djokovic dropped the opening set of the tournament, then won 18 sets in a row, including a trio of tough ones against Denis Shapovalov in the semifinals. Once in the finals, against a great, young grass-courter (and big server) in Berrettini, Djokovic again dropped the first set before taking control and grinding to the finish line.
The early rounds of the 2022 tournament required a bit more effort -- he lost five sets before the final, including the first two to Jannik Sinner in the quarterfinals -- but the final was awfully familiar. Facing the full Nick Kyrgios Experience in the final meant weathering huge serves, maintaining his composure and hoping the Aussie would lose his. It worked, eventually. Djokovic dug out of a 0-40 hole to secure the second set, then overcame 40-0 to break and take charge late in the third. An easy tiebreaker win in the fourth gave him his first win over Kyrgios, his fourth straight Wimbledon title and his 21st Slam.
14-13. 2015 Australian Open and 2013 Australian Open
Result: def. Murray (7-6, 6-7, 6-3, 6-0) and def. Murray (6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-2)
Back to the Murray-in-Melbourne genre. Between the two straight-sets wins above came two more incredibly familiar matches and tournaments in between. In 2013, Djokovic survived a five-hour, five-set marathon against Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round -- he won 12-10 in the fifth set -- then charged through to the final. Once there, he and Murray split two tiebreakers before Djokovic wore down a tiring Murray from there.
In 2015, Djokovic survived another five-setter against Wawrinka -- this time in the semifinals, this time only 3½ hours thanks in part to a 6-0 final set -- and again split two tiebreakers with Murray in the final before wearing down a tiring Murray from there. Murray is one of the sport's greatest grinders, a willing marathoner if ever one existed, but Djokovic had the stronger legs more often than not.
12. 2008 Australian Open
Result: def. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6)
Djokovic's first big breakthrough came in 2007, when he reached the semis at both the French Open and Wimbledon, then lost to Federer in the US Open final. He completed that breakthrough at his very next Slam. The No. 3 seed behind Federer and Nadal, he swept his first five matches, then took down Federer in straight sets in the semis as well to reach the finals against Tsonga, the 22-year-old fan favorite who had dominated Nadal in the semis.
Tsonga took the first set with a pair of winners and a service break, but Djokovic took the next two sets with breaks at 3-3 and 1-1, then played a nearly flawless fourth-set tiebreaker to win his very first Slam title.
11-10. 2015 Wimbledon and 2015 US Open
Result: def. Roger Federer (7-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-3) and def. Federer (6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4)
It's likely that 2015 was the most pivotal year in the Slam race between Federer and Djokovic. Federer entered the year with 17 Slam titles to Djokovic's seven, and despite a five-set loss in the 2014 Wimbledon final (we'll get to that one), he had a couple of chances to put the battle away. First, he dropped just one set on the way to the Wimbledon final and evened the match with a thrilling 12-10 win in a second-set tiebreaker. But Djokovic seized control of each of the final two sets, breaking at 1-1 in the third and 2-2 in the fourth and taking his second straight Wimbledon crown.
Two months later in New York, Federer reached his first US Open final in six years without dropping a set. He created 23 break points to Djokovic's 13, too ... but of those 36 points, Djokovic, Mr. Clutch, won 25 of them. The two old rivals again split the first two sets, but Djokovic broke Federer two times in three games -- at 5-4 in the third and at 2-1 in the fourth -- to again seize control. At the end of 2015, Federer could have led the GOAT race by a 19-8 margin in Slam titles. Instead, it was 17-10. Now it's 21-20, Djokovic.
9. 2020 Australian Open
Result: def. Dominic Thiem (6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4)
After winning four of five Slams in a 2011-12 run and six of eight from 2014 to 2016, Djokovic extended his third great run here, winning his fifth Slam in seven with a long grind against Thiem. He jumped out to a 4-1 lead and cruised in the first set, but Thiem, playing in his third Slam final, was up for the moment. He took the second set, dominated the third and stayed on serve for most of the fourth, but once again a short charge changed the match. Djokovic broke twice in three Thiem service games to win the fourth and take control of the fifth.
8. 2021 French Open
Result: def. Stefanos Tsitsipas (6-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4)
After an incredible four-hour, four-set victory over Nadal in the semifinals -- one of the most high-quality matches they have produced -- Djokovic ran into a buzzsaw to begin the finals at Roland Garros. Tsitsipas saved a set point late in the first set, won a gripping tiebreaker (8-6), then stormed through the second set. The 22-year-old was one set away from becoming the youngest first-time Slam winner in 12 years.
After what was evidently the greatest bathroom break of all time, Djokovic started the third set on a completely different level. He broke early in both the third and fourth sets to quickly even the match, then did exactly the same thing in the fifth. A meek Tsitsipas backhand gave Djokovic a 2-1 lead, and he served out the match with relative ease. This was a fascinating but strangely almost drama-free five-setter.
7. 2018 Wimbledon
Result: def. Kevin Anderson (6-2, 6-2, 7-6)
This win obviously doesn't rank high because of the final itself. Djokovic and the towering Anderson had played a classic in Wimbledon's round of 16 in 2005 -- Djokovic overcame a two-set deficit and won 7-5 in the fifth -- but this one was a formality, with Djokovic taking 57% of points and incredibly winning all 11 of the match's break points (seven on his serve, four on Anderson's).
This one's high up the list because of everything that happened before it. Djokovic battled a long-term funk early in 2017, then missed much of the next year battling an elbow injury. He entered Wimbledon as just the No. 12 seed and hadn't won a Slam for more than two years. But he cruised through the first week, took down Kei Nishikori in a four-set quarterfinal, then upset Nadal in a classic five-set semifinal -- he took the third-set tiebreak 11-9, then won the fifth set 10-8. This was maybe the least likely run of his career; he would win seven more Slams over the next three calendar years.
6. 2016 French Open
Result: def. Murray (3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4)
Due to Nadal's French Open monopoly, securing a career Grand Slam meant seizing limited opportunities for both Djokovic and Federer. When Robin Soderling upset Nadal in the fourth round in 2009, Federer pounded Soderling in the final to nab his only title in Paris. Six years later, Djokovic pounded an out-of-form Nadal in the semifinals, outlasted Murray in a five-set semifinal ... and fell to the big-hitting Wawrinka in the final.
It felt at the time like Djokovic might have missed his one shot at a French Open title, but Nadal had to withdraw with a wrist injury in the third round in 2016, and this time Djokovic seized the opportunity. He dominated Thiem in the semifinals, and after a slow start that saw him lose each of his first two service games, he settled down and took control. He rolled through the second and third sets, then broke immediately in the fourth -- a Djokovic trend -- to cruise to victory and lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires for the first time.
5-4. 2011 Wimbledon and 2011 US Open
Result: def. Nadal (6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3) and def. Nadal (6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1)
Djokovic struggled with fitness and expectation following his 2008 Aussie Open win, failing to reach another final until the 2010 US Open. But a demonstrably more fit Djoker showed up in 2011 and won 41 straight matches to start the season. He fell in the French Open semis, but over the year's final two Slams he scored a pivotal pair of wins over Nadal. He needed only 2½ hours to score his first Wimbledon title in four sets over the Spaniard, and after a classic five-set win over Federer in the US Open semis, he controlled most of a four-hour grind against Nadal in New York, too. This was his statement year, as he went 10-1 against a fully fit Federer and Nadal. Not only had he closed the gap on them; now they had to close the gap on him.
3. 2014 Wimbledon
Result: def. Federer (6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4)
While the Slam title race will likely be the biggest card to play in the overall GOAT race, Djokovic's greatest claim to Greatest Ever might simply be this: He beat the greatest grass-courter ever (Federer) three times at Wimbledon*, and he beat the greatest clay-courter ever (Nadal) twice at Roland Garros.
The first of those Federer conquests was an absurdly high-quality affair. Djokovic won 186 points to Federer's 180, and while Federer served more than twice as many aces, he also had to save twice as many break points. Djokovic had lost five of his past six Slam finals and blew a 5-2 lead in the fourth set. But he found both his nerve and his confidence, and Federer blinked: Serving at 4-5 in the fifth, he committed four unforced errors to hand the trophy to the 27-year old Serb.
* Unless Djokovic has stolen that crown at this point.
2. 2019 Wimbledon
Result: def. Federer (7-6, 1-6, 7-6, 4-6, 13-12)
Maybe the greatest what-if in Federer's career and one of Djokovic's greatest wins.
"I don't know what I feel right now," Federer said after the match. "I just feel like it's such an incredible opportunity missed, I can't believe it."
Federer won 218 points to Djokovic's 204 and dominated long stretches. Djokovic had two win two tight tiebreakers just to force a fifth set and found himself down a pair of match points with Federer serving at 8-7 in the fifth. No man had held match points and lost in a final since 1948, but closing out Djokovic has proven to be just about the toughest thing in the history of sport. He won the next four points to even the set at 8-8, saved a break point at 11-11, and in a 12-12 tiebreaker, won four of the first five points. Federer shanked a forehand on Djokovic's first match point, and somehow, some way, Djokovic had stolen one.
1. 2012 Australian Open
Result: def. Nadal (5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5)
The 2019 Wimbledon final lasted four hours and 57 minutes. In the history of tennis, it would have been the greatest match in almost any player's life. But in terms of both plot twists and pure length, Djokovic's 2012 win over Nadal in Melbourne was even better. They played 369 points in five hours and 53 minutes -- 53 fewer points than Wimbledon 2019, played in 56 more minutes -- and while Djokovic won 52% of them, he simply could not put Nadal away. Nadal won 17 of the match's 26 break points (20 on his serve, six on Djokovic's) and, with the already-long match in the balance, won a tight tiebreaker to force a fifth set.
Nadal broke to take a 4-2 lead in the fifth, but Djokovic immediately broke back, then did so again at 5-5. Down 5-6, Nadal earned a break point to tie the match again, but Djokovic won the final three points. When it was over, deep into the Melbourne morning, Djokovic and Nadal were both given chairs for the award ceremony.
Oh yeah, and all of this happened two days after Djokovic had needed 4:50 to beat Murray in five sets. Throw in Nadal's tight, four-set win over Federer in the other semifinal, and this may have been the most high-quality final two rounds a Slam has ever seen. The fittest player of the bunch survived.