By Leighton Ginn
Andy Roddick said when Novak Djokovic first burst into the consciousness of the ATP Tour, he wasn’t an obvious talent like he saw when contemporaries Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal debuted.
Yet if Djokovic can continue on the trend he is, he might go down as the greatest ever, surpassing both Federer and Nadal.
“I think with Novak, it’s a realistic conversation to have,” Roddick said on July 13 over the course of two conference calls to promote appearances at the International Tennis Hall of Fame on July 17 and World Team Tennis on Aug. 9-10. “And it’s a realistic question to ask, where you think he’ll fall in that line. It’s a complement to him that he’s forced his way into that conversation.”
For over a decade, Federer has been talked about as the greatest ever, and holds the record with 17 major singles title. Nadal is tied with Pete Sampras for second with 14. Djokovic is tied with Roy Emerson for fourth with 12.
Djokovic is 29 and playing the best tennis of his career. He had won all four majors consecutively until his upset loss to Sam Querrey in the third round of Wimbledon.
If Djokovic continues dominating the tour, five more majors is within the realm of possibility.
In comparison, Federer did reach the semifinals of Wimbledon, but has not won a major title since the 2012 Wimbledon. Nadal has struggled with injuries and hasn’t won a major title since the 2014 French Open.
But Roddick said it’s really hard to judge until Djokovic, Federer and Nadal complete their careers.
“It’s like comparing movies having not watched the last 20 percent of the great movies,” Roddick said. “Right now, if you look at the numbers, Roger is there and five slams (lead) is significant, but Novak is obviously trending. He’s the greatest right now.”
Roddick is a contemporary with Federer, as they both won their first major titles in 2003, with Federer taking Wimbledon and Roddick the US Open, which would be his only major title. And Roddick, a mainstay in the top-10 throughout his career, also has a long history against Nadal and Djokovic.
Two years later, Nadal would come onto the scene and had an instant impact as a teenager in 2005.
Roddick said it was obvious from the start of both Federer and Nadal’s careers would be special.
“You look at Rafa and he’s a physical specimen, the weight of shot is amazing,” Roddick said. “You look at Roger and the talent is instant to your eye. What he can do on a tennis court, and with the flare and the options he had on a tennis court, it created a little bit of jealousy.”
The first impression Roddick had of Djokovic was very different. While Djokovic was a promising young talent, Roddick saw enough weaknesses he could take advantage of.
“With Djokovic, I don’t think it was as obvious to the eye when he first came out, but he’s improved the most after the first four or five years of his career,” Roddick said. “To take something like his physical fitness, something I viewed as a weakness when I played him in 2008 and 09, he’s turned it into a bonafide strength for him now, which is a testament not only to his work ethic, but also to his ability to see what his weaknesses were.”
Roddick also points to Djokovic’s forehand, a shot that could be prone to errors in pressure situations earlier in his career. That’s not the case anymore, Roddick said.
“Early on, I knew I could go to that side and maybe get a couple of tight errors,” Roddick said. “With just little technical adjustments, now it’s a strength under pressure.
“I think his progress as a player is maybe the most obvious of those three guys. It’s really impressive what he’s become.”
Roddick said he got a chance to know Djokovic a little more during a trip to South Korea for an exhibition they were playing.
Djokovic approached Roddick to see if he would like to go early to hit and work off the jet lag.
Roddick agreed and showed up 30 minutes early. He didn’t see Djokovic in the locker room and was wondering if he would be late.
When Roddick walked to the court, he found Djokovic, who had arrived 30 minutes before Roddick and was in the middle of his stretching routine.
“I think it gives you a peak into why he is where he is right now,” Roddick said.