WATCH: Djokovic undoubtedly turned the tide in the never-ending GOAT debate by winning a 16th major at Wimbledon back in 2019.


There’s something about the number "21" in 2022. Rafael Nadal was first to break the three-way tie between himself, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer with a 21st major title at the Australian Open, while Djokovic ended a 12-month drought to finally claim 21 majors of his own.

But No. 21 has been in the men’s tennis ether far longer than that, dating back to when Federer was first to win Grand Slam No. 20 at the 2018 Australian Open. The former world No. 1 had previously endured five years without a major title—watching Nadal and Djokovic chip away at his once-insurmountable lead—only to put down an incredible 2017 season that saw him not only win multiple majors for the first time since 2009 but also add an additional eight weeks atop the ATP rankings in early 2018.

By the summer of 2019, Federer still led his Spanish and Serbian rivals 20-17-15 in the major tally, and after a revitalizing four-set semifinal over Nadal at Wimbledon, a 21st win looked supremely possible in spite of two previous runner-up finishes to Djokovic at SW19.

Djokovic had been noticeably absent for most of Federer’s 2017-18 resurgence, but was back to his best by Wimbledon 2019, having won three of the last four majors and took a tense two-sets-to-one advantage over the Swiss Maestro in their July 14th final.

With the Centre Court crowd firmly behind their sentimental favorite, Federer duly forced a fifth set and capitalized on a late wobble from Djokovic to find himself serving for the match. Federer popped a pair of aces to move ahead 40-15 and a fan can be seen holding up a finger to indicate “just one more.”

But never is Djokovic, perennial underdog, ever more dangerous than when he trails Federer by two match points: twice before the Serb had roared back from similar deficits at the 2010 and 2011 US Opens, going gutsy enough to rattle the eternal country-club archetype into nabbing defeat from the jaws of victory.

"I remember losing junior matches, just being down 5-2 in the third, and they all just start slapping shots," Federer said dismissively of Djokovic's go-for-broke mentality. "It all goes in for some reason, because that's the kind of way they grew up playing when they were down.

"I never played that way. I believe in hard work's gonna pay off kinda thing, because early on maybe I didn't always work at my hardest. So for me, this is very hard to understand how can you play a shot like that on match point.
But, look, maybe he's been doing it for 20 years, so for him it was very normal. You've got to ask him."


This afternoon would be no different as Djokovic let his racquet answer any lingering questions. He saved one match point with a well struck body-return to force an error and let loose on the other, nailing a passing shot that stunned Federer into silence.

"Well, it was kind of a flashback of US Open when I saved the two match points against him," Djokovic said after the match.

"But, look, you know, in these kind of moments, I just try to never lose self-belief, just stay calm, just focus on trying to get the ball back, return, which wasn't serving me very well today, but in the most important moments, all three tiebreaks I guess, if I can say so, I found my best game."

Though the score leveled at eight games apiece, the rest of the match no longer appeared in doubt as the two headed towards a novel 12-12 tiebreaker—the first and only time the score system would feature in a major final.

Going three-for-three in Sudden Deaths that Sunday, Djokovic eased through the final exchanges to score a 16th major trophy and send Federer on what may well be an endless search for No. 21.

"I mean, really, look, I was still happy to be at 8-all, 9-all," Federer insisted in defeat. "I don't remember what it was. You try to see the positives, you try to take it as a good thing, I guess, that you're not down a break or that the match is not over yet.

"If I could have picked it before the match to be at 9-all in the fifth, that wouldn't be a terrible thing. You just always try to push yourself to see things on the better side. But, yeah, it was definitely tough to have those chances."

Even in an era interrupted by pandemic and slowed by injuries, Djokovic and Nadal have nonetheless managed to sweep 9 of 11 Grand Slams since that 2019 Wimbledon final, leaving Federer at a so-close-yet-so-far third place after leading the trio for nearly two decades.

The GOAT debate is unlikely to ever end—particularly given the current razor-thin margins separating Nadal from Djokovic from Federer—but while Federer is still aiming to return to action after over a year away to heal various injuries, Djokovic’s ability to regularly stump Federer so close to the finish line is an undoubted mark in his favor, while Federer is left to rue multiple missed opportunities despite a scintillating career.