You’ve probably heard the stats by now. Novak Djokovic ended the 2013 season on a 24-match winning streak. 13 of his last 20 matches–all wins, of course–came against fellow members of the top ten.
Carl Bialik argues that Djokovic’s latest exploits, taken as part of his career as a whole, force us to consider him as an all-time great, in line with the seven other players who have won six to eight Grand Slam titles. It’s a convincing case. While Novak remains well behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in most of the usual GOAT-debate categories, those are some awfully high standards to meet. In any other era, he wouldn’t be burdened with such impossible comparisons.
Djokovic’s season-ending streak is notable in itself. Since 1983, only three other players have won 13 or more consecutive matches against members of the top ten: Federer (24, starting at the end of 2003, among other streaks), John McEnroe (15, in early 1984), and Nadal (13, from 2012 Monte Carlo to 2013 Monte Carlo).
Djokovic’s status among the all-time greats gets a boost when you realize that this isn’t his first such streak. Coinciding with the streak, Novak won 13 consecutive contests against top-ten players in the first five months of 2011.
What makes his most recent run all the more impressive is that he has done it with so few pauses for breath. 11 of his last 14 matches were against top tenners, as were 13 of his last 19. By contrast, Nadal’s otherwise comparable top-ten winning streak spread over 50 matches.
In fact, the tail end of Novak’s 2013 season was one of the most challenging on record. Since 1983, only seven men played more than half of a 20-match span against top-tenners. Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic head the list, as usual; the others are McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Nikolay Davydenko. Aside from Djokovic this fall, Agassi is the only one of the seven who has played 13 or more top-ten opponents in a 20-match span. And unlike Novak, Agassi wasn’t perfect. In his demanding stretch at the end of 1994, he lost to Goran Ivanisevic in Stockholm and to Sampras in the semis of the Tour Finals.
The nature of Djokovic’s season-ending winning streak emphasizes his stature among the sport’s greats. In an era when a handful of contenders so thoroughly dominate the rest of the field, that small group of players is constantly facing one another. While I don’t envy anyone playing the likes of Ivanisevic indoors, even that fearsome thought pales next to the Nadal-led gauntlet that Novak has spent the last three months navigating.