Novak Djokovic leads his head-to-head series with Rafael Nadal 30-28. He similarly leads his head-to-head with Roger Federer 27-23. Djokovic is the current #1 in the world, has the most total weeks finished at #1, is tied with Pete Sampras for the most total years finished at #1 (that is likely to be a Djokovic only record by the end of 2021), is the only player of the Open Era to have two career slams, and holds or is closing in a lot of big records in tennis.
One of the reasons I hear players who are 5 or more years younger than Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer struggle to beat them is a bad personal history. Too many losses have undermined their belief that they can beat any of the Big 3. This all makes sense until one looks at Novak Djokovic’s record vs. Federer and Nadal through 2010. Djokovic had a fair number of losses in big events to the then Big Two.
Djokovic’s Grand Slam record vs. Roger Federer between 2007-2010:
Australian Open 2007 Federer d. Djokovic in 3 sets
US Open 2007 Federer d. Djokovic in 3 sets
Australian Open 2008 Djokovic d. Federer in 3 sets
US Open 2008 Federer d. Djokovic in 4 sets
US Open 2009 Federer d. Djokovic in 3 sets
US Open 2010 Djokovic d. Federer in 5 sets
Matches Won: Federer 4 – Djokovic 2
Sets Won: Federer 14 – Djokovic 7
Djokovic’s record was not awful, but it was definitely in Roger’s favor.
Djokovic’s Grand Slam record vs. Rafael Nadal between 2006-2010
Roland Garros 2006 Nadal d. Djokovic in 2 sets with a match retirement from Djokovic
Roland Garros 2007 Nadal d. Djokovic in 3 sets
Wimbledon 2007 Nadal d. Djokovic 2 sets to 1 with a match retirement from Djokovic
Roland Garros 2008 Nadal d. Djokovic in 3 sets
US Open 2010 Nadal d. Djokovic in 4 sets
Matches Won: Nadal 5 – Djokovic – 0
Sets Won: Nadal 12 – Djokovic – 2
This was one sided. Djokovic had losses to Nadal in Paris at the French Open, but he also had losses to Nadal on Wimbledon’s lawns and the US Open’s hardcourts.
The Scenario Djokovic Faced in January 2011
Novak Djokovic entered 2011 with Roger Federer being 29 years old and generally getting the better of him in majors. He entered 2011 with ZERO wins at Grand Slam events on three different surfaces versus Rafael Nadal who is only 13 months older than Djokovic. How did Novak muster the self-confidence to change the Big 2 into the Big 3 despite having a combined 2-9 record versus Federer and Nadal in majors?
The answer to that question is something Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, and any other player aspiring to be the top player in men’s tennis needs to consider. I don’t have a specific answer to that question, but I will put forth one piece that seems obvious. Novak Djokovic’s losses to Nadal and Federer in majors, in the 2008 Olympic semifinal round, in Davis Cup matches or season ending events did not shake his confidence enough to make future wins impossible.
Novak Djokovic’s court coverage, flexibility, and return of serve all rightfully get a ton of praise. His hunger to be the best and belief that he can be the best may need more praise. His mind was strong enough to endure four years as being the clear #3 player in the world without losing faith the lots of time at #1 was on the horizon.