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Couch: Djokovic Will Never Win The Popularity Contest, But Osaka Can

When Novak Djokovic was young, he did a perfect impression of Maria Sharapova, pretending to pull his hair behind his ears and bouncing the ball high before serving. He did a great Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal too, pulling his shorts habitually out of his backside.

He was the court jester, and fans loved him. But thin-skinned players didn’t. They found him annoying. So he stopped.

Maybe we should have seen way back then that his career was going to go the way it has. In the past year, Djokovic played a charity tour that recklessly ended with him and other players getting COVID. He accidentally hit a ball angrily at a line judge and was kicked out of the U.S. Open.

And on Sunday, he won the Australian Open, pulling into the rearview mirror of tennis’ never-ending GOAT debate. He now has 18 major titles, two short of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. 

It is always such a bumpy ride for Djokovic. Contrast that to how smoothly the transition in women’s tennis has gone from Serena Williams to Naomi Osaka, who won the Australian. I’ll get back to Osaka in a bit.

If Djokovic can find a way to beat Nadal at the French Open this spring — unlikely — he could have the record by the end of the year. And then he’ll go down as the Greatest of All Time? That’s the funny thing:

I don’t think he ever will, no matter what he does. He is now the best player in the world, unless it’s Nadal. And yet Federer is generally accepted as the GOAT.

I was in a talk on Twitter with someone named Sam, a tennis fan, who said this: “GOAT is simple, record speaks for itself. Fedal can compete for the most popular players, but popularity has nothing to do with the ‘GOAT.’”

That got me wondering. Does popularity really have nothing to do with being recognized as the GOAT? What are the criteria?

It can’t just be tallying up numbers, as trophies mean different things at different times in history. But Federer and Nadal (Fedal) and Djokovic are in the same era. And while I believe Nadal is the GOAT, it’s hard to imagine the general perception will ever be anything other than 1. Federer 2. Nadal. 3. Djokovic.

No matter what Djokovic does.

We’ve been talking a lot about sports GOATs lately. From Michael Jordan (GOAT) reminding everyone about him in the documentary “The Last Dance’’ to LeBron James (not a GOAT) winning another championship. Tom Brady is the GOAT, I guess. Everyone says so, though statistics don’t.

Last week, the GOAT debate surrounded Williams, who has been stuck at 23 majors for four years, one under the record held by Margaret Court.

Here’s the thing though: No one thinks of Margaret Court as the GOAT. To me, it’s Williams, with Steffi Graf as the only other one who can make a valid argument. ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser insists that it’s Martina Navratilova, who is five majors short of Williams.

The point is, GOAT is a people’s choice award. Popularity and personalities do count.

Djokovic used to fake injuries every time he started losing. He’d play possum and then when his opponents let down and he saw an opening, the magical healing powers of his body always kicked in. That also irked players. Roddick very publicly called him out on it once.

The crowd at the U.S. Open booed Djokovic, who ripped into them for it. He clearly exaggerated an oblique injury in Australia this year, too. 

The tennis world criticized him. Djokovic said that hurt, that he’s human.

I think Djokovic suffers from the amazing greatness of Federer and Nadal. Nadal storms the court, and Federer glides over it with perfection. And Djokovic? He doesn’t seem to have a particular superpower, other than an ability to win. A lot.

He has beaten Federer and Nadal in the biggest matches. That should be enough for GOAT consideration.

On the women’s tour, Naomi Osaka, who emerged by beating Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open final, beat her again in the Australian semifinals last week. Osaka is just 23 with four majors. Serena is 39 with 23. To start the GOAT debate already on Osaka is a little ridiculous.

So here I go.

Avid tennis fans know that Osaka had already surpassed Williams as the current best player. When she won the 2018 U.S. Open, she still had to prove she could handle being on top. At first, that didn’t go well. Osaka changed coaches and talked about not feeling the joy of tennis. She won the 2019 Australian Open too. 

But in 2020, she emerged as an international tennis superstar. She bypassed Williams as the world’s highest-paid (prize money plus endorsements) female athlete, and then she emerged as a social justice queen in the summer. She won the U.S. Open over Williams, which the general sports fan felt was the passing of the baton.

Osaka is poised now for a long run of greatness. And rather than talking about a lack of fun or needing a new coach, she talked about hoping that she’ll be around long enough to play some little girl in the stands who is watching her now.

Osaka was that girl in the stands years ago, watching Williams.

Will Osaka go on to be the greatest of all time? That would be a pretty bold prediction at this point. But since she has beaten Williams in two majors and Williams has never beaten her in one, she’s off to a pretty good start.

She’ll need to win about three majors every two years for a prolonged time. (Prediction: Williams will win one more, at Wimbledon.)

But Osaka seems to have fans’ support, as well as the wins over Williams. 

No one beat Jordan with the Chicago Bulls. Patrick Mahomes had his chance against Brady.

Djokovic has done all he can, but he’s going to lose this popularity contest.

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

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  1. I think Osaka is probably the best all around female tennis player right now, and she does have a likability to her, but she’s also as popular as she is because she’s woke. She speaks to the uninformed, entitled, mentally soft keyboard warriors.

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