The year was 2011.
Third seed Novak Djokovic beat fifth seed Andy Murray in the final of Australian Open, after vanquishing defending champion Roger Federer in the semis. People had heard of the Serbian player, who had won the title back in 2008 beating Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, overcoming two-time defending champion Federer in the semis again. He had two other Grand Slam finals under his belt, both at US Open, losing to Roger Federer in 2007 and Rafael Nadal in 2010 — the two best players of the time.
The Australian Open was the start of the season that made sure people would remember his name, which was beginning to be said along with the then top two.
In 2011, Djokovic won three Grand Slams and 10 ATP trophies, including a record-breaking five Masters 1000 titles, accumulated a record prize money of over 12 million. For the first seven months, he was unbeaten with another record-breaking 41-match winning streak and his final win-loss ratio was 70-6, (of which 5 matches have been lost only in the last 4 months.) He ended the year with five ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles, a spot that Federer and Nadal had held for about six straight years.
Talk about breaking in.
Cut to 2016.
Djokovic has won 12 Grand Slams, the fourth most in history, including a Career Slam and the rare feat of holding all four Slams at the same time. He also holds the all-time record for most Masters 1000 series titles with 29. He has held the number 1 spot for a total of 202 weeks and currently has 16,950 points, almost double that of his closest rival, Andy Murray with 8,915 points. He is also the first player to smash the $100 million prize money barrier.
Talk about dominance.
In the last five years, Novak Djokovic has become one the best players tennis has seen. On Sunday, he became one of the greatest, after becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slams at the same time. And he can only climb higher, with Wimbledon, US Open, Olympics and an unprecedented opportunity for 'Golden Calendar Slam' coming up. Like him or not, you cannot not count Djokovic in the much-argued GOAT debate anymore.
When Federer and Nadal were touted as being contenders for the 'Greatest of all Time', they had the game, the big trophies, the ability to churn out this trophies at will and over time, that one glorious season and an army of fans on their side. Djokovic has had most of this for a while now, and the French Open victory — embellished by unprecedented crowd support — fulfilled that one last shred that remained. In fact, he took it one step further; not just a Career Slam but a 'Djoker Slam'. The manner in which he won the match, with unmatched power and sheer force of will after being a set down on his not-so-favourite surface, was proof that we are watching one of the best at work. And his numbers, from an ongoing glorious season just add to the debate.
So how does Djokovic's 2015-16 season so far, rank with the best we have seen in recent times?
The one comparison that comes to mind happened exactly a decade ago — Roger Federer's 2005-06 season.
Djokovic lost only five matches in 2015, Federer lost four in 2005. In fact, since the start of 2015, Djokovic has had more titles, 17, than losses, 9. A USA Today report compared the stats from Federer's 2005 to Djokovic's 2015 and the highlights were:
Federer 2005 — 11 titles, three Grand Slams, 4 Masters wins
Djokovic 2015 — 11 titles, three Grand Slams, 7 Masters 1000 events
Federer 2005 — 12 of 15 tournaments
Djokovic 2015 — 15 of 16 tournaments
Roger Federer — 2005 — 81-4
Novak Djokovic — 2015 — 82-6
Records against top 10 players:
Federer 2005 — 15-2
Djokovic 2015 — 31-5
Sets lost at Grand Slams:
Federer 2005 — 9 sets lost
Djokovic 2015 — 14 sets lost
However, ultimately these are numbers that must be tempered by factors such as competition, opposition and ascendancy.
Federer's biggest nemesis was Nadal, who promptly took over the top spot and went on to have his best season soon after in 2008, including that epic Wimbledon final which saw him dethrone five-time Federer. Of course, then there was 2009 when Federer prevailed to complete the Channel Slam, after Nadal faced a shock exit on red clay. But the fact remains that Federer and Nadal's peak periods not only coincided but also overlapped each other.
In comparison, Djokovic hasn't faced as stiff competition, especially during his last couple of years. His closest rival, at the moment, has been Andy Murray. True, he has had to battle the new and improved Federer and Nadal at times, stumbled against Stan Wawrinka in two Slam finals, and even went down to Kei Nishikori in US Open semis in 2014. But for the most part, he has had an undisputed reign at the top. Murray, or anyone else for the matter, has not been able to come too close to him statistically, as the 8000-points wide chasm shows. He hasn't faced the other two of the current Career Slam trios at their best. This has played, maybe not a large, but a definite a part in his success.
In the end, though, it all comes down to legacy — and the fact that all three players are still building it. The 'GOAT' argument has divided tennis fans for the large part of a decade. And, having a third contender only makes things more complicated, and exciting. This generation now has three Career Slam holders, three players who have immortalised their names in the tennis Hall of Fame. Only time will tell who wins that final title, but for now there are three players, who history will remember as the greatest.