⭐ The top athlete of 2021: Novak Djokovic

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Throughout a busy 2021 schedule, athletes treated fans to remarkable and awe-inspiring performances. With the year winding down, theScore looked back at an exciting 12 months and voted on its top 21 sportspeople.

We counted down athletes 21-17, 16-12, 11-7, and 6-2. Here's the final installment, highlighting No. 1: Novak Djokovic.

In a year defined by hyper-polarization, it's Djokovic who comes in at No. 1. It has to be Djokovic. Love him or hate him, 2021 was the year in which he set himself apart from Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - who, along with the Serbian, represent tennis' greatest generation.

Yes, it's true: Djokovic is the greatest men's tennis player of all time, and that status was cemented in 2021. In 2022, Djokovic will officially break the tie he now finds himself in with Federer and Nadal at 20 career Grand Slam wins. It's only a matter of time.

Now, remember: All lists are subjective, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Tom Brady, Connor McDavid, and Shohei Ohtani all did incredible things - bonkers, even - in 2021. But the context of Djokovic's exploits, at 34 years old, is what elevates him to the top of this 21-person list. Also: He beat Nadal at the French Open (in only four sets!), which guarantees a top-two placement on any year-end top athletes list - that's science.

Djokovic made it to each Grand Slam final in 2021 and completed a surface slam by winning the year's first three. With a Calendar Slam in sight, he somehow lost the US Open final to Daniil Medvedev in straight sets. Djokovic is clearly saving something for next year.

But let's focus on 2021, in which Djokovic accomplished the following (among other feats):

  • Broke Federer's record for most weeks spent at No. 1 in the world rankings
  • Finished No. 1 for a record seventh year
  • Became the first man in the Open era to win a career Grand Slam twice

It's not only that Djokovic spent most of 2021 dominating the competition - it's how he won, too. Djokovic was down two sets twice at the French Open, in the fourth round and the final. He's the only Open era major champion to face a pair of two-set deficits at the same slam and emerge victorious. He also came from behind to win Wimbledon.

And while Djokovic's hopes were dashed in Queens in the fall, something else happened in New York that seemed to mean more to him than slam No. 21: He was finally accepted.

Gerald Marzorati wrote in The New Yorker:

Djokovic was fighting back tears during the trophy-presentation ceremony that followed the match. Medvedev stood next to him and called him the greatest player in history, and the crowd roared more, and Djokovic tried not to weep more. Later, during his press conference, he spoke of his disappointment. He'd wanted badly to secure the Grand Slam, and to win his 21st major, which would have moved him into the career lead, one major ahead of Federer and Nadal, statistically bolstering the case that he's the greatest ever. But he spoke more readily and earnestly about what the crowd support had meant to him. It was something that he'd never felt in New York. The emotion and energy, he said, "was as strong as winning 24 slams. It touched my heart."

Even Djokovic's moral victories were of high caliber in 2021.

But, seriously: He beat Nadal at Roland Garros. He's the only man to do it twice.

The elephant in the room, of course, is Djokovic's vaccination status ahead of the Australian Open, where he'll have to show proof he's received a jab in order to play as the COVID-19 pandemic hits its third year.

It's looking more and more likely that Djokovic will skip the Aussie Open, a slam he's won three straight times and nine times since 2008, as he reportedly explores a medical exemption. There's some hubris in that, especially considering the three-way tie he's in with Federer and Nadal for all-time slams. It's as if Djokovic, too, knows it's only a matter of time.

Perhaps it'll happen at the French, against Nadal. Wouldn't that be something?

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⭐ The top athlete of 2021: Novak Djokovic
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