Novak Djokovic takes another step forward in the race to become tennis’ GOAT

The last, crisp backhand Novak Djokovic fired in the fifth set of the Australian Open final on Sunday forced a match-ending error by Dominic Thiem. The shot signified what could be the beginning of the final phase of a three-way race to become the greatest of all-time in the men’s game.

Djokovic’s triumph was his eighth Down Under and the first time in eight matches that he recovered from a 2-1 deficit in sets in a best-of-five major final. The breakthrough also yielded his 17th Grand Slam singles title, bringing him within three of all-time men’s leader Roger Federer and two of Rafael Nadal. It appears that 2020 will be the pivotal year in the three-way struggle to eventually retire as the GOAT.

The wild card in this scenario is another three-way race, this one against age. Federer is 38, Nadal is 33. While Djokovic is the junior in the group (he turns 33 in May), he’s also in third place for Grand Slam wins. The urgency is equally distributed.

Whatever happens, it seems almost certain that none of these remarkable competitors will end up with a significant edge in the major title count. They’re so prolific that the title-count metric becomes less persuasive. It’s hard to claim hands-down GOAT status if you won, say, 22 majors but the other guys all have 20 or more as well.

For that reason, details pertaining to rankings, head-to-head meetings, unique achievements all become more important elements in a textured picture of their trivalry.

So let’s look at some of the other details, and the case for each man’s superiority in the great GOAT debate:

Novak Djokovic

Grand Slam singles titles: 17

Age: 32

Last major won: 2020 Australian Open

While Federer and Nadal have professed indifference to the challenge of holding the Grand Slam singles title record, Djokovic declared his ambition to earn that honor in no uncertain terms during the US Open last August. “You know, it’s definitely one of my ambitions and goals, if you want. I am 32 … but I still feel young inside and outside. And I still am very motivated to keep going and especially at this stage.”

It was a bold confession, but Djokovic was fresh off his majestic Wimbledon triumph and loomed as a co-favorite at the Open. That didn’t end so well. Nursing a sore shoulder, he retired after losing two sets in his fourth-round match with Stan Wawrinka. Later in the year, Nadal nosed ahead of Djokovic and snatched the year-end No. 1 ranking out from under his nose. That deprived Djokovic of a significant item on his GOAT application: a sixth year-end No. 1 finish, a feat previously accomplished by only Pete Sampras. Djokovic remains tied for second with Jimmy Connors, Federer and Nadal.

Djokovic has rebounded from that disappointment with a vengeance. He ran the table in the inaugural ATP Cup in January, going 6-0 in singles to lead Serbia to the title. He had wins in that run over, among others, Kevin Anderson, Denis Shapovalov, and — in the final — Nadal. His form was so commanding that he became a heavy favorite to win his eighth Australian Open.

While he accomplished that mission, Djokovic still has some heavy lifting to do. He has set the table for that effort. His .906 winning percentage in majors since turning 30 leads the entire ATP field. Although Djokovic’s been in just five finals compared to eight for Federer and seven for Nadal, he has won all of them.

A convert to a plant-based diet, Djokovic has embraced a way of life that borders on the ascetic. He looks ferociously healthy with no sign of having lost any of his trademark flexibility. He has lost just six of 64 matches at majors since turning 30.

The long-limbed Serb has seemed virtually unbeatable for long periods. His GOAT credentials also include the game’s third-longest winning streak in majors. He won 30 consecutive Grand Slam matches between Wimbledon of 2015 and 2016. He’s the only player in the Open era who has compiled three winning streaks of 25 or more matches in majors. No other Open-era player has won two majors after being down match points, as Djokovic did in the 2011 US Open and last year in Wimbledon. The loser in both matches: Federer.

Another big-ticket item on Djokovic’s resume: Djokovic is one of just three men to hold all four major titles simultaneously. Don Budge did it during the amateurs-only era. Rod Laver accomplished it twice, but just once in the more competitive Open era.

Rafael Nadal

Grand Slam singles titles: 19

Age: 33

Last major won: 2019 US Open

Federer fans will retreat into denial at this idea, but it looks almost like a sure thing that Nadal finish the night of the French Open men’s final as Federer’s equal with 20 major titles to his name. He has earned 12 of them in Paris, the most titles any player has won at a single tournament in the Open era.

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