Can the Serbian superstar dominate the sport when Rafa and Roger retire?
In the final part third of our three-part series, we look at the youngest of the three tennis greats in the modern men’s game and ask which man will end with the most Grand Slam victories.
In an era of men’s tennis not just dominated but defined by the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, could the man who wins the race to 21 Grand Slams be neither of those two icons, but instead a single-minded Serbian who will overtake both men by the time they are both looking back on their achievements?
With 16 Grand Slam titles at the age of 32, many players would consider retirement themselves. Indeed, just a few short years ago, Novak Djokovic had that very thought. It was during a long climb up a mountain with his wife Jelena that led to his decision to continue.
Filled with a new determination since that hillside hike, Djokovic has won four of the last eight Grand Slams and goes into the coming seasons in the best form of the three men who have carved their names not just into tennis history, but modern sporting folklore. Djokovic is the only man of the three to have won more than three Slams at three of the destinations that decide tennis glory.
If it’s not the physical demands of an ageing body or niggling injuries that will hinder the Serb, then what could stop ‘Nole’ reigning in his rivals? Certainly, his mind is strong, He has a great record against Nadal, one year his senior, and arguably has the best mindset of anyone in sport at present.
Could it be that the spirit that has led Djokovic to glory in recent years may wane without the presence of those adversaries? Everyone needs a challenge to be at their best. Think of the greatest rivalries. Ali vs. Frazier, Real Madrid vs. Barcelona or Lennon vs McCartney, any player at their peak needs someone to push them along. Without either Rafa or Roger to compete against, could Djokovic simply decide that enough is enough?
The defining factor is Novak Djokovic’s legacy could be revealed sooner than both of his great counterparts. If Djokovic was to get close to Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slams by the time the Swiss master stops his watch, the incentive will be there to go on, to focus on Rafa, to create his own tennis enmity between himself and another player.
If he is to achieve the pinnacle of his potential, Novak Djokovic may yet realise that his greatest rival is neither of his peers, but instead himself. The Serbian’s own spirit is the key to him pushing himself in the coming years to end up on top in the ‘Race to 21’.