Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer are all vying to end their careers with the most majors ever for a male player, and they’re all going to be in the hunt for another at Roland Garros. Could this year’s French Open reshape men’s tennis history? This week, we give early answers to four questions surrounding their three-way showdown in Paris.
Novak Djokovic must have known the question was coming when he walked into the interview room after this year’s Australian Open final.
A few minutes earlier, the world No. 1 had demolished his longtime rival Rafael Nadal in three lopsided sets to win his 15th major title, and his third in a row. Some experts were calling it the most brilliantly comprehensive big-match performance of the 31-year-old Serb’s already illustrious career. Others were wondering who in the world might be able to stop him from blowing past Nadal and Roger Federer—and maybe even Serena Williams—on the the all-time Grand Slam title winners list. Still others thought we should stop delaying the inevitable and just hand Djokovic the mythical title of GOAT—as in Greatest of All Time—now.
When Djokovic himself was asked about his place in tennis history, though, he seemed a little taken aback by the way the question was phrased.
“Regarding your form right now, you are maybe on the best of your career,” a reporter said to Djokovic during his post-match press conference. “Many players are saying that it’s possible for you to reach the record of Roger, even to beat that. How do you live with that?”
“How do I live with that?” Djokovic asked back, laughing at the gravity of the words. “Just fine!”
In the past, Federer, who has won 20 Slams, and Nadal, who has won 17, have been careful to downplay the significance of their competition in public. According to them, winning one major at a time is hard enough without worrying about how many more they’re going to win down the road.
“The last problem is the Slam count, honestly,” Federer said after beating Nadal in the 2017 Australian Open final. “That’s the smallest part.”
“I really never thought much about that,” Nadal said after winning the US Open nine months later. “I just do my way, he does his way. Let’s see when we finish, no?”
Djokovic, by contrast, has never had a problem with publicly confessing, and embracing, his own sky-high ambitions. After he won the Australian Open in 2015 and 2016, he welcomed the challenge of going after the Holy Grail of tennis, the calendar-year Grand Slam. While he didn’t get it, he did become the first man since Rod Laver to win four majors in a row. This year in Melbourne, Djokovic said that Federer’s record of 20 majors was “still far.” But he was also admitted that the thought of breaking it has crossed his mind from time to time.
“I’m aware that making history of the sport I truly love is something special,” Djokovic said. “Of course it motivates me. Playing Grand Slams, biggest ATP events, is my utmost priority in this season and in seasons to come.”
“I do want to focus myself on continuing to improve my game...so I would be able to compete at such a high level for the years to come and have a shot at eventually getting closer to Roger’s record.”
Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic may try not to dwell on it, but their three-way GOAT chase has raised the stakes for their Grand Slam performances, and the pressure that surrounds any final they play, to almost unimaginable heights. Whoever finishes with the most majors among them could end up wearing the greatest-ever crown for decades to come. At the moment, while they own 52 majors between them, no male player under age 30 has won even one. There are talented members of the ATP’s much-discussed Next Gen, but none appear destined to approach the 20-Slam mark; the best of them so far, Alexander Zverev, has yet to reach the semifinal at a major. It looks as if Roger, Rafa, and Novak are playing for keeps, for the foreseeable future.
“Their longevity is awe-inspiring, and it’s been a great time to be a fan,” ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert says. “I’m 57, and I’m not sure I’ll see anyone challenge these guys’ Slam numbers in my lifetime.”
Below we look at four key questions that will be asked when the ATP tour reaches Paris. Whatever the answers turn out to be, the year’s second Slam could end up having an outsize influence on the history of the men’s game.
Monday, April 29: Introduction
Tuesday, April 30: If Djokovic and Nadal meet in the Roland Garros final, how crucial would it be for the Grand Slam title chase?
Wednesday, May 1: Could someone other than Nadal be favored at Roland Garros?
Thursday, May 2: What factor might Federer play?
Friday, May 3: Whatever the result is in Paris, is Djokovic destined to pass Nadal and Federer in majors?