(Reuters) - Little more than a month ago when Novak Djokovic strutted on to Arthur Ashe Stadium to play Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta in the U.S. Open fourth round, the smart money was on the Serbian one day topping the list of men’s Grand Slam title winners.
With Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer -- the two men above him in the GOAT (greatest of all time) race -- absent from New York, the door seemed ajar for Djokovic to really start breathing down their necks.
A month on, however, after being thrashed by a rampant Nadal in the French Open final, the Serbian remains on 17 Grand Slam titles, three behind the duo.
Sunday’s defeat against a phenomenal Nadal will not hurt quite as much as what happened in New York when Djokovic was defaulted after hitting a female line judge in the throat with a ball knocked away in frustration.
He was a huge favourite to win a fourth U.S. Open title and with doubts over Nadal’s post-COVID-19 shutdown form, it was not difficult to imagine him drawing level with the Spaniard on 19 Grand Slams at the French Open.
All that is now irrelevant and the question is whether or not the 33-year-old has slipped too far behind.
While Federer’s prospects of adding to his haul are diminishing with every passing year, the 34-year-old Nadal, on the evidence of the past fortnight, looks as good as ever.
Nadal was sanguine when asked about drawing level with Federer for the first time in his career.
“We keep playing. I don’t know what can happen in the future. I am just excited and of course is something that means a lot to me,” he told reporters.
“At the same time to share this record between us, that we had an amazing rivalry for such a long time, is something in some way beautiful I really believe.”
Despite a deflating few weeks for Djokovic, he will not be about to give up the chase. After all in 2009 he only had one major to his name while Nadal was on six and Federer owned 15.
Since then he has been the most prolific collector of Grand Slam titles and the nagging sense that he lacks the adulation heaped on Nadal and Federer will fuel his hunger to catch them.
Seven-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander believes Djokovic, who could have trumped Nadal and Federer by becoming the first man in the professional era to win each of the Grand Slams at least twice had he won on Sunday, can do it.
But he makes Nadal the favourite.
“Today tells us that Rafa Nadal most probably has the best chance to go down as the greatest male tennis player of all-time,” the Swede told Eurosport.
“Of course it will hurt Djokovic’s confidence not having won at the U.S. Open and then this defeat. But now he goes into training for the Australian Open where he becomes clear favourite -- and he knows if he wins three majors next year, which we predict every year he will do, then he is up at 20.
“Novak’s body and his game is more modern and I think he can stay longer. The question is whether he is as emotionally involved as he has been over the last two years. That’s the question I’d love to have answered in Australia.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar
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