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Tennis-Djokovic cements status in GOAT debate after scaling men’s Grand Slam peak

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By Shrivathsa Sridhar

PARIS (Reuters) – If the debate about the best-ever man to wield a tennis racket came down to statistics alone, Novak Djokovic’s status as the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) would already be decided after he clinched a 23rd Grand Slam title at the French Open on Sunday.

The Serb beat Casper Ruud 7-6(1) 6-3 7-5 to eclipse Rafa Nadal’s mark of 22 Grand Slam titles and extend his advantage over the now-retired Roger Federer, who won 20 majors.

The trio have dominated men’s tennis in the last two decades with a collective 65 Grand Slam titles and divide opinion among their loyal fanbases and analysts about who deserves to be known as the best of the lot.

But it is Djokovic who is currently the last man standing among the “Big Three” with Nadal effectively out for the season following hip muscle surgery, although the Serbian played down the significance of his latest crown.

“I don’t want to say that I’m the greatest,” Djokovic told reporters.

“It’s disrespectful towards great champions in other eras. Each great champion of his generation has left a huge mark and paved the way.

“I leave these discussions to someone else.”

The 36-year-old won his first Grand Slam title in 2008 when Federer had already claimed 13 of his 20 crowns and Nadal’s era of unprecedented dominance was underway on the Parisian clay with the Spaniard primed to make inroads on the other surfaces.

“I’ve always compared myself to these guys, the two greatest rivals in my career,” Djokovic said.

“I’ve said before they have defined me as a player. All the success I have, they contributed to it in a way… the countless hours of thinking what it takes to beat them.

“It’s amazing to know I’m one ahead of Rafa but at the same time everyone writes their own history. I think everyone has a unique journey they should embrace and stick to but of course the three of us and Andy (Murray), we reached the golden era.”

Djokovic’s rise up the overall tally gathered pace in 2011 when he won three majors, a feat he went on to repeat four years later to get into double figures.

The Serbian’s steady progress in the last few seasons is a testament to his mental strength and physical conditioning, even as his fellow contenders for the GOAT title began to feel the effects of their long careers.

Federer brought his career to an end last year at the age of 41 after winning 20 major titles while the 36-year-old Nadal may face a uphill task to swell his tally, with 2024 likely to be his final year on the tour.

Djokovic has only gotten better with age and his victory over Ruud extended his win-loss record in Grand Slam finals in his 30s to 11-2.

The Serbian’s coach Goran Ivanisevic said he hoped Nadal could return and win another major but had no doubt Djokovic had more titles in him to stay ahead with the calendar slam now a real possibility.

“I’m really sorry Rafa is not here, but I said a long time ago, before even I became member of Djokovic’s team that him and Rafa, they’re going to go over 22,” Ivanisevic said.

“I’m hoping Rafa comes back and wins one more and Novak is the only player who can win a calendar Grand Slam. He was one match away two years ago, so he has a chance this year.

“It’s still a long way, but Grand Slams are the goal now. I don’t know how many, but he has in his body a lot more.”

(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar, Julien Pretot and Karolos Grohmann in Paris; Editing by Toby Davis)

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