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Second Nole Slam? Beat Roger's record? – How Djokovic could blow GOAT debate wide open

Second Nole Slam? Beat Roger's record? – How Djokovic could blow GOAT debate wide open

28/01/2019 at 01:04Updated 28/01/2019 at 02:17

Novak Djokovic has completed a truly astonishing return to form in the last 12 months and in doing so he has blown the GOAT debate wide open, writes Pete Sharland.

What a difference a year can make.

Twelve months ago Novak Djokovic was left in a state of purgatory. A shock defeat to South Korea’s Chung Hyeon left him out of the Australian Open and facing real questions about his future in the game as he continued to be plagued by an elbow injury.

His legacy would never be in doubt, with 12 Grand Slam titles, yet he was in danger of being left behind, of allowing the Big 3 to become the Big 2.

He had to sit and watch Roger Federer triumph in a marathon over Marin Cilic and win his 20th Grand Slam title. Six months earlier Rafa Nadal had moved to 16 with victory at Flushing Meadows.

But then it all changed. Not since 2016, when Djokovic triumphed over Andy Murray at the French, has the Serbian been as strongly in discussion as the best of all time as he is now.

Federer and Nadal, between whom the debate mainly rages, deserve every amount of credit they receive for the way they have rebuilt their careers and dominated into the 30s. Now we must pay the same respect to Djokovic.

Answering the doubters

This time last year the obituaries started on Djokovic’s career. Even if he were able to come back after surgery, his game would never be the same again they said.

Well here we are, in 2019, and Djokovic has obliterated Nadal in the final at Melbourne, when some pundits had suggested that the Spaniard was playing the best tennis of his career. This incredible victory takes him to 15 Slams and he now has three in a row following success at Wimbledon and the US Open last year. So, how did he do it?

After going the entirety of 2015 and 2016 without winning one Slam between them, Federer and Nadal responded in phoenix-like fashion, winning six in a row to begin a new era of dominance. Just as it looked as if the two Grand Masters would settle in for a seemingly never-ending chess match the board was reset. Djokovic returned from surgery at the French last year and the initial signs were encouraging.

What has proceeded since then has been nothing short of extraordinary.

Firstly came Wimbledon, where Djokovic outlasted Nadal in another epic, winning 10-8 in the final set. Then he blew away the rest of the pack in America to end the year with the final two Slams.

The GOAT race

Australia is a unique Slam, the gap between it and the US gives everyone a chance to regroup and recover, it gives players time to dream and believe they can do something, just ask Andy Murray.

Yet Djokovic has maintained his level of dominance, the running joke through the tournament was who was going to drop fewer games on the way to the final between him and Nadal.

The final was billed as a potential blockbuster, a match that could go down in legend. In truth this will be a memorable game, but only because of the sheer dominance of Djokovic’s win.

And now the landscape has completely shifted. So where do we stand now?

The GOAT Race

Djokovic is just two Slams behind Nadal, and five behind Federer. Before that might have seemed insurmountable, especially given the way they’re playing, but now it seems perfectly plausible Djokovic will reach that tally.

And if he does that then the topic of the best ever has to be expanded to include the Serbian.

Eurosport expert and former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash certainly thinks that Djokovic can work his way into the discussion for the greatest of all time.

“It’s not a popular discussion to say, is Novak the best of them all? It’s not popular." insisted Cash.

" But you’ve got to face the facts, this guy might be the best of the lot of them"

“We can throw that out every time someone wins a championship that easily, but it’s a good conversation to have.”

What has to be remembered as well is that at 31, Djokovic has more time than the other two. Federer, Benjamin Button he may be, will have to start slowing down and retire eventually as he approaches his 40s.

Nadal poses a far more interesting problem to Djokovic as he is just a year older and is visibly trying to streamline his technique to put less strain on his body.

The key will be how these two manage themselves if they are to play as long as Federer has and to try and reach his total.

For the first time though, Djokovic is being open about how it is something he has in his mind.

'I want to have a shot at Roger's record'

"Of course, it motivates me," said Djokovic, after his victory over Nadal,

" Playing Grand Slams, biggest ATP events, is my utmost priority in this season and in seasons to come. How many seasons are to come? I don't know. I'm not trying to think too much in advance."

"I do want to definitely focus myself on continuing to improve my game and maintaining the overall well-being that I have mental, physical, emotional, 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. It's still far."

Attention will now turn to clay and you can tell how seriously Federer is taking things now that he is going to actually play on this surface this year. Before he has skipped clay to set himself up perfectly for Wimbledon but now he knows he has to try and take a Slam off one of his rivals.

As for Djokovic, he is in an incredible position to complete a second feat of holding all the Grand Slam titles at the same time, if not winning all in the same year.. Call it what you want - a Tiger Slam or a Nole Slam - it’s a remarkable achievement either way, and he would be just the third man to ever do it.

And he knows he's in for a challenge on clay.

"I have to work on my game, my claycourt game, a bit more, more specifically than I have in the last season," said Djokovic.

"I am already playing better. But, I mean, clay specifically in order to have a chance and shot at the title. The ultimate challenge there is to win against Nadal."

If he can beat Nadal on the Spaniard's favoured surface he may well be best-placed of the three to claim the GOAT moniker when all three finally hang up their racquets...