Djokovic back on track to top ‘three Knights of tennis’

  • Alex Sharp

The much-heralded ‘Big Three’ continue to defy all logic.

Roger Federer (20 Grand Slams), Rafael Nadal (20) and Novak Djokovic (18) have separated themselves from the rest with an astounding 58 majors in the last 70. There is a chasm now down to legendary figures such as Pete Sampras (14), Roy Emerson (12), Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver (both 11).

Djokovic, picking up his sixth major since turning 30, has reignited the race with Federer and Nadal to stand out as the men’s greatest of all time. 

An unprecedented ninth Australian Open title arrived on Sunday, the 7-5 6-2 6-2 scoreboard against fourth seed Daniil Medvedev doesn’t quite justify the Serbian's supreme performance. 

He’s outlasted all seven opponents at Melbourne Park. Now he’s intent on outlasting his ‘Big Three’ rivals.

“The Three Knights of tennis,” said the smiling world No.1, before firing a warning to the duo. “Roger and Rafa inspire me. I think as long as they go, I'll go. I think in a way it's a race who plays tennis more and who wins more. It's a competition between us in all areas. But I think that's the very reason why we are who we are, because we do drive each other, we motivate each other, we push each other to the limit.”

Medvedev, who arrived on court as the “man to beat”, riding a scintillating 20-match unbeaten streak, underlined the task of snatching away the elite prizes from this formidable trio.

“When they're in the zone, and I'm not shy to say it, I feel like they're just better tennis players, which shows facts and numbers,” said the Russian as one of the chasing pack.

“For sure, when we are also in the zone, we can bring them big fight, we can win some matches, some maybe big titles. But it's just that the percentage is on their side.

“I'm 25 now. To win nine Australian Opens, I need to win every year until I'm 34. I mean, I believe in myself, but I don't think I'm able to do it. Same with Rafa. I mean, 13 Roland Garros... We're talking about some cyborgs of tennis, in a good way. They're just unbelievable.”

Djokovic’s joint coach Goran Ivanisevic hailed the world No.1’s mindset, bouncing back from a turbulent tail end to 2020.

"He was at 17 Slams. If he wants to beat Rafa and Roger, you need to keep winning. Rafa will probably win again one or two Roland Garros,” said the 2001 Wimbledon champion, assessing the ‘Big Three’ debate.

“There was a goal from the first moment we step in Australia, and he executed today perfectly. This is what you live for, for the matches like this. Number 18.  Now the chase is beginning.  The chase is there and it's great.  

“He needed it because when you play, New York disappointment (defaulted), French, really bad final, he needed this to just keep going in his mind. He is a champion.”

Djokovic himself reflected on the “rollercoaster” AO 2021, insisting "It has been emotionally one of the toughest tournaments I have ever had in my life". 

The Serbian didn’t shy away when the women’s record Grand Slam hauls of Margret Court (24) and Serena Williams (23) were thrown into the mix.

In terms of calculating the amount of slams that Rafa might win, French or somewhere else; myself, getting closer to maybe Roger's, Rafa's record, Serena, Margaret.

"Look, everyone has their own journey and their own way of making history,” continued the 33-year-old, set to surpass Federer’s record 310 weeks atop of the men's rankings in early March.

“They've made history already. They made a tremendous mark in our sport. I'm trying to build that and develop that myself in a very unique, authentic way that is suitable to me. 

“Whether I think about winning more Slams and breaking records, of course, I do. And most of my attention and my energy from this day forward, until I retire from tennis, is going to be directed in majors, trying to win more major trophies.”

Djokovic spoke highly of Medvedev during the on-court trophy presentation, but made his intentions crystal clear.

The world No.1 stated "it's a matter of time" before Medvedev wins a Slam, before adding: "If you don't mind, waiting for a few more years."

The way Djokovic defied all the variables this fortnight, Medvedev and co might have to settle for a few more runners-up spots until the ‘Big Three’ are finished outlasting each other.