Novak Djokovic has become increasingly candid and clear in discussing what motivates him.

In a pro career spanning more than 15 years, he has amassed 17 Grand Slam singles titles. Just two players – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – own more.

They are the Serb’s primary rivals, and also still active on tour. Their identical tally of 20 major trophies is a benchmark Djokovic has set his sights on, and beyond.

“It always has been the case but, especially now, more or less everything is about Grand Slams in terms of how I see tennis and how I approach them because they matter the most,” he said at the 2019 US Open.

“I’m aware of (the Grand Slam titles race), of course. And it’s flattering (that people think I can surpass Federer and Nadal), obviously. But at the same time, it’s still a very long way ahead of me. It does also put a certain level of responsibility to me as well, because I am aiming to do that.”

At the time of those comments, Djokovic owned 16 Slam titles; five months later he claimed a 17th at Australian Open 2020. Brimming with confidence and unbeatable in the first two months of that year, he seemed perfectly positioned to accumulate more.

A tough assignment

Had the season gone as many envisaged – Djokovic would sail through the US Open draw then beat a vulnerable Nadal on heavy clay in the Roland Garros final – then he and the Spaniard would own 19 each.

Instead, Djokovic remains on 17, with Nadal three trophies clear.

Assuming Nadal and Federer win no more Grand Slam trophies, the quickest way Djokovic could surpass them would be to sweep all four major titles in 2021 – the headiest of achievements.

A more likely scenario – given Nadal’s near-invincibility in Paris and the increasing impact of fast-rising stars like Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas – would be that Djokovic gathers four more Slams over the next two or three years.

By that time, he would be around 36 years of age. And he might need more than four.

“When you start throwing out the numbers the Big Three have produced, it’s absolutely mind-boggling. So I would say: does four (more major titles) seem insurmountable? Yes, it does. But on the other hand I’ll say, he’ll do that in a heartbeat,” former world No.15 Wally Masur said of Djokovic.

“Because it just seems to be what these players do. They just have this incredible knack of gathering majors.

“Novak is a superb athlete, he’s a light frame. I assume he’s probably looked after himself pretty well and if he’s got a couple of years left in him, he will win more Slams.

“Can he win four? Let’s wait and see.”

Djokovic did acknowledge the added pressure he was placing on himself by declaring his desire to win more Grand Slam singles titles than anybody in men’s tennis history.

But according to former world No.4 Todd Martin, who once coached Djokovic, evading questions about his lofty goals would be “disingenuous”.

“It’s out there,” Martin said. “I think it’s good. It’s probably healthy. I think it’s probably freeing for him to be able to just say it out loud.”

Race continues at AO 2021

Martin, now the International Tennis Hall of Fame CEO, believes it simplistic to judge greatness purely on one metric such as the overall number of major singles trophies. The ongoing ‘GOAT debate’, he argues, involves a more holistic picture also including Masters 1000 titles, weeks at No.1, total tournaments won and head-to-head records.

However, he remains captivated, like many others, by the Big Three’s historic Grand Slam chase – something that will continue at AO 2021.

“Imagine in February if Novak leaves with another trophy from Melbourne. (The tally is) 20-20-18, it doesn’t look that far away. Then all of a sudden you can start to imagine, wow, we might be at 21-20-19 by the end of the year. Or 20-20-20,” Martin said.

“I do look at May and June of 2021, and think Rafa’s gonna be at least at 21.

“If you had told me in 2009-2010, when I was working with Novak, that Wimbledon was going to be a great place for him, I would have been skeptical. But he has figured out how to be a great player on every surface, at every event.

“When he’s right, I look at him as being the best tennis player in the world. With the caveat that Rafa is an absolute beast on clay.”

In less than three weeks’ time, we will have a clearer picture of how the Grand Slam race could play out.

Source: Matt Trollope