Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal's battle for tennis major number 23
The men's tennis singles grand slam battle moves on to the French Open, where it could be a straight fight between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal for supremacy.
Djokovic’s victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas on Sunday earned him a 10th Australian Open title and drew him level with Nadal at the top of the all-time men’s standings on 22 grand slam titles.
Djokovic’s deportation from Australia last year meant their tie on 20 was broken without the Serbian present, but this time all eyes will be on the battle at Roland Garros in the spring.
Despite a hamstring injury that left him fearing for his chances, Djokovic dropped only one set at Melbourne Park and felt he played some of his best tennis.
At 35, he is showing no sign of slowing up and is back at number one in the world rankings having overtaken Carlos Alcaraz.
“Of course I am motivated to win as many slams as possible,” said Djokovic. “At this stage of my career, these trophies are the biggest motivational factor of why I still compete.
“I still have lots of motivation. Let’s see how far it takes me. I really don’t want to stop here. I feel great about my tennis. I know that when I’m feeling good physically, mentally present, I have a chance to win any slam against anybody.
“I like my chances going forward. But, again, nothing is given or nothing is taken for granted. Of course, I have awareness there’s a lot of players that want this trophy or want the number one position in the world.
“Physically I can keep myself fit. Of course, 35 is not 25, even though I want to believe it is. But I still feel there is time ahead of me. Let’s see how far I go.”
As well as surpassing Nadal, Djokovic also has the overall record in his sights, with Serena Williams on 23 and Margaret’s Court’s current best of 24 now the only targets ahead of him.
Asked how long he thinks Djokovic can challenge for major titles, his coach Goran Ivanisevic said: “Definitely two, three more years. The way he’s taking care of his body, the way he approaches everything, the food, it’s amazing. It’s unbelievable the level.”
Former Wimbledon champion Ivanisevic described the 22-22 draw as “like a handball match”, and he expects Djokovic and Nadal to again repel the likes of Tsitsipas, Alcaraz and the other young pretenders in Paris.
“Talking about the young guys, they’re here, it’s great for tennis, great for the future of tennis,” he said. “But you still have these two guys battling. This was Novak’s home court and now we’re going to Rafa’s home court.
“Yes, they are coming – Alcaraz, unbelievable. Still, if Rafa steps on the court at the French Open, for me he’s always the favourite to win the tournament.
“I said eight or nine years ago that Novak and Rafa will go over Roger (Federer). People were looking at me like strangely. But we have 22-22. Two unbelievable competitors, two unbelievable tennis players, what they did for tennis.
“I’m looking forward, honestly, for both of them to be super healthy, then the battle is there. And with the young guys who are going to try to find back doors to sneak and try to do something. But still these two guys, they are going to have the last word to say there.”
Tsitsipas tasted defeat to Djokovic for a second time in a grand slam final having also lost at the French Open in 2021, but he was not downcast afterwards.
He revealed he dreamed about lifting the trophy the night before the final, and said: “The desire is really there. I really, really want it badly. But just dreaming about it won’t make it happen. You’ve got to act. You’ve got to do something out there. You’ve got to be present even more and do better.
“Novak is a player that pushes you to your limits. I don’t see this as a curse. I don’t see this as something annoying. This is very good for the sport, to have competitors like him, to have champions like him.
“He’s very important for us that want to get to his point one day. Getting our asses kicked is for sure a very good lesson every single time.”
The battle for number 23:
How did we get here?
Nadal is a year older than his rival and made his breakthrough early, winning his first French Open title just after turning 19. He had three titles by the time Djokovic won his first in Australia in 2008 and was already on nine when the Serbian claimed his second. But since then Djokovic has been catching up fast. Djokovic’s 2021 Wimbledon title left both on 20 and now they are level again.
Who’s in better shape?
Undoubtedly Djokovic. Nadal’s two slam titles last year were a tremendous effort but staying fit is becoming increasingly difficult for the 36-year-old Spaniard, with a hip problem that contributed to a second-round loss here his latest ailment. Djokovic, on the other hand, has won five of the last seven slams he has played and looks in as good a shape as he did at 25.
What happens next?
In a best-case scenario, Nadal could return for the next big tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami in March, but may choose to stay off the match courts until his favoured clay. With the pair locked at 22 apiece, it sets up the delicious prospect of a straight fight for outright supremacy at the French Open beginning on May 28.
How many could they end up with?
A fascinating question. Nadal may look vulnerable but do not expect anyone to bet against him adding a 15th title at Roland Garros – and maybe even a 16th – too. Djokovic, meanwhile, barring unforeseen circumstances, will be the favourite at Wimbledon and the US Open, and of course when the tour returns to Australia next year. It would be a surprise if he does not overtake Margaret Court’s outright record of 24 to be the most successful grand slam singles player of all time and he could perhaps push on towards 30.