No one counted on the unlikely rise of Novak Djokovic.
Novak Djokovic: At the 2010 U.S. Open, Djokovic was hanging his head, yelling at his racket, and seemed this close to an ugly first round loss against countryman Viktor Troicki.
It seemed like the latest bittersweet chapter in the career of a player who would be best remembered for losing in the semis of majors and doing very funny impersonations of his fellow players.
Then something clicked. He fought off a couple of match points against Federer in the semi-finals, and found a bright spot in a largely lopsided loss in the finals to Nadal.
In 2010, Djokoic began the most remarkable mid-career turnaround in modern men's tennis. He won four of the next five majors, including Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and two Australian Opens. Still, at age 25, Djokovic has won only five grand slams, less than a third of Federer's total, and half as many as Nadal. And given that tennis players' careers trail off rapidly as they approach 30, it would be virtually impossible for him to catch up.
What puts him in the GOAT conversation is the way he's dominated Federer, and especially Nadal. He's won five of his last six against Federer, including three out of four in majors. More important is Djokovic's newfound dominance over Nadal. After that U.S. Open loss, Djokovic beat Nadal seven times in a row with three of those wins coming in major finals. While Nadal still owns a 18-14 career edge, and did beat Djokovic on clay twice this spring, Djokovic 2.0 is not the same guy who lost his first five grand slam matches against the Spaniard.
Interestingly, the same head-to-head argument that supports ranking Nadal ahead of Federer is also the crux of the strong case for that can be made for Djokovic as the GOAT over Nadal.
So who's number one? It depends on how—and how heavily—you choose weight a career resume versus head-to-head records. And any conclusion you draw will only be temporary. These guys are far from done, so every slam for the next couple of years will tip the balance of this discussion. But what would winning the French this weekend mean for these three players vying to be remembered as the greatest of all time?
For Federer, a win at Roland Garros would bolster his best GOAT claim—that record slam total. But more importantly, a pair of huge wins over his two greatest rivals on his least favorite surface at age 30—that's ancient in tennis terms—would provide perhaps the greatest moment of a storied career. And huge, improbable wins are just as much a part of greatness as accumulating titles.
For Nadal, a win at the French Open has become almost routine. His record at Roland Garros is an almost otherworldly 50-1. But if Nadal's seventh French Open title comes at Djokovic's expense, the win gives him an important toe hold in this crucial--and likely decisive—rivalry.