Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic look set to fight it out to finish with most Grand Slams, but Dominic Thiem may ultimately hold the key.
For many, the GOAT race and the Grand Slam race are one and the same. For others, including us, Grand Slams are just one element of the equation.
Whichever side of the argument you are on, it seems clear that Rafael Nadal winning his 20th Grand Slam title earlier this month has thrust the conversation more into the forefront than ever before.
With enormous respect to Roger Federer, it feels like his Grand Slam winning days are over. He has set his total of 20, and what an incredible achievement it is.
By the time the Australian Open comes about, it will be three years since Federer won a major title. It seems highly unlikely he is suddenly going to start winning them again at the age of 39 and fresh off double knee surgery.
It also seems a safe assumption that Nadal’s Grand Slam winning days are not behind him. Watching him win the 2020 French Open, it feels utterly inevitable that he will win at least another crown at Roland Garros, if not two or three.
That leaves Novak Djokovic, and watching how the Serbian attempts to chase down Nadal is going to be completely fascinating over the next two or three years.
Djokovic is currently three behind Nadal and Federer on 17, but he is younger, and the fact more Grand Slams are held on his favoured hardcourt surface than any other means he is far from out of the race.
However, there is one other player who is going to have a huge say in this – Dominic Thiem.
Thiem isn’t going to challenge records when it comes to Grand Slams, of course. He could, though, turn out to be the kingmaker between Djokovic and Nadal.
Nadal, for all his undoubted brilliance on clay, has always struggled against Djokovic on hardcourt. He was as soundly beaten in the Australian Open final by the Serbian as Djokovic was by him at Roland Garros this month.
In fact, Nadal hasn’t beaten Djokovic on hardcourt in seven years. That makes it nine wins for Djokovic in a row. How many sets has Nadal won during those nine matches, you may be wondering? None.
Nadal is an exceptional player on hardcourts, don’t get me wrong. Then again, Djokovic is an exceptional player on clay too.
So, then, if Nadal faces Djokovic in a hardcourt Grand Slam, you’d probably not back him to win it. Thiem, though… that’s another matter.
Thiem is at his physical peak at 27 and has just won the US Open on hardcourt. He also reached the final of the other hardcourt Grand Slam this year, the Australian Open, losing to Djokovic in a five-set thriller.
Two months earlier, he proved he could best the Serbian on his favoured surface when he defeated him at the ATP Finals in London. Djokovic would still be the favourite, but not an overwhelming one.
Then, of course, there is the fact that hardcourt isn’t Thiem’s strongest surface. Clay is. He has a recent (2019) win over Djokovic at Roland Garros, and in fact he’s won three of their last four matches on the red dirt.
More to the point, Thiem has beaten Rafael Nadal four times on clay. That, admittedly, is three fewer times than Djokovic (who is six years older) but it’s a better win ratio than the current world number one can boast.
After all, in Djokovic’s own words from just last month: “Dominic is right behind Rafa, on clay [as] the favourite [to win tournaments on clay]”
All of that puts the Austrian in something of a unique position because, while Djokovic and Nadal appear to have the beating of each other on their respective favoured surfaces, Thiem appears very capable of beating them both.
Who, then, between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will win the Grand Slam race? Well that probably largely depends upon how Dominic Thiem performs against them when it matters the most over the next few years.
“I remember my first Grand Slam title,” recalled Djokovic. “After that you start believing in yourself much more and feeling maybe a bit less pressure and expectations from yourself to win [more] Slams.”
It’s all still very much to play for, but Thiem is bang in his prime and now a proven Grand Slam performer. – and that makes him the both the biggest danger and biggest potential asset to both Nadal and Djokovic as they continue their battle for history.
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