For years and years, tennis geeks the world over, me included, have probably wiped out a rainforest or three debating which of two superstars — Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal — is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) in the men's game.
Turns out it's probably going to be neither of them (sorry, trees). Judging from Sunday's French Open final, that distinction will ultimately, and deservedly, go to Novak Djokovic, who was down two sets to none on Roland Garros' red clay before coming back to defeat Stefanos Tsitsipas and win his 19th major championship, which leaves him but one behind Federer and Nadal. With 20 each, they share the men's singles record.
Yes, in that category, the Djoker still trails both Roger and Rafa, even if he has a winning record against each man. He has beaten Federer 27 out of 50 matches while standing 30-28 against Nadal after Friday's semifinal win over the King of Clay. But Djokovic is also a year younger than Nadal and nearly six years younger than Federer. Moreover, as NBC analyst Mary Carillo noted Sunday, "I've long felt (Djokovic is) the world's best hard-court player."
To that point, lest anyone's forgotten, two of the sport's four majors — the Australian Open and the U.S. Open — are played on hard courts.
Beyond that, Djokovic joins Roy Emerson and Rod Laver as the only men to have won each of the majors at least twice. For perspective, only one of Federer's 20 Slams has come at the French. Only one of Nadal's 20 Slams has come in Australia. So not only must Djokovic be considered the most versatile of the Big Three, but also the best when compared to the others head to head.
And having won both of this year's majors to date in the Aussie and French Opens, he may also be on his way to achieving something the sport has not seen since the great lefty Laver last accomplished it in 1969: winning all four Grand Slams in the same calendar year.
He's the reigning champ at Wimbledon, which begins in two weeks, and a healthy Djokovic would almost assuredly be the favorite to win the U.S. Open in September. And if he prevails in both of those, he would hold the most Grand Slam men's singles titles (21) in the history of the sport at a time when both Federer and Nadal remain active.
Regardless, it is folly to believe Djokovic will wind up with only 19 majors no matter what happens the rest of this year. Quite simply, he is the best ball striker from both his forehand and backhand sides the sport has ever had, along with being the best returner of serve.
He can paint lines all day off either wing and break your serve whenever needed, and he displays matchless stamina and heart in the clutch.
Merely consider that he is the first player of the modern era (since 1969) to twice come back from a 2-0 sets deficit in the same major to emerge as the winner. He also trailed 19-year-old Lorenzo Musetti by that count in the round of 16. Of Sunday's similar rally, Djokovic told the media: "There's always two voices inside: There is one telling you that you can't do it, that it's done, it's finished. That voice was pretty strong after that second set. So I felt that that was a time for me to actually vocalize the other voice and try to suppress the first one that was saying I can't make it. I told myself I can do it. I strongly started to repeat that inside of my mind, tried to live it with my entire being."
He has done that so many times. Against Federer at Wimbledon in 2019 and several times at the U.S. Open. Against Nadal in Paris and Australia. Perhaps more than any other player in the history of the sport, he often seems to be at his best when his prospects for victory are at their lowest. Also consider this: both his semifinal and final wins at the French were four-plus hours in length. Astounding for anyone, but especially a 34-year-old who was on the court against the 22-year-old Tsitsipas roughly 39 hours after knocking off Nadal.
Does this mean he'll ever gain the popularity Federer and Nadal enjoy? Probably not. Federer is the most elegant player in the history of the sport, Mikhail Baryshnikov with a racket. Nadal is the ultimate fighter, especially on clay, where he's Rocky Balboa, able to withstand any punch.
To be fair, anyone who wins as much as Djokovic is not without his army of supporters. And once Federer and Nadal exit the sport, if the Djoker is still playing, he'll likely become the fan favorite, perhaps by a wide margin. Until then, he'll still be seen by many as the villain, repeatedly beating up on Roger and Rafa, soon to erase their claims to being the best ever.
And yet it was Djokovic who did the nicest thing Sunday when he won, tossing his racket to a young fan he said he'd never seen before.
"He was in my ear for the entire match," Djoker explained. "Giving me tactics as well. He was coaching me. Very cute. Very nice. (Giving him my racket was) my gratitude for him sticking with me and supporting me."
At some point soon, perhaps as early as September, that little boy is all but certain to tell his friends he owns a racket that was once used to win the 2021 French Open by the sport's Greatest Of All Time.