Marat, Goran tip Djokovic to top slam tally

Former greats not surprised if Serb surpasses Federer and Nadal.

Novak Djokovic Roland Garros 2019©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

They are two of the most enigmatic slam champions the sport has celebrated.

And at the height of their playing days, Goran Ivanisevic and Marat Safin were revered as much for their unpredictability as for their raw talent and sharp wit.

Ivanisevic beat the Russian – a US Open and Australian Open champion – en route to his long-awaited Wimbledon breakthrough in 2001 and in retirement, remains a fixture of the men’s tour as a leading coach.

It is in stark contrast to Safin, who – after a brief foray into politics – confesses he rarely keeps abreast of the next crop of players making waves these days.

Both know better than to be surprised at the history the “Big Three” continue to make in the men’s game.

And neither would be surprised if one of the three – Novak Djokovic – reels in great rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to end up owning the most Grand Slam trophies.

“Yeah I think he can catch Federer for sure,” said Safin, who is competing in the Legends Trophy tournament at Roland-Garros this week. “He still has time. What he’s 32? It depends, but if he’s healthy and he continues to play this way he can play until 40, easy.”

Legends photo Roland Garros 2019©Pauline Ballet / FFT

It was a prediction only the brave would have dared contemplate a year ago when a 22nd-ranked Djokovic had crashed out in the quarter-finals in Paris, the culmination of a torrid stretch.

“When you see Nole last year when everybody said he’s never going to come back, they were all writing what he’s eating, what he’s not eating and then one month later he’s winning all Grand Slams,” Ivanisevic said.

“I think he can beat Roger’s record. He’s healthy, he’s very, very focused. If he wins here, definitely. He still has two more – Wimbledon and US Open – this year. Everything is possible.”

Goran Ivanisevic Roland Garros ©Pauline Ballet / FFT

The fact all of the “Big Three” still dominate well into their 30s is a scary prospect to former world No.1 Safin, whose best run in Paris was a semi-final showing in 2002.

The Muscovite’s career was ultimately curtailed by a knee injury. He retired before his 30th birthday.

“Roger was lucky he didn’t get injured many times,” said Safin, only 19 months the Swiss player’s senior.

“All our generation had problems, left and right. [Gustavo] Kuerten, he had hip, [David] Nalbandian hip, me knee, [Andy] Roddick, I don’t know what he had.

“Once you start to have injuries in your career it goes into the brain and you start to think too much and you start to lose.”

The Russian could not have imagined a time when half the men’s quarter-finalists at Roland-Garros would be aged over 30, least of all one of the eight being a 37-year-old.

“At the age of 30 you were already an old guy because we started young, at 17, 16,” Safin said.

“Now the guys are becoming good at 23, 24, so for a 10-year career you finish at 34, 35. I was 17 and I retired when I was 29 due to the injury.

“I would have played a bit longer but we started too young and when you put a lot of pressure on you young, something will break because you’re not developed that much, that’s my opinion.”

Ivanisevic, too, had the twilight years of his career cut short due to a shoulder injury, but believed beyond staying fit and healthy, the coach was a key to a player’s longevity at the top in their 30s.

Of the current names guiding the Big Three – Marian Vajda, Carlos Moya and Ivan Ljubicic – Ivanisevic singled out Djokovic’s coach, Vajda, as having the most profound influence.

Novak Djokovic coach Marian Vajda Roland Garros©Pauline Ballet / FFT

“Ljubicic did a great thing with Roger … when he came they won a few Grand Slams,” he said.

“Then you’ve got Moya with Rafa but for me Vajda because he was there from the beginning … and you can see when Djokovic lost track a little bit and found two new coaches Marian went away. He came back and everything fits together again.”

“I think it’s a perfect mixture. He knows Nole and if somebody knows Nole that’s a good thing.”

A good thing for Nole if he’s to close in on his second “Djoko Slam” and close the gap further on the last two men above him.