'He’s a freak': Thoughts on Djokovic’s quest for 23

 - Chris Oddo

He's on the brink of history - what would it mean for the Serbian's legacy?

Novak Djokovic, Roland-Garros 2023, semi-final© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

In 2005, when Novak Djokovic claimed his first Grand Slam main draw victory on the Parisian clay, it would have been hard to imagine what would occur 18 years later in the French capital. 

Fast forward to 2023. Roger Federer is retired; Rafael Nadal is out with injury; Djokovic? He's still here. 

At 36 and still very much at the peak of his powers, the Serbian is bidding to become the first man in history to claim 23 major titles on Sunday. He will face last year's runner-up Casper Ruud in the final.

“I'm proud of all my achievements, and I try to stay present and stay in the moment,” the 22-time major champion deadpanned after his 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 semi-final triumph over Carlos Alcaraz on Friday. “I know the job is not finished and we have another match.” 

Djokovic has his sights set on history, but he isn’t getting ahead of himself. 

“I put myself in another really ideal position to win a Grand Slam," he said. "That's basically what still drives me when I wake up in the morning and think about the season and think about things I want to achieve. The Grand Slams are what drives me the most. 

“As far as all the records that are on the line, again, it's flattering, it's great, but I need to win in order to make sure to be on that list.”

Novak Djokovic, Roland-Garros 2023, third round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Widespread respect

Before and during the tournament, players and pundits weighed in on what it might mean if Djokovic was able to break the all-time record for Grand Slam men’s singles titles. 

“The one who finishes with the most Grand Slams, I would pick them as the best of all time,” said 1993 and 1994 champion Sergi Bruguera. “There’s a lot of different things considered, but for me Grand Slams are the most important.

“At the end of the day it’s between Rafa [Nadal] and Novak and who has more Grand Slams.”

When it comes to GOAT talk, Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov says the number itself is no longer of concern. In his mind, the three-headed monster known as the 'Big 3' has already proved all there is to prove.

“I’m saying it with the utmost respect," Dimitrov told rolandgarros.com. "It doesn’t really matter anymore. This is staggering what he has been able to do over the years; not only him, but Roger and Rafa too, they’re in a league of their own.” 

Novak Djokovic, Grigor Dimitrov, semi-final Rolex Paris Masters 2019© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

'A nightmare for anyone'

No matter who ends up with the most Slams, Djokovic is a legend for doing what he’s done, says Australia’s Thanasi Kokkinakis.

“He’s a freak,” the Aussie said after defeating Dan Evans in the first round. “Djokovics, Nadals, these guys don’t come around very often so you have to embrace them while they are still here. They’ve taken the game to the next level. I know a lot of guys look up to Novak, they see his preparation and how he ticks every box and gets the most out of himself.

"Look at how fresh he looks at this age, I can’t even imagine myself looking anywhere near that. How he’s been able to take care of his body and the way he keeps producing day in and day out over five sets, he’s going to be a nightmare for anyone.” 

Whether you agree with Bruguera or Dimitrov (or both), it’s hard to argue with eight-time Grand Slam champion John McEnroe’s assertion that Djokovic has a lot of courage to tell the world that he wants to stand on top of the record books when his career is said and done. 

Novak Djokovic, Thanasi Kokkinakis, second-round, Wimbledon 2022© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

"I don't have the records in front of me, but he has talked about it so openly, that it's a goal of his and he embraces that. I think that takes a lot of guts in itself to say 'I want it' rather than just say 'I want to do the best I can and whatever happens happens,'” McEnroe told Eurosport

"At the moment for me, Nadal is the greatest player that has ever lived on clay. Novak would be the same on hard courts. Roger on grass, even though Djokovic has beaten Roger a few times at Wimbledon.

"Certainly he's right there, and I think it's amazing because he was trying to get into that mix for so long. To be playing so well at his age is hard to believe, actually."