Rafael Nadal accuses Novak Djokovic of being 'obsessed by the race for grand slam titles'

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Simon Briggs
·4-min read
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Rafael Nadal says Novak Djokovic is consumed by the pursuit of records for their own sake - GETTY IMAGES
Rafael Nadal says Novak Djokovic is consumed by the pursuit of records for their own sake - GETTY IMAGES

Six weeks before the French Open, defending champion Rafael Nadal has highlighted the major difference between himself and Novak Djokovic, the man chasing his record tally of 20 grand-slam titles.

According to Nadal, it is a question of motivation. Whereas Nadal says he plays for the satisfaction of competing in itself, Djokovic is “obsessed” with the pursuit of records for their own sake.

Asked about the majors race by Metro.co.uk, Nadal replied: “Novak is more obsessed about this, more focused… Not in a negative way. No, he’s more focused on just these things and it means a lot to him all of this stuff. Like he’s always saying and talking about these records and well done for him… but it’s not my approach to my tennis career.

“I have a healthy ambition,” Nadal added. “Of course, I am ambitious, if not I would never be in the position I am today but I have probably a different kind of ambition than him, for example. I just keep going, keep doing what I’m doing and just try to put myself in a position to keep enjoying the tour and, of course, try to achieve as much as possible.”

The French Open – which has been delayed by a week to May 30 because of France’s high Covid levels – is set to be the first major for 16 months to feature all of the Big Three. Roger Federer announced on Sunday that he will participate after playing just one other clay-court event in Geneva the previous week.

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As the 13-time champion, Nadal will start as favourite to set a new world record for men’s tennis, by landing a 21st grand-slam title. This would give him a lead over Federer’s 20 and Djokovic’s 18.

But if Djokovic were to nip in unexpectedly for a second Roland Garros title – and bear in mind that Nadal’s back has bothered him throughout much of this season – then he would be well placed to draw level with his two elders before Christmas.

Nadal's comments hint at a future in which Djokovic leaves rivals in rear-view mirror

By Simon Briggs

Many of Djokovic’s fans were left seething by Nadal’s comments. They did not take kindly to the idea that their hero was “obsessed” – a word with critical connotations, even if Nadal tried to soften it by adding “Not in a negative way”.

Responding in droves on social media, they pointed out Nadal’s eccentric match routines – which include lining up water bottles at changeovers and rearranging his underwear before each point. If that’s not obsessive, they asked, what is?

Yet each athlete has his own matrix of motivations, and Nadal’s competitive instincts would run as hot on your local park court as at Roland Garros. Any competition is important to him, including board games and rounds of golf. Statistics and league tables do not come into it.

Djokovic is more selective. Increasingly, he has been directing his efforts towards the majors, and has also spoken about balancing tennis with family responsibilities. Unlike Nadal, he has a son and a daughter to think about.

Nadal’s comments had a distinctly tactical feel to them. Whether barbed or not, they seemed to be foreshadowing a future in which Djokovic leaves his rivals in the rear-view mirror.

Novak Djokovic  - SHUTTERSTOCK
Novak Djokovic - SHUTTERSTOCK

Many experts believe that Djokovic, who will be 34 next month, could have as many as five or six more majors left in him. His ultimate destination might be closer to Margaret Court’s 24 titles than Federer’s 20.

Should Djokovic finish as the eventual record-holder, this will probably irritate Nadal more than if Federer – with whom he has a far warmer relationship – had wound up at the top of the leaderboard.

Perhaps that is why, in this latest interview, Nadal sounded like a man glancing over at a neighbour’s flashy new-build and detecting a touch of vulgarity in the expensive materials. His comments had an undercurrent of “What are you trying to prove?”

What we can say with confidence is that this three-way battle has more mileage left in it. Admittedly, a new man – Dominic Thiem – joined the circle of major champions at October’s US Open, while another emerging star – Stefanos Tsitsipas – has just claimed the Monte Carlo Masters.

Even so, the odds are heavily stacked in favour of a more familiar name – probably either Nadal or Djokovic – lifting the trophy at Roland Garros.