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“Novak Djokovic Could Be the Best Clay-Court Player of All Time”: When Former US Open Winner Made a Rafael Nadal Claim That Had John McEnroe Dismayed

Puranjay Dixit
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When Novak Djokovic Was FURIOUS At Rafael Nadal After Getting Hit On The Face In 2013: WATCH

One thing the majority of the tennis world agrees upon is that Rafael Nadal is the best clay-court player ever. Hence, when Mats Wilander pegged Novak Djokovic as a candidate for the tag, he elicited a vehement disagreement from John McEnroe. The Spaniard was going through a rough time whereas the Serb was in invincible touch back then, perhaps prompting the retired Swede to make the jump.

Nadal suffered one of the leanest patches of his active career in 2015-16, dropping as low as World No.10 when the rankings were still lenient towards injured top-ranked players though. After winning the 2014 French Open, he went nearly 3 years without another Grand Slam. Djokovic, meanwhile, was the most dominant he had been. The World No.1’s 2015 is one of the best seasons ever for an individual players in the last decade.

At the 2015 French Open, Nadal was hunting for a sixth consecutive championship. He blazed through his first four matches to set up a quarterfinal matchup against Djokovic. He may have been seeded sixth, but the ‘King of Clay’ was still expected to be a title contender. However, he was no match for Djokovic on the day. The eventual runner-up dismantled Nadal in straight sets. This was only his second-ever defeat in the French Open.

This, and the fact that Djokovic had won two of the last three Majors, may have been on Wilander’s mind in 2015. In a post-match analysis with McEnroe on Eurosport, the seven-time Majors winner said when Djokovic plays like the way he did back then, he could eventually become the best player of all time on clay.

“I mean, when you see him play like that, he could potentially be the best clay-court player of all time. Because how can you beat that? He’s better now than he was before.”

When McEnroe clearly objected, Wilander clarified that he did not mean statistically, but was talking about the level of gameplay. He claimed if Djokovic played on clay at this level since he started dominating tennis around 2011, he would also have had an incredible record like Nadal.

“Not in wins, now. The level of tennis. But he could really hurt Nadal. I think if four years ago, Djokovic was at this level, it could sort of have been a similar situation (Nadal’s dominance at the French Open).”

Djokovic finished runner-up to Stan Wawrinka in 2015. He finally won the French Open the following year to complete his career Grand Slam. Nadal bounced back in 2017 and picked up four titles on the trot again.

Wilander praised Novak Djokovic on clay after 2021 RG semi-final against Rafael Nadal

Novak Djokovic got his second win over Rafael Nadal in the French Open six years after his first. He defeated the latter in the semi-final, only the Spaniard’s third loss ever in the history of the tournament. It made him the only man to defeat Nadal twice at the clay Grand Slam.

After Djokovic’s win, Wilander reiterated his words from 2015. He said beating Nadal twice in Roland Garros is a milestone for the Serb. He claimed defeating Nadal, who had more Majors then, gave the latter a chance to prove himself as the best in the world. The Swede said Djokovic was the better clay court player on the day, harking back to what he had said years ago.

With Nadal returning to the court after nearly a year-long injury lay-off, fans and experts are divided over his chances. However, most agree that he will mount a challenge at the French Open, his favourite tournament. Regardless of how long he may have been out, he is always in the discussion for the Roland Garros title. Djokovic, however, had an incredible 2023 and will keep it going. He has already declared his goal of winning a Golden Slam, a strong possibility. There could be a couple of high-octane Djokovic vs Nadal clashes in 2024.

About the author

Puranjay Dixit

Puranjay Dixit

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Puranjay is a Tennis Journalist at The SportsRush. He has written more than 300 articles on the sport. Ask him anything about tennis and he is ready to come up with well-crafted answers. He has been following tennis ever since his parents introduced him to the game when he was 10. His favourite player may be Rafael Nadal, but ask him who's the GOAT, and he'll say, Novak Djokovic. He may be pursuing a degree in an unrelated field, but creating quality sports content remains his first love.

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