Couch: Djokovic's French Open Puts Him Right Smack In Middle Of GOAT Debate

Novak Djokovic is there now with them, with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It has been the Big Three for a while, but really, it was the two tennis gods and then Djokovic, mostly for comic relief or as an unmatched sock.

Djokovic won his 19th major title Sunday, beating Stefanos Tsitsipas -- the most likely young player to take over when the Big Three allow it -- in the French Open final 6-7 (8-6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.

And yes, that means he has won 18 of these majors before. But still, this was Djokovic’ crowning moment, especially after beating Nadal in the semifinals.

Djokovic is clearly in tennis’ GOAT debate now. His fans, always loud and defensive and usually aggressive and offensive, have not been patient about this. They’ve insisted that he was already here.

But this was the weekend for that. Nineteen majors. The biggest win in his GOAT resume will be his semifinal over Nadal, which was one of the greatest matches ever played.

What does it take to be the GOAT? Is it just incredible stats? Is it an objective measure?

No. It also takes an aura and a wow factor, usually something that gets a crowd reacting in a way it didn’t expect and couldn’t control. Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Tom Brady, Michael Jordan -- they can all give you the jittery feeling that you’re seeing something special.

It takes a defining moment like the one Djokovic had against Nadal Friday, when he beat the best claycourt player ever on Nadal’s signature court. Both players kept raising their level as momentum went back and forth.

The scoreboard for major titles now is this: Federer 20, Nadal, 20, Djokovic 19. That can’t be the only GOAT scoreboard, though. Players from previous generations weren’t singularly focused on majors and usually skipped the Australian Open. So Djokovic has nine Australian Open titles while, say, Bjorn Borg played there only once, when he was 17.

On Sunday, Djokovic became the first of the Big Three to win all four majors at least twice. He also has a winning head-to-head record against Federer and Nadal.

To me, Nadal is still the greatest ever, but we’re splitting hairs now, and that could change within weeks. If Djokovic wins Wimbledon and the U.S. Open this year, he’ll have been the first of the three to complete the Grand Slam -- all four majors in one year -- and will have won more majors than the other two. 

So Djokovic has the stats and the type of moment needed to be the GOAT. But does he have the aura?

By January of this year, it seemed that Djokovic was melting down, due to so many self-inflicted missteps off the court. He was tennis’ bad guy. For one, he got kicked out of the U.S. Open last year when he angrily hit a ball that accidentally hit a line judge in the throat.

Djokovic was down two sets to love Sunday, and you had to wonder if his body was finished after the beating it took against Nadal. But instead, he fought back. He always does. Ironically, when he was younger, he was always looking for excuses. Tsitsipas, just 22, was the one whose body broke down.

Djokovic earns everything the hard way, and has played for years with a grudge because his feet are on the ground while Nadal’s and Federer’s heads are in the clouds.

Now, he has caught them. 

So why do I say Nadal is still the GOAT? Well, he still has one more major than Djokovic. His 13 French Open titles give him the greatest accomplishment in tennis history. He has beaten Djokovic more than Djokovic has beaten him in majors. His head-to-head with Federer is too lopsided in Nadal’s favor to ignore. Plus, Nadal beat Federer on Roger’s court at Wimbledon in the greatest match ever played. Moment, stats, aura.

But it’s a clear path now for Djokovic. Federer is 39 and not likely to win more majors. Nadal is 35 and will win more, but Djokovic, 34, has all the momentum. 

On Sunday, the crowd was actually for Djokovic at times. When they were cheering for Tsitsipas, it was as if they were pulling for the young guy. They were not anti-Djokovic, who is motivated by the boos that Federer and Nadal never hear.

Tsitsipas was trying to become the first of the Generation Next to beat the Big Three in a major final. He fought hard and smart, a rare combo for that generation. He also plays like an artist, from the heart, meaning he’s interesting, passionate and human. This was the first time I’ve had hope for that generation.

But this was Djokovic’ day, his week, his moment. With his past, he’s going to have to get fully and cleanly past Nadal and Federer before most people see him as the GOAT.

It’s in his reach now, as long as he doesn’t blow it. Djokovic is one of them.

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Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in and The Guardian. Couch penned articles and columns for Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.