When Roger Federer announced his retirement it was an opportunity to review the many records he held and wonder which of them might never be broken. Most consecutive weeks as world No. 1? 237 is a very, very high bar. Five US Open titles in a row? Difficult to top. Most titles on one surface? Maybe doable...
Federer’s record currently stands at 71 titles on hard courts.
Until last week, that was eight clear of Rafael Nadal’s 63 on clay and nine clear of Djokovic’s 62 on hard courts. But Djokovic is now level with Nadal and a step closer to Federer after winning in Tel Aviv.
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Is another Federer record now destined to fall to one of his great rivals?
It is possible that both Nadal and Djokovic could break it.
A few years ago, it probably would have seemed more likely than not that Nadal would surpass Federer's 71 given his dominance on clay. But even though he is still a force on the surface, Nadal is not hoovering up titles on it as he once did. Injuries limited him to just three clay tournaments this year, while wins in Monte Carlo and Madrid have been a little harder to come by (Nadal has one title from his last seven combined appearances in Monte Carlo and Madrid).
There is still Barcelona - where Nadal holds an incredible 66-4 record - Rome and Paris, but clay is no longer the one-man show it once was.
Plus, there remains some uncertainty over how much longer Nadal will continue for, having had several injury issues this year and admitting he came close to retirement at this year’s French Open.
“I was close this year, I'm not going to lie to you,” he revealed at the Laver Cup. “During Roland-Garros, I thought that it could be my last tournament.”
Nadal has signalled that he now has no plans to retire soon, but to catch Federer’s total he would need to win on clay at a steady rate. Were he to win four clay titles over the next two years, that would still leave him four away from Federer’s record at the age of 38. It is entirely possible that he wins more than four over the next couple of seasons, but seven or eight at this stage of his career might seem a stretch, even for the greatest-ever player on the surface.
Djokovic appears better placed right now to break Federer’s record, even though he could still miss future tournaments due to being unvaccinated against Covid-19.
Djokovic is a year younger than Nadal, hasn’t had as many injuries to contend with, and perhaps fuelled by having so much time away from the tour in 2022, remains hungry for more success.
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“I still want to play tennis, even though I achieved pretty much everything that you can achieve in tennis,” he said ahead of the Tel Aviv Open.
“I still have passion and hunger to play at a highest professional level.”
Djokovic showed in Tel Aviv that he is still playing at a very high level. Despite having not played for three months, he didn’t drop a set in the tournament and was impressive throughout. If Djokovic stays at the same standard or improves, it is surely more likely than not that he will another title or two before the year is out.
There could be difficulties at the start of 2023 as it is still unclear if Djokovic will be able to enter Australia following the visa controversy earlier this year, while Miami and Indian Wells could also be out of the equation if the United States entry laws don’t change.
That would leave Djokovic with another disjointed start to the year and would severely impact his chances of closing on Federer’s record. However, if he is permitted to play in Australia and in the United States, plus events in Doha, Dubai and Mexico, he could close in.
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Another title or two this season would really put the record in play for Djokovic. If he finishes the year on 65 titles on hard courts, he would only be six away from equalling Federer, which seems gettable over the next couple of years.
There is also another record in consideration: Federer’s 103 titles. His total is second in the all-time list behind Jimmy Connors’ 109.
Connors' record looks untouchable for either Nadal (92) or Djokovic (89), but equalling or beating Federer is perhaps a possibility.
Djokovic has been averaging around four titles a season for the past four years. If he stays on that course for three more years, then he would be close. Nadal has a better starting point considering he is closer, just 11 behind Federer, which could potentially be reached in the next two or three seasons.
For Nadal and Djokovic, it will ultimately all come down to how much longer they play and how healthy they can stay. They have both proved during this season that when they are fit, and in the case of Djokovic able to compete, they should still be considered the favourites for the top prizes, despite appearing to be in the twilight of their careers. Still, can they continue winning for long enough to threaten more of Federer’s records?
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