By Nick Georgandis
In 2010, when he had won three straight major titles and wrested the No. 1 position in the world away from the immortal Roger Federer for a second time, many began to speculate whether or not Rafael Nadal was in fact eclipsing the Swiss as the greatest active player on the ATP tour.
Since that time, Nadal has done more wincing than winning, as injuries continue to dog his game. And in that same time, Serbia's Novak Djokovic has emerged as the game's new face, winning five of the last nine Grand Slam titles, finishing the last two years ranked No. 1 in the world and flirting with history for both consecutive matches won and best single-season record.
And so, while updating TennisNow.com's ATP record books after the Sony Ericsson Open, I came to a startling conclusion that I must shout from the rooftops (or at least, the top of this blog) - by the end of 2013, given the way things are going, Djokovic is going to surpass Nadal as the second-best player of this era.
Now before you have me committed to the loony bin alongside Redfoo, or give Uncle Toni my home phone number, hear me out.
I'm aware that Nadal leads Djokovic by a convincing 11-6 margin in Grand Slams won, and that the Mallorcan man currently has the greatest winning percentage in ATP matches of all-time (presently an amazing 82.99%).
But it's all because of clay, and while Nadal is the greatest clay-court player ever (sorry, Bjorn Borg, but it's undisputable now), that doesn't translate into being one of the best all-around players.
Of Nadal's 600 wins, 266 are on clay against just 20 losses - a winning percentage just over 93%. His hardcourt record is 284-91, a winning percentage of 75.73% - certainly nothing to scoff at, but also not even in the Top 10 all-time (Boris Becker is presently No. 10 at 77.39%).
His clay court game is amazing, but clay isn't what the tour is about, except for two months during the spring. Meanwhile, Djokovic has a 79.7% winning percentage overall that is distributed across an 81.4% winning percentage on hardcourts, 76.8% on clay and 77.0% on grass.
While I can't blame Nadal for his ongoing injuries, they continue to detract from his game and this too, tips the scale in Djokovic's favor. If he could remain healthy, Nadal might surpass Federer as the greatest ever, but as the saying goes, "If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas."
His recent ankle sprain in the Davis Cup aside, Djokovic hasn't broken down, and it's allowed him to put up some gaudy numbers - 11 consecutive Grand Slam semifinal appearances (Nadal's high is five); 15 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals (Nadal's best is 11); a 27-match Grand Slam win streak that ties Federer for the most ever.
He's also been No. 1 for 76 straight weeks, and is bearing down on Lleyton Hewitt's mark of 80 for ninth place all-time. After the Aussie goes under, Djokovic will start pressuring Andre Agassi (101 straight weeks) and Nadal (102).
Djokovic and Nadal have both achieved three Grand Slams in one year and all four semifinals as well. What Djokovic lacks is a French Open title, something Nadal has a virtual monopoly on, to secure his own career Grand Slam.
If Djokovic triumphs at Paris, he'll secure his career Slam and cement his legacy as an all-time legend. A fitness freak, his body a few weeks short of turning 26 seems in far superior shape to Nadal's battered frame, which will turn 27 in early June. He also has two fewer seasons as a pro than Nadal, who started playing on tour in 2001. If Nadal has to leave the game early due to injury, and with Roger Federer four months from turning 32, Djokovic could be in position to start gobbling up Slams and titles by the ton - he's already compiled 36 titles in 55 finals in his tenure.