NEW YORK – Now that Novak Djokovic has the same number of Grand Slam titles as his childhood idol, Pete Sampras, it's realistic for him to start thinking about chasing the only two men ahead of him, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
If Djokovic is reluctant to speak publicly about the idea of going from his current total of 14 to Nadal's 17 or Federer's 20, the Serb's coach isn't.
“The 14 is a number. I mean, it's amazing: 14!” Marian Vajda said Sunday night with a giddy chuckle, his eyes wide, after Djokovic got there with a 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory over Juan Martin del Potro in the U.S. Open final.
“Years ago, I would say that Rafa and Roger went too far from him, you know? Too (far) ahead of him with the Grand Slams. Now I have a feeling he's (catching) up with them,” Vajda continued, slapping the back of his right hand on his left palm for emphasis. “He's so close now, three from Rafa and six – OK, six is still unbelievable – away (from) Roger.”
Nadal is at No. 1 in the rankings, Federer at No. 2 and, as of Monday, Djokovic at No. 3. They have combined to win 47 of the past 55 major championships, dating to the 2005 French Open.
Matching Sampras was meaningful to Djokovic, whose earliest memories of tennis involve watching Sampras on TV at Wimbledon.
“There is a lot of significance of me being, now, shoulder-to-shoulder in terms of Grand Slam wins with him. It's truly incredible when you think about it. I watched him win one of his first Wimbledon championships, and I grew up playing and thinking that one day I'll be able to do what he does,” Djokovic said. “To actually be here, it's a dream come true.”
Andre Agassi, who finished with eight majors, and Sampras used to credit each with making the other better.
Same goes for the Big 3 of today.
“Maybe 10 years ago, I would say I'm not so happy to be part of this era with Nadal and Federer. Actually, today I am. I really am. I feel like these guys, rivalries with these guys, matches with Federer and Nadal, have made me the player I am, have shaped me into the player I am today,” Djokovic said.