When we look back on the Australian Open of 2019 in years to come, the thing we most remember may be that it marked the time and place at which Novak Djokovic rekindled the GOAT debate and launched his own campaign to be included in the conversation.
Djokovic's demolition of lifelong rival Rafael Nadal in Sunday's final earned the 31-year-old Serb his 15th Grand Slam title, putting him ahead of Pete Sampras and just two behind Nadal, five short of all-time male leader Roger Federer.
Considering his age, excellent health, a near obsession with clean living and hearty appetite for domination (Djokovic has won three straight majors in his zero-to-hero resurgence), it's hard to escape the idea that it's game on for GOAT honors.
"I am truly speechless," Djokovic told the Melbourne crowd after he won. Pundits and fans, most of whom expected something like the 5-hour, 53-minute epic the two men produced the last time they met on the blue floor of Rod Laver Arena (in the 2012 final), might have echoed his words.
Nadal, who basically didn't compete (due to injury and surgery) for five months preceding this tournament, had just one caveat to cling to while giving Djokovic full credit for playing a "fantastic" match: "Having that big challenge [of Djokovic] in front of me, I needed something else to compete at this super-high level. That something else probably today, I don't have it yet."
It's a reasonable point. But it's more likely that Djokovic, after a mid-career crisis triggered by private issues and an elbow injury, is better than ever. He's recovered his focus as well as his game. He's putting an increasing amount of daylight between himself and his rivals, partly because age and fitness are increasingly affecting his matches with them -- presumably to their detriment.
At 32, Nadal is just a year older than Djokovic. That's not much, but Nadal's game is much more effortful. He has many more hard miles on his odometer, and his body requires more than routine maintenance. Federer, the current leader among active players in the GOAT sweepstakes, is in the full bloom of health. But he's already 37.
This win boosted Djokovic's series record against Nadal to 28-25. That record has some remarkable aspects that must be sobering for his rivals. This 28th win over Nadal is the most ever by any pro over another. Djokovic also is 13-3 against Nadal on all surfaces since Nadal beat him in the US Open final of 2013.
Djokovic was gracious in victory on Sunday. Speaking about Nadal, he told reporters, "I'm sure we're still going to have a lot of matches against each other on different surfaces. I really hope we will, because this rivalry has been the most significant rivalry, the one that impacted me on a personal and professional level the most in my life."
It's a telling comment, less for what it says about Djokovic's feelings toward Nadal than Djokovic's attitude toward Federer. Their series records are comparable: Djokovic is 25-22 against Federer, 5-1 in their last six Grand Slam meetings. But Djokovic seems to feel that he's neutralized the Federer threat. Besides, Federer has faltered in the quarterfinals or before in four of his last five majors.
Whether or not Djokovic -- or anyone else -- needs to equal Federer's Grand Slam title count to challenge for GOAT honors is open to debate. If it's possible to be the GOAT without having won the most majors, Djokovic's prospects spike. He has winning head-to-head records against all three of his fellow Big Four members (with Andy Murray included in that group). Meanwhile, Nadal's 23-15 edge on Federer always evokes the question Mats Wilander once asked: "How can a guy be the greatest of all time if there was someone in his own time that he couldn't beat regularly?"
Nadal has his own case to make, and what about the forgotten GOAT, Rod Laver? Sure, he won just 11 Grand Slam titles, but he was banned from playing majors for five years (20 majors) because he had turned professional. Laver won over 200 titles in a 23-year career spanning the amateur and Open eras, including a calendar year Grand Slam in each of those periods.
No other man in the Open era has run the Grand Slam table in the same year. Djokovic is now in a position to try, for the seventh and perhaps most propitious time. That may be too big an ask in this era, but this win has many of Djokovic's peers speculating that he may ultimately surpass Federer's title count. A reporter asked him, "How do you live with that?"
"How do I live with that?" Djokovic repeated, puzzled. When the laughter abated, he answered, smiling: "Just fine."