(Reuters) – Novak Djokovic joked that he was a relieved man after Rafa Nadal withdrew from the French Open due to injury but deep down the Serbian has nothing but respect for his eternal rival, saying a part of him would leave if the Spaniard retires in 2024.
Nadal failed to regain full fitness from a hip injury he suffered at the Australian Open in January and the 14-times Roland Garros winner said 2024 could be the last year of his professional career.
Both players are tied on a record 22 Grand Slam titles but Djokovic can inch ahead at Roland Garros where he had managed to beat Nadal only twice in 10 meetings.
“Honestly, I don’t miss him being in the draw. I don’t like seeing him in the draw of Roland Garros,” Djokovic told reporters with a laugh.
“I have had not so much success against him in our head-to-head record in Roland Garros. I’ve managed to beat him twice, but I had to leave my heart and my guts out on the court to achieve that.
“A lot of people retired him already 10 years ago but he kept going, which is something I respect and admire. I know how hard it is to maintain that level and keep going even after having a tough injury.”
Djokovic said Nadal’s announcement came as a shock and the 36-year-old praised his rival for bringing out the best in him over the years they dominated the sport.
“I have to say that he’s my biggest rival. When he announced that he’s going to have his last season of (his) career, I felt part of me is leaving with him too,” he added.
“I feel that he was one of the most impactful people that I have ever had in my career, the growth of my career and me as a player.
“Definitely a great motivational factor for me to keep playing and keep competing and keep pushing each other – who’s going achieve more, who’s going to do better.”
If Nadal does call it quits, Djokovic will be the last of the ‘Big Three’ remaining on tour after Roger Federer retired last year but the Serbian has no plans on hanging up his racket yet.
“It made me wonder, it made me think about my career and how long I’m going to play,” Djokovic said.
“So far I’m not going to make any announcement today, but just reflecting on it, I also felt a little bit emotional about what he was saying.
(Reporting by Rohith Nair in Bengaluru; Editing by Christopher Cushing)