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Why we should no longer doubt Novak Djokovic's place among tennis' GOATs

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Will Djokovic set the new mark for most Grand Slams all time? (1:19)

John and Patrick McEnroe discuss Novak Djokovic's place among the best to play the game and examine his chances of finishing with the most majors. (1:19)

LONDON -- Chasing. It seems that Novak Djokovic has been doing it since he was an inexperienced teenager, forever fighting for the elusive rewards in the golden age of men's tennis: the respect of his peers and the affection of a public that seemed to have eyes for only Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

He has pursued those two men through the Grand Slam thickets and valleys, a member of the Big Three but always a precious step or two behind.

After Sunday at Wimbledon, Djokovic chases no more.

He locked down a career-defining win that accords him equal status with the twin titans of the era, Federer and Nadal. Djokovic accomplished it by earning his 16th Grand Slam title, staring down two match points and besting Federer in a historic five-set final: 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3).

It was the first Wimbledon final to be decided by a tiebreaker at 12-all in the final set. Even without that distinction, it will be compared to the match generally acknowledged as the greatest of all time, the 2008 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal, won by Nadal 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7.

"This one is more straightforward maybe, in some ways, because we didn't have the rain delays, we didn't have the night coming in and all that stuff," Federer said afterward, comparing the two finals. "But sure, epic ending, so close, so many moments. Yeah, sure, there's similarities. I'm the loser both times, so that's the only similarity I see."

Djokovic's take: "It was probably mentally the most demanding match I was ever part of. The most physically demanding match was against Nadal in the finals of Australia [in 2012] -- that one went almost six hours. But mentally, this was a different level because of ... everything."

The "everything" in this four-hour, 57-minute duel included those two match points, the historic tiebreaker (who imagined it would decide the men's final the first year it was employed?) and even the crowd, which consisted mainly of Federer partisans. Late in the match, the "Let's go, Roger, let's go!" chant rolled down from the Centre Court upper stands like gravel in a chute, drowning out the cries of "Go Novak!"

Djokovic had a remedy for that.

"It's hard to not be aware [of the crowd]," he said. "You have that kind of electric atmosphere, that kind of noise, especially in some decisive moments where we're quite even. You just try to ignore it. I like to transmutate it in a way: When the crowd is chanting 'Roger,' I hear 'Novak.' It sounds silly, but I try to convince myself that it's like that."

That, in a nutshell, is what Djokovic's life has been like in the Federer-Nadal era.

But now, Djokovic has actually caught up to and even surpassed those two players in almost every way that counts. Djokovic leads Nadal in the most prolific head-to-head matchup of the entire Open era 28-26. He leads Federer in the third-most contested rivalry 26-22. The only area in which Djokovic still trails them is the most widely publicized of them all: the total Grand Slam title count, still led by Federer's 20. Djokovic, like Fed and Rafa, has won on every Slam surface.

Before the match began, ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said that if Federer won Sunday's contest, he would probably think his Grand Slam title record is safe, but if Djokovic came through, it would make him think Federer's record is within reach.

Djokovic, 32, is a year younger than Nadal. He is just two major titles behind Nadal and four short of Federer's mark. Given Federer's age (37), Nadal's history of injury and Djokovic's extreme dedication to fitness and holistic health, it's easy to imagine the world No. 1 eventually surpassing Federer's mark.

"It seems like I'm getting closer, but they are also winning Slams," Djokovic said of the hunt for the record. "We're kind of complementing each other. Whether I'm going to be able to do it or not, I don't know. [But] I'm not really looking at age as a restriction of any kind, for me at least."

Djokovic made a point of telling the Centre Court crowd during Sunday's trophy presentation that he was inspired by Federer's performance to seek greater longevity, which was either a great compliment to his rival, a shot fired across the bow or a combination of the two. "What I said on the court, I really meant it," Djokovic said later. "It just depends how long I'm going to play, whether I'm going to have a chance to make a historic No. 1 or Slams."

This win was Djokovic's fifth at Wimbledon, which leaves him three behind Federer. That's a detail that helps explain why Federer remains the ultimate Wimbledon paragon. But if Federer is, and likely always will be, The Man at Wimbledon, Djokovic has replaced him as the man to beat. Djokovic's record at Wimbledon has been remarkable in recent years. He has won more matches at the All-England Club (72) than at any other major. His major breakthrough came in 2011, three years after he won his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open.

"I kind of managed to find a balance between private and professional life [in 2011]," Djokovic said earlier this week. "That just allowed me to perform at my best. 2011 was one of the best, if not the best, season I ever had. It kind of changed things around for me. After that, I started to trust myself more in the deciding matches and points. It got me to a champion's mentality. I started to believe I could beat those two guys [Federer and Nadal], because they were so dominant. They were taking away all the Slams."

Djokovic mastered Nadal in that 2011 Wimbledon final, and he has gone on to compile a 50-3 record at Wimbledon. Even Federer, with his eight titles, trails him 46-7 over that period. The process has elevated Wimbledon in Djokovic's eyes. His feelings for Wimbledon help explain why it was here, last summer, that Djokovic once again picked up the chase after a turbulent two years filled with self-doubt, injury and existential restlessness.

"Every time I step on the court, I reflect on what has happened the previous year," Djokovic said after his opening win of the fortnight. "Last year, I dropped out of the top 20 of the world. I was still struggling coming back from injury and surgery to find the desired level of tennis. It was a huge, just huge importance to win this trophy. After this tournament last year, I started to play my best tennis. That got me to No. 1. [Wimbledon] does have a special place in my heart for many different reasons."

Sunday's epic final -- and the way it will be viewed over the coming years -- will tether this tournament even more firmly to Djokovic's affections. Wimbledon might become the tournament at which Djokovic surpasses Nadal and Federer in the GOAT debate. Wimbledon still has the most cache, and Djokovic has mastered every dimension of what it takes to win. The favor often shown his rivals -- the Federer-Nadal semifinal was the most hotly anticipated match of this tournament -- might have helped Djokovic.

Djokovic is aiming for that major title record, no doubt about it. He has survived the equivalent of a tennis player's midlife crisis and rebounded by winning three of the past four majors.

Federer was asked if he found it "exciting" to be in a race with a few rivals hoping to break his record.

"Well, it used to be a really, really big deal," he said, deflecting to his effort to break the previous record of 14 held by Pete Sampras. "Eventually you tie. Then eventually you break. That was big. It's been different since. I take motivation from different places, not so much from trying to stay ahead, because I broke the record. If somebody else does -- well, that's great for them. You can't protect everything anyway."

Novak Djokovic doesn't need to chase anymore. He's running neck-and-neck now and at a pace that suggests he has plenty of kick left for the home stretch.