Retired ATP star Younes El Aynaoui has argued Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer “have always accepted defeat better” than their fellow tennis legend Novak Djokovic.
The former world No 14 claimed the tennis ‘GOAT’ debate is “not all about tennis and numbers” and asserted that “the true champion is seen in defeat.”
Djokovic secured a men’s record-extending 24th Grand Slam title with his straight-set victory over Daniil Medvedev to win the 2023 US Open in September.
Nadal sits second on the all-time list with 22 Majors, while Federer is in third place on 20. The Spaniard claimed his most recent Grand Slam at the 2022 French Open, while the Swiss won his last at the 2018 Australian Open.
The Serbian also holds the majority of other significant men’s tennis records, including: weeks spent as world No 1, year-end No 1 finishes, ATP Finals titles and Masters 1000 titles.
Nadal has not competed since this year’s Australian Open due to a hip injury, but is set to return in 2024, while Federer retired following the 2022 Laver Cup.
In an interview with Punto De Break, El Aynaoui recognised Djokovic is distancing himself from his rivals statistically but feels other factors are more important when assessing greatness.
“On paper, Novak is making an increasing difference, he continues to add and add titles. Then we would also have to evaluate the behaviour and the person, in that sense, for me Rafa and Roger are above. It’s a personal opinion,” the 52-year-old Moroccan said.
“For me it’s not all about tennis and numbers, you also have to look at what the person is like or how they handle defeats. In that sense, Rafa is number one, we never saw him do anything strange on the track, and I’m not saying this because [I am] in Spain.
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“He never broke a racket, nor did we see him complain about anything or throw a match, he has always shown a good attitude, he is an example for everyone who plays tennis.
“Fortunately we were able to enjoy the era of these three players, Djokovic is still playing and expanding his legend, we will see next year how far the new generation goes.
“Like Roger and Rafa – we will probably never see players again. There is something more behind the numbers, that is seen in the difficult moments of life, in how one behaves. When you win it is very easy, everyone is with you, but the true champion is seen in defeat.
“Rafa and Roger have always accepted defeat better than Novak, perhaps that is why he has won more than them. But not everything is about the record, above all is the person.”
El Aynaoui, who played his last match in 2017 after multiple comebacks, also spoke about beating both Nadal and Federer in the early stages of the their careers.
“Well, they were just starting out, so every time I played against them I was a favourite, I was the one with the best ranking,” the five-time ATP titlist said.
“At the 2003 US Open I was able to beat Rafa in a very tough match (7-6, 6-3, 7-6), at that moment I already knew that he would be a very tough opponent in the future. He had already beaten me months before in Bastad, but in New York was when I felt that he would really be a very good player.
“I beat him (Federer) in 1999, they gave him a wildcard in Gstaad, Switzerland. The previous year he had finished No 1 in the junior world, but physically it was evident that he was still struggling a little, nothing like what came after.
“At that moment of beating him (6-2, 6-3) I didn’t think anything special, I didn’t have that feeling that I had with Rafa of knowing that he was going to be very good. With Roger I didn’t think he was going to be that good, but he made a terrible physical change, he became much stronger and faster.”
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