As he inches ever closer to joining them in the pantheon of the truly greats, Novak Djokovic says Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal have helped make him the player he is today.
At the US Open on Sunday, Djokovic defeated Juan Martin del Potro in straight sets to clinch his 14th Grand Slam title and move level with Pete Sampras, leaving him behind only Federer and Nadal in the modern era.
And while he admits Sampras was a hero of his growing up, he also could not help but think of the two greats he still shares the tennis stage with.
“Pete Sampras is one of the biggest legends ever to play the game,” Djokovic said.
“He was my childhood idol. He was someone I was looking up to. The first actual thing I saw related to tennis on the TV was his first or second Wimbledon championship. That inspired me to start playing tennis.
“There is a lot of significance of me being now shoulder to shoulder in terms of Grand Slam wins with him.”
Djokovic is now just three slams behind Nadal and six behind Federer, with the prospect of more to come now that he appear to have retaken his place at the top of the tennis hierarchy.
The Serb experienced a worrying loss of form after returning from an elbow injury, but the slump now seems a distant memory after consecutive Grand Slam wins at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows.
Talk is once again turning to the “Big Three” instead of the “Big Two”, and Djokovic admits he would have loved to face either Federer or Nadal in London or New York.
While he now loves being part of the Federer/Nadal era and being in the conversation with those two greats, he admits it was not always like that.
“Maybe 10 years ago I would say I’m not so happy to be part of this era with Nadal and Federer,” he said.
“Today 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.
“I owe it to them.”
As the heavy favourite on Sunday, Djokovic was not always the crowd favourite too, with underdog Del Potro generating a lot of sentimental support, but Djokovic said it was the kind of atmosphere and challenge he’s learned to embrace.
“This might sound funny, but my nickname is Nole. When they shout “Ole, ole, ole, ole,” that’s what I hear,” he said of the chants for Del Potro.
“I thought it was electrifying in some stages of the match, especially in the second set when we went toe-to-toe. I had my corner, as well.
“When the roof is closed, trust me, it’s very, very loud down there. It takes a lot of effort to actually stay poised in this moment.
“I’m glad I managed to do that.”