Novak Djokovic in brutal admission about Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal

The careers of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal will always be linked thanks to their immense rivalry.

Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal are pictured left to right.
Novak Djokovic says he, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal have never been true friends on account of their longstanding rivalry. Pictures: Getty Images

Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer have combined for a whopping total of 64 grand slam victories - but they've never truly been friends. That's according to Djokovic, who says the now decades long rivalry between the trio made it impossible to become close over the years.

Men's tennis may never again see a three-way rivalry involving three players at their level, and while Djokovic insists the trio have always held each other in the highest regard, their fierce rivalry always stopped them from growing closer. Djokovic made the surprising admission in an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

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Explaining that it was simply 'not possible' for them to strike up a friendship, Djokovic said the fact they weren't necessarily friendly with one another allowed their tennis rivalry to reach greater and greater heights - inspiring each to their record-breaking grand slam success. The Serbian superstar added that they had become somewhat closer in recent years as Federer retired and Nadal's career enters its twilight.

"I've never been friends with Federer and Nadal, between rivals it's not possible," Djokovic explained. "I've always had respect for Federer, he's one of the greatest of all time.

"He's had an extraordinary impact, but I've never been close to him. Same with Nadal. We went to dinner together twice, but even with him friendship is impossible."

"I have always admired and respected him. Thanks to them I have become who I am.

"This will unite us forever. Nadal is a part of my life: in the last 15 years I've seen him more than my mother."

Federer retired in memorable circumstances in 2022, with both he and Nadal tearing up in emotional scenes at the Laver Cup, the Swiss champion's final competitive appearance. Djokovic will likely be the only one of the trio to compete at this year's French Open, with Nadal widely expected to announce his withdrawal from Roland Garros due to his ongoing recovery from injury.

Djokovic cited his 2019 Wimbledon victory over Federer and the 2012 Australian Open final against Nadal as the two toughest matches of his career. Djokovic and Nadal are tied in the record for the most grand slam wins at 22, while Federer one spot behind with 20.

Rafa Nadal at risk of missing the French Open after Rome absence

Earlier in May, Nadal announced that he had to withdraw from the Italian Open in Rome, one of several crucial warm-up events on clay ahead of the French Open. At the time, he said he was simply not at the level he needed to be after suffering an injury at the Australian Open, where he was knocked out in the second round.

"Hello everyone! I'm so sorry to announce that I won't be able to play in Rome," he wrote on Twitter. "You all know how much it hurts me to miss another of the tournaments that has been so important to me, both professionally and personally, because of all the affection and support of the Italian fans.

"Despite having noticed an improvement in the last few days, it has been many months since I’ve been able to train at a high level and the adaptation process takes time. All that is left for me to do is accept it and keep working. Best wishes to everyone."

Rafa Nadal.
Rafa Nadal has withdrawn from the Italian Open, leaving tennis fans devastated. (Photo by Jason Heidrich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Excitement from fans over footage showing a much-improved Nadal moving well around the court quickly turned to disappointment after his announcement. Nadal's coach, Carlos Moya, admitted earlier that the team had hoped to get Nadal playing on clay prior to the French Open.

“Currently, we work more or less an hour and a half a day and continue to improve day by day. It is not even a matter of whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, just that you observe the progress every day,” Moya said of Nadal to L'Equipe.

“We are a little sad that he hasn’t played on clay yet,” Moya added. “He isn't the worst, but we try to encourage him and are always optimistic. I think it’s an urban legend that Nadal needs a lot of matches to be ready, when he came back from injury he always achieved good results.”

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