Novak Djokovic reacts after his three-set victory over Joao Sousa...

Novak Djokovic reacts after his three-set victory over Joao Sousa in a fourth-round men's singles match in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Monday. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Perhaps it comes as a surprise to men’s tennis followers that Novak Djokovic has cut to the front of the line in his duels with the sport’s two most celebrated players. He has a winning head-to-head record against both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

Nadal is the world No. 1 and Federer is No. 2, but the sixth-seeded Djokovic entered this year’s U.S. Open as the slight betting favorite, which is not the same as being the fan favorite. For Djokovic’s 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 afternoon victory over Portugal’s Joao Sousa on Monday, which sent Djokovic into the Open quarterfinals, Arthur Ashe Stadium was far from full — unlike the scene at the two most recent Nadal and Federer afternoon matches.

Djokovic understands. “I mean, I just feel these guys have been role models and examples on and off the court. For me, as well,” he said.

Essentially, Nadal is the heartthrob in the public’s mind. Federer is the really cool guy. Djokovic? A terrific tennis player; he has proved to be on the Nadal-Federer level. Yet there still doesn’t appear to be quite the same room for him in the fans’ hearts.

Back in form after February wrist surgery to win his 13th Grand Slam event at Wimbledon in July, Djokovic is closing in on Federer, who has a record 20 major titles, and Nadal, with 17. More to the point, Djokovic has a 27-25 career record against Nadal and a 24-22 mark against Federer.

Also, at 31, he is the youngest of the trio. Nadal is 32 and Federer 37. Time is on his side.

“At the beginning of my career,” Djokovic said, “I probably wasn’t seeing things that I’m seeing now, in terms of being in an era with these guys. Now I’m grateful that I was, that I still am, in the era with these guys, that I get a chance to witness their greatness as well as their rivalry — Nadal and Federer — which is the biggest rivalry, one of the biggest of all time.”

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