When Stefanos Tsitsipas defeated Roger Federer in the fourth round at the Australian Open earlier this year, John McEnroe, along with a lot of tennis commentators, declared it a “change of guard” moment.
Less than five months on, the old guard is still standing strong.
Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Federer won their respective quarter-finals matches– with a loss of one set between the three—on Wednesday at Wimbledon. It is the second Grand Slam in a row that the ‘Big Three’ have made the final four.
“Don't ask me more questions about young tennis players, when is their time to come up because we've talked about it,” Djokovic said after his 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 win over David Goffin. “I said that eventually is going to happen. It doesn't seem like it's happening on Grand Slams. I guess this is where, especially Nadal, Federer, and myself, in a way we go onto next level in terms of tennis and focus. We're very dedicated to these tournaments. In particular at this stage of all of our careers, this is what matters the most for us.”
The statistics that the three players, all of whom are over 30, have racked up are staggering.
A month shy of his 38th birthday, Federer secured his 100th win at Wimbledon, beating Japan’s Kei Nishikori 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4. That meant Federer was the oldest player to advance to a Grand Slam semi-final since Jimmy Connors made the US Open semi-finals in 1991 at the age of 39. The Swiss master, who already stands alone in winning eight Gentleman’s singles titles at Wimbledon, is gunning for his ninth crown in England. Federer holds the record for the most number of Grand Slam wins (352), most number of Grand Slam finals (30), most number of Grand Slam semi-finals (45).
At 20, he also has the most number of Grand Slam titles won by a man. But his rivals – Nadal and Djokovic, aged 33 and 32 respectively—who have been chasing him through their career, are closing in. While Nadal’s 12 French Open title last month brought him his 18th major, Djokovic is not too far at 15. Starting with Federer’s triumph at the 2017 Australian Open, they have won 10 of the last 10 majors.
Locked in a tussle for the greatest of the generation and maybe of all time, the three of them have pushed each other and the benchmark even higher.
It has been almost insurmountable for the rest. Even though Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka have loosened the grip somewhat, winning three Grand Slams each, they haven’t been as consistent for as long as the Big Three. Two generations have come and gone, but none have truly challenged their authority.
“It’s definitely not a regular time in tennis, because no one thought that Novak, Rafa and I would be so solid, so dominant for so many years,” Federer said on Wednesday, after booking 40th clash against Nadal and their first at Wimbledon since the epic 2008 final. “Number one, we have stopped a lot of runs from the younger guys. Number two, were they as talented as us? Maybe not.”
A telling statistic emerged in May during the French Open. Dominic Thiem, who defeated Djokovic in five tough sets in the semi-final, is the only player under the age of 28 currently, to have made a Grand Slam final.
“That is not a compliment for anybody under 28,” Boris Becker, who won Wimbledon at 17 in 1985, was quoted saying.
“And don't give me that the others are too good. We should question the quality and attitude of everybody under 28. It just doesn't make sense. As much as I respect Roger, Rafa, Novak - who else? Show up. Give me something I want to talk about. It's not the forehands. It's not fitness. It's a certain mentality, mindset, attitude that makes the difference between winning and losing.”
The tennis world, as voiced by Becker, is crying out for fresh blood. Though ATP’s much publicised Next Gen has stepped up during tour events, they have been found wanting in Grand Slams, in five sets that separate men from boys. There is now a sense of inevitability -- never a good look for sport -- that has gripped men’s tennis. There is the odd upset before one, or all, of the Big 3 jump in and reset the old order. They have so much experience in big-match situations, that they have honed winning into a skill.
But is their utter domination boring? Not even close.
Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have been part of the tennis narrative, and our lives for so long, they are on a first-name basis with the fans. Their rivalries are an essential dynamic of the game. The tennis world is invested in them, the ebbs and flows in their careers.
Every time Federer steps on the court, he bewitches us with the artistry. Nadal still bounds around the turf like he’s 19, chasing every ball with the same fervour, celebrating every point with the same intensity. Djokovic teaches about efficiency and the pursuit of perfection. To make life more difficult for the chasing pack, the Big Three are forever re-inventing, forever pulling ahead.
“He's serving way different,” Federer said of his good friend and great rival Nadal ahead of their semi-final clash. “I remember back in the day how he used to serve, and now how much bigger he's serving, how much faster he finishes points. It's impressive to see how sort of healthy he's stayed. A lot of them are saying, ‘Oh, it's the end,’ by 2008. We're still here.”
And we still want to know just how far they’ll go. As exciting as the prospect of youth may be, it’s Federer, Nadal and Djokovic’s brilliance that keeps bringing us back.
Updated Date: Jul 11, 2019 14:32:58 IST