Big 3: the force multipliers

Big 3: the force multipliers

Roger Federer

As long as they go, I’ll go. It’s a race who plays more and wins more.”

As these words came from a reflective Novak Djokovic - awash with the glow of his latest Grand Slam triumph - it rubber-stamped further chapters to one of the greatest rivalries in world sport.

For these three - Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer - have defined men’s tennis for well over a decade. They have won 58 of the last 68 Grand Slams, with Federer - the elder statesmen of the three - winning his first Grand Slam all the way back at Wimbledon in 2003.

Just to give you a context to the longevity, that was before Barack Obama won his first presidency, before the world woke up to streaming platforms and the term Amazon still meant the rainforest in South America.

Nadal would win his first Grand Slam at the French Open in 2005 and Djokovic at Australian Open in 2008.

Generational talents are nothing new. What is unprecedented, is that there were three and all transcended generations. And did so with their own unique style and personality.

It had seemed at one point that Federer-Nadal would be the latest iteration of the Borg-McEnroe or Sampras-Agassi, rivalries that carried the sport.

The savant of grace and finesse against the brutal baseliner with never-ending energy and controlled violence. But then came Djokovic. A metronome with bone-bending elasticity. 

Not only did the Serb muscle his way into the conversation, he flexed them too. At 18 Grand Slams, he is two shy of the other two. But being the youngest at 33, the Grand Slam count looks his for the taking.

“Now the chase is beginning. Novak has a lot of confidence,” says Goran Ivanisevic, Djokovic’s coach. “Rafa, for sure, is going to win one (more Grand Slam), I hope not two. I’m waiting for Roger to come back. It’s going to be more interesting to see what is going to happen at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. I said a couple (of) years ago, Rafa and Novak (are both) going to overtake Roger. I still believe that.”

The advancement in sports science has helped with the longevity for sure, but it’s the motivation that they derive from each other that has forced them into unexplored territories. 

They’ve been looking at legendary status in the rearview mirror for quite a while now but the fire still burns. Fueling Federer’s drive to still play at nearly 40, demanding Nadal to come back from injury after injury and Djokovic to battle popular support of his rivals and force himself into the reckoning. Daniil Medvedev called them Cyborgs. He’s not wrong.

“We did beautiful and important things for our sport. We push each other to be better. To have somebody in front of you that’s doing a lot of things better than you, it gives you a clear way about what you need to improve to achieve your goals,” Nadal told ATP website.

Such has the dominance been that Andy Roddick, Marat Safin and many could be forgiven for wondering what could have been, had they not played when the three modern knights were not at their pomp.

Marin Cilic, one of the few alongside Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, who managed to taste Grand Slam success, values it all the more because of the opposition.

“Winning tournaments doesn’t come everyday. So it’s something that I value so much. I’m proud of what I’ve done, especially in this era with them,” he believes.

To that end, there has been a clamouring towards who can break the triumvirate’s hold on Grand Slams. Every generation has come close, none more so than the current one, but never overcame. Dominic Thiem - the leader of the new pack - has one Grand Slam. Even for the Austrian, the triumph came after consistently falling short at the final stage multiple times. Medvedev has lost two finals as well.

To be fair, it’s clear for everyone that the younger lot has the skills and weapons needed to break that glass ceiling. They have won Masters and ATP World Tour finals. The last four winners of the latter have been Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Medvedev.

Perhaps it’s the switch to five sets that stops them from translating their success to the Slams. Following the revamp of the Davis Cup, there are precious little opportunities to play five set tournaments and the old guard has the experience and know-how. Or maybe it’s playing their heroes, on whom many - like Tsitsipas - have modelled their playing style.

“Most players are waiting for the Big Three to retire. I was already waiting in my time and they’re still around! Let’s stop waiting and beat them,” David Nalbandian told ATP. The Argentine is well qualified to speak for he beat Nadal, Djokovic and Federer consecutively en route to the 2007 Mutua Madrid Open crown. 

“It’s incredible the way that they adapt to new players and their (own) age. They’re never going to lose the match, you have to beat them. You have to be perfect on tactics and execution. But they’re not superheroes. The new generation has to start believing in themselves,” the Argentine said.

The desire is there. Thiem has openly spoken about wanting to win Slams and Zverev too has mentioned he no longer wants to be remembered for being competitive. But the top three have their plans too.

"They're very close to winning Majors more consistently," Djokovic said. "But Roger, Rafa, myself, we don't want to hand it to them. I think that's very clear. Whether you communicate that message or not, we are definitely sending that vibe out there."

The vibe across the sport too, is that the domination still has a ways to go. 

"I believe that, with Andy (Murray) also, they have been pushing themselves to another level and with that they were pushing other guys also to match them. So in general, tennis won."

Yes, tennis did win.

New star rising

In women’s tennis it’s a different story. After years and years of Serena Williams standing atop the mountain, painfully and purposefully kicking down contenders and pretenders there is no one dominant force.

Japanese star Naomi Osaka, with her fourth Grand Slam in her kitty, increasingly looking like the one capable of filling that void but a look at the talent pool below, just about anyone can beat the other on a given day. It just depends which side of the bed they woke up on. 

Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep, Sofia Kenin, Bianca Andreescu, Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka, Garbine Muguruza, Iga Swiatek, all in the top 20, have won Grand Slams. A far cry from the time Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova or Martina Hingis ruled the roost.

There were false dawns before, Angelique Kerber and Halep - both with multiple slams - all looked the part at one point. But Osaka looks the real deal.

“Their side of the game has been crying out for a leader to take over from Serena Williams, and she has arrived. Osaka is becoming more than just a tennis player, and that is great for women’s tennis,” Boris Becker was quoted as saying by Daily Mail.

High praise for one so young. But in Osaka - who speaks on the BLM movement with the same ease as Pokemon - there is genuine hope: of a transcendent superstar.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox