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Is it the end of the Big Three era in tennis?

If someone other than the 'Big Three' could lay his hands on the grass Slam, it will be the first instance in more than a decade that the All England men's trophy will bear a name other than Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, twice in succession.
Last Updated : 15 June 2024, 15:38 IST

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Roger Federer has been retired for two years, Rafael Nadal has been making fleeting appearances in the last couple of years and Novak Djokovic remains the final vestige and a rapidly disappearing remnant of the so-called 'Big Three' which has held sway over men's tennis with an iron fist for close to two decades. This wasn't the case just six months ago. If anything, Djokovic appeared fitter, stronger, hungrier and more determined than ever before.

He bookended 2023, one of the most incredible years of his career, with the US Open — his third Grand Slam of the season following his triumphs at the Australian Open and French Open.

The wins in Melbourne and Paris were special for different reasons. While the Serbian reasserted his supremacy in Australia (a country that had kicked him out the previous year for not adhering to its Covid protocols) with a record-extending 10th title, he overtook his greatest rival's Slam tally of 22 with a third trophy on the unforgiving clay of Roland Garros -- Rafael Nadal's spiritual home.

He almost added Wimbledon before being stopped by an inspired Carlos Alcaraz but the young Spaniard couldn't stop Djokovic from adding the US Open to increase his Slam count to 24. There was also a small matter of ending the year as the world No. 1 for a record eighth time. And, at that time, the wait for the pretenders to completely supplant the dominant trio looked excruciatingly long and hard.

Six months down the line, however, the scenario couldn't have been starker. Djokovic, 37, suddenly looks vulnerable. The aura of "invincibility" is fading and the cloak of quiet confidence is conspicuous by its absence both in deeds and words. As of now, the former world No. 1 is recuperating from a surgery he had following his withdrawal from the French Open. He has his eyes set on the Olympics in July and will most probably miss Wimbledon.

That means someone other than the "Big Three" would lay his hands on the grass Slam, and should that materialise, it will be the first instance in more than a decade that the All England men's trophy will bear a name other than Federer, Nadal and Djokovic twice in succession. And if Djokovic's slide continues and the US Open slips out of his grasp, all four Slams will have a champion other than the legendary three.

But, irrespective of whether Djokovic retains the only Slam he holds at the moment or not, the era of the Big Three may conclusively be coming to an end if it hasn't already. It will take nothing less than a miracle for Nadal to win another Grand Slam while Djokovic isn't going to be the same force. He may still win big-ticket events here and there but could increasingly find it tough to tame an unyielding generation of players led by Alcaraz and Sinner. At 21, Alcaraz is already the youngest player to have won a Slam on all three surfaces while Sinner, a year older and the newest world No. 1, has displayed enough skills to be considered a worthy challenger to Nadal's heir apparent. All things being equal, Alcaraz and Sinner will be the prime protagonists of a new great rivalry in tennis and that augurs well for the game that was desperately looking for infusion of fresh blood after the inevitable decline of Nadal following the exit of Federer.

Spare a thought, however, for the likes of Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas among others... These three and a few others arrived on the scene when the Big Three were still strong enough to keep their aspirations in check. Now that their greatest adversaries are gone or on the decline, they are facing an equally great resistance from the younger lot. Medvedev, Zverev and Tsitsipas are all on the wrong side of 20s but have just one Slam between the three of them while Alcaraz and Sinner already have four between them. You know which way the winds are blowing.

Here is a trivia: Alcaraz gets a tattoo every time he wins a Grand Slam. He has won three and if he remains as prolific, his six-foot frame may not be enough to ink them all!  

But what we witnessed over the last two decades was celestial. Where 14 Grand Slams (by Pete Sampras) looked unachievable not too long ago, it has gone up to 24 at the moment with Djokovic still capable of adding more to the tally. If you want to settle for the next best, it's 22 (by Nadal) followed by Federer's 18. A whopping 64 Majors between just three players is astounding.

When asked about matching or overtaking Nadal's record of 14 French Open titles or Djokovic's total of 24 Grand Slams, Alcaraz played down the expectations. 

"Both things are out of the ordinary," he said. "You have to be an alien to get it. What Rafa did with 14 is practically impossible.

"The 24 Grand Slams I hope I can but it is almost impossible. Both things are out of the ordinary... So it is unbelievable. Right now I can't think about it."

Alcaraz, head firmly on his shoulders, may have been modest but the enormity of that achievement wouldn't have escaped him. With a game for all surfaces, unlike the Big Three whose struggles stood exposed at least on one surface each, Alcaraz has a realistic chance of raising the bar but it's a long shot. But can he -- along with Sinner and another contemporary -- perhaps a Holgar Rune or a Casper Ruud or a Hubert Hurkacz -- recreate the magic of the Big Three? That's in the realm of fantasies. But then, what we witnessed over the last two decades was nothing less than a fantasy.

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Published 15 June 2024, 15:38 IST

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