The three greatest players in the history of men’s tennis all advanced to the semifinals of Wimbledon last month. They had also reached the semifinals of the French Open weeks earlier. I have said this before and I will say it time and time again: We are living in the greatest era of tennis. Ever.
Tennis’ Big Three — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic — have won 50 of the last 58 Majors since the 2005 French Open.
You could say the other players on tour aren’t enough competition for the Big Three, but that argument doesn’t work. There are plenty of talented players, like Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro. This era isn’t lacking; it’s simply being dominated by three special players.
That being said, it doesn’t feel right to pin one of them down as the greatest of all time when we’re living in a generation of greats. Each man defines greatness with his own style of play and personality on the court. And honestly, the easiest way I can think of the describe it is with an analogy based on their fashion choices.
Stick with me here.
Roger Federer, with his perfectly knitted cardigan, might be one of the most graceful athletes of all time. A finely knit cardigan shows maturity and elegance. It’s a symbol for the poise that the Swiss star brings to his every move on the court, seemingly floating from one shot to the next and almost always keeping his emotions composed. Federer holds the record for most majors of all time with an astonishing 20. He turns 38 later this week, making him one of the oldest players on tour, and is still ranked No. 3.
Rafa Nadal and the sleeveless tank is one of the most iconic relationships in tennis history. Tennis fans know that Nadal has gone through many fashion phases, including the capri-length shorts. But nothing says Nadal like a sleeveless tank. In complete opposition to a knitted sweater, the sleeveless tank is rugged and primal. Animalistic even. It represents Nadal’s unmatched ferocity and energy. Nothing will get the crowd going like a fist pump and a “VAMOS” from Nadal. He has won 12 French Open titles, practically making the tournament his own. Only a handful of players have 12 Grand Slam titles, let alone 12 in the same tournament.
But Novak Djokovic literally rips his shirt off. He destroys the fabric that has so perfectly described the two previous greats. He is the disturber of the group, the one who shook up the tennis world with his seemingly unbreakable flexibility and not-so-quiet on-court demeanor. And he has almost every single stat to prove that he is the greatest player of all time. He has everything except the fans.
Djokovic recently fueled the idea of him being the greatest player of the Big Three with his Wimbledon victory over Federer, 7–6 (5), 1–6, 7–6 (4), 4–6, 13–12 (3). It was the longest match in tournament history. Not only did he fend off multiple match points from the King of Grass, but he did so with the crowd cheering mostly against him. His mental toughness is incredible.
And it was at 8-7, when Federer held championship points on his serve and ended up being broken, that it became very apparent who I now considered the GOAT.
Tennis fans have always loved Federer and Nadal, and their rivalry. On the whole they’ve been less enamored with Djokovic — which means the discussion around picking the best of the trio has been tilted. Yes, Federer and Nadal made history with the marathon-match at the 2008 Wimbledon final, and ever since the rivalry has been so glorified that it is the only thing talked about when it happens. And, honestly, it deserves all the hype now more than ever because we’d expect one of them to have retired by now, yet saw them meet in two major semifinals in a span of five-weeks. But because of it we almost forget the fact that Djokovic dominates the Big Three, and nearly failed to realize the 2019 Wimbledon final is the new 2008 final.
Djokovic leads both Federer and Nadal in head-to-head matchups, 26-22 and 28-26 respectively. He has beaten Federer in all three Wimbledon finals they’ve played, and has only ever lost to him at Wimbledon once, back in the 2012 semifinal. Djokovic is only one of two men to ever beat Nadal at the French Open. He has the ability to beat them on every surface, including the ones they’ve been most dominant on.
The Federer-Nadal prime has miraculously lasted this long, but the future of it is unclear. Federer, the oldest of the crew, is the closest to the end of his career. He may not be retiring anytime soon, but he won’t be playing this well for much longer. Nadal, at 34, is only two years older than Djokovic, but has been plagued with injury after injury. Any injury could be career ending for him.
The reality is these two greats are on the downhill. Djokovic is still steadily climbing to the top.
Djokovic currently sits at No. 1 in the rankings, and the difference in points between him and Nadal, the current second ranked, is bigger than the point difference between Nadal and No. 7 Kei Nishikori.
It’s going to be a long time before anyone even comes close to dethroning Djokovic.
Djokovic is only two Grand Slam titles from passing Nadal (18) and four away from Federer. At 32, he is the youngest of the trio and is in his prime. He has won two of the three majors so far this year, and four of the last five.
Let’s face it. Federer’s window to win another Grand Slam is closing, and Nadal doesn’t exactly dominate on surfaces other than clay.
One title a year, and Djokovic would have 22 Grand Slam titles by the time he’s 38.
But at this rate, and with a rocky next generation of players, he will most likely get it done before then.
I’m sorry to all Federer and Nadal diehards out there, but it’s a reality we’re facing. As someone who grew up idolizing Federer and watching the 2008 Wimbledon final at tennis camp every year, it pains me to say it, but Djokovic is men’s tennis’ GOAT.