Men’s tennis is doing pretty well right now. For nearly two decades.
It has been a joyous ongoing saga that has produced fan fulfilment, global affection, countless high-stakes matches, drama at the highest level and possibly the highest quality tennis ever. played in the history of the men’s game.
Welcome to the adventures of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer: the saving graces of men’s tennis and the ultimate needle movers.
Unsurprisingly to anyone who has followed tennis for a while, but these three current legends have carried their sport like no athlete or athlete has since Tiger Woods in the late 1990s/2000s and Serena Williams in the 2000s and 2010. .
They had that level of control over the sport. There are no statistics that illustrate this more than that.
Since 2004, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have combined to win 61 of the last 73 Grand Slam titles. You can break down their three-way rivalry into three distinct periods when, in unison, they had full control over men’s tennis.
From the 2005 French Open to 2009 Wimbledon, the three have combined to win 18 consecutive Grand Slams, with mainly Federer (11) and Nadal (6) occupying the major tournaments compared to that of Djokovic. From 2010 to 2014, the three won 16 out of 20 Grand Slams (Nadal 8, Djokovic 6, Federer 2), including 11 in a row. From 2015 to present, the trio went on to win 24 of the 29 Grand Slams played (Djokovic 13, Nadal 8, Federer 3), which also included a streak of 14 consecutive tournaments won.
Not only did they impose their will on the rest of the field for so long, but it’s a clear fact that the ATP Tour depended mightily on them to be the faces of men’s tennis.
What happens when “The Big Three” is gone?
What about men’s tennis when arguably the three greatest players of all time, but also the three biggest sports stars, are leaving the game for good?
I know, it’s hard to think of such a thing when we’re all going to enjoy the ride, but the end is closer than we think. In fact, it’s fast approaching.
For Federer, the 20-time Grand Slam winner (the first male player in history to win 20 Grand Slams) is virtually retired. The greatest shooter in men’s tennis history will turn 40 in August and hasn’t played since his Wimbledon quarter-final loss last July. Two knee surgeries in the past two years have kept him out of the field as his status remains uncertain as to when, if ever, he will compete again.
At this point in Federer’s career, he’s on the back nine and the chances of him winning another Grand Slam look slim to none.
The man who is the all-time men’s Grand Slam leader at 22 is Nadal, who won his record 14th Roland Garros title earlier this month. What made it all the more impressive was not that the Spaniard won on clay – where he asserted his dominance like no athlete has ever done in a single individual sporting event – but it was the lingering injuries he suffered ahead of the second major of the year that raised concerns over whether he would be fit to play.
Nadal has always struggled with injuries all over his body, but when it was announced on March 22 that he would be out for four to six weeks with a stress fracture in his ribs, missing the French Open was a serious possibility. After winning his favorite major, Nadal revealed he suffered from chronic foot pain throughout the tournament and said “I have no feeling in my foot”.
The 36-year-old even admitted that he had no idea how much longer he would play due to the wear and tear on his body accumulated over the years. While Nadal is still playing at a high level, the physical weight he has put on his body could force him to hang up for good, sooner rather than later.
Djokovic, on the other hand, is obviously the freshest and least injury-prone of the three at the moment. If you had to bet which one is most likely to play at least five more years on the tour, then the Serbian would undoubtedly be the pick. With 20 Grand Slams under his belt, the sport’s greatest returner is still in the best position to retire with more tournaments than Federer and Nadal, given that no player today can match the stamina , durability and the 35-year-old’s ability to hold up physically. the longer a match lasts.
The only major obstacle for Djokovic is really himself.
So when it comes to how men’s tennis will fare when Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are gone for good, there’s really no compelling way to answer that.
Why? Because there is no worthy successor currently in place.
If you look at the history of most professional team sports or individual sports, in each era there is usually one athlete, or sometimes two or three, who stand out and define that particular time period. And after they refuse or retire, it moves on to the next generation and so on, with the game left in good hands.
There are examples of this.
In NBA history, it started with George Mikan in the 1950s, then moved on to Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell in the 1960s, to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1970s, to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1980s, to Michael Jordan in the 1990s, to Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal in the 2000s, to LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant in the 2010s.
We saw it in boxing.
We’ve gone from the Sugar Ray Robinson era of the 1940s/50s, to the Muhammad Ali era of the 1960s/70s, to the Marvin Hagler-Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran-Tommy Hearns ‘Four Kings’ era to the late 1970s/80s, to the Mike Tyson-Julio Caesar Chavez-Pernell Whitaker-Roy Jones, Jr.-Oscar De La Hoya period to the late 1980s/90s, to the reign of Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather, Jr. in the 21st century, to now where the main fighters have been Canelo Alvarez, Naoya Inoue, Vasiliy Lomachenko, Terence Crawford, Errol Spence, Jr. and Oleksandr Usyk.
This also applied to the history of women’s and men’s tennis.
There was Margaret Court in the 60s. Then Billie Jean King and Chris Evert in the 70s. Then Evert and Martina Navratilova in the 80s. Then Steffi Graf and Monica Seles in the 90s. Then the Williams Sisters in the 2000 and Serena in the 10s.
Rod Laver was the guy of the 60s. Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg led the way in the 70s. John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl as well as Borg and Connors took men’s tennis to new heights in the 80s. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi lifted American tennis in the 90s. And as we know, Nadal, Federer and Djokovic have had a direct grip on the sport in the 21st century.
Which player or players will take over after The Big Three?
Who will be the face of men’s tennis in the 2020s?
Honestly, I don’t see anyone there.
(BTW: Women’s tennis has the same problem and it’s much worse. The WTA lacks the star power and quality that Serena, Venus and Maria Sharapova brought to the table, as well as the lack of player rivalries , compelling matches, inconsistencies plaguing the top 10-15 players from week to week, minimal media and sports network coverage, and most importantly fan interest, place the sport in a dilemma I may address this in another column.)
I mean, don’t get me wrong, Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, Dominic Thiem, Matteo Berrettini and Carlos Alcaraz are all in their twenties (Alcaraz is 19), provided fierce competition for the Big Three over the past two last years. years, have been Grand Slam finalists (Tsitsipas, Berrettini) and can qualify as Grand Slam champions (Thiem, Medvedev), but none of them, so far, have been able to really break through and fill the gap.
With Federer playing less and less, Djokovic and Nadal are still ahead of the pack, as the two have combined to win the last five ATP Player of the Year awards (Djokovic 3, Nadal 2).
Take European football now.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have both conquered the world of football – on and off the pitch – for more than a decade with fans and members of the media utterly obsessed with their duopoly. Even so, the sport is better equipped to cope without the two when they drift apart or begin to decline – which they each have gradually – due to the many top stars and footballers already in place, led by Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland and Pedri. European football will be in good hands.
Tennis not so much.
It may not be realistic to place high expectations on the younger generation. Some of these players can dominate in spells and perform exceptionally well in certain stretches, but it comes down to maintaining that high level, which will be the biggest challenge. What sets the Big Three’s accomplishments apart is their longevity and how long they’ve each been at the top.
The huge problem that current and future players have and will have is not just breaking or equaling all three records, but convincing us that they are better, but more realistically, that they deserve our attention. .
Who is going to knock the three GOATs off their perch and take the torch in terms of statue, fanfare, respect, marketability, box office attraction, global recognition, global appeal, viewing experience and, above all, maintaining the relevance of sport?
Quite simply, men’s tennis has a major void to fill after the Big Three. The journey has been amazing, but all good things must come to an end.
It will be no different.