Men’s tennis is sitting pretty right now. Has been for close to two decades.
It’s been an ongoing joyous saga that has produced fan fulfillment, drawn worldwide affection, countless high-stakes matches, a drama to the highest degree and probably the greatest quality of tennis that’s ever been played in the history of the men’s game.
Welcome to the Adventures of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer: Men’s Tennis’ Saving Graces and Ultimate Needle Movers.
To no surprise to anyone who has followed tennis for sometime but these three current legends together have carried their sport in a way no athlete or athletes have since Tiger Woods did in the late-1990s/00s and Serena Williams in both the 2000s and 2010s decade .
They’ve had that level of a stranglehold on the sport. There’s no stat that exemplifies that more than this.
Since 2004, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have combined to win 61 of the past 73 Grand Slam titles. You can break their three-way rivalry down into three distinct periods where in unison they’ve had full command over men’s tennis.
From the 2005 French Open to 2009 Wimbledon, the three combined to win 18 straight Grand Slams, with mainly Federer (11) and Nadal (6) preoccupying the majors compared to Djokovic’s one. From 2010-2014, the three won 16 Grand Slams out of 20 (Nadal 8, Djokovic 6, Federer 2), including 11 consecutive at one stretch. From 2015 to the present, the trio has kept up their winning ways winning 24 of 29 Grand Slams played (Djokovic 13, Nadal 8, Federer 3), that also included a run of 14 consecutive slams won.
Not only have they’ve imposed their will on the rest of the field for so long but it’s the plain fact that the ATP Tour has depended on them mightily to be the faces of men’s tennis.
What happens when ‘The Big Three’ are no longer around?
What’s to make of men’s tennis when arguably the three greatest players ever but also the sport’s three biggest stars walk away from the game for good?
I know, it’s hard to think about such a thing when we’ll all enjoy the ride, however the end is nearer than we might realize. A matter of fact, it’s fast approaching.
For Federer, the 20-time Grand Slam winner (first men’s player in history to win 20 slams) is basically one foot into retirement. The greatest shot-maker in men’s tennis history to most, will turn 40 in August and hasn’t played since losing in the Wimbledon quarterfinals last July. Two knee surgeries in the last two years has kept him off the court, as his status remains up in the air as to when he will compete again, if he ever does.
At this stage of Federer’s career, he’s on the back nine and the chances of him winning another Grand Slam seem slim to none.
The man who stands as the all-time men’s Grand Slam leader at 22 is Nadal, who earlier this month won his record-extending 14th French Open title at Roland Garros. What made it all the more impressive was not that the Spaniard won on clay — where he’s asserted his dominance at like no athlete ever has in a single individual sporting event — but it’s the persistent leading injuries he’s dealt with up to the year’s second major that raised concerns whether he would be fit to play.
Nadal has always battled injuries all over his body, yet when it was reported on March 22 that he would be out for four to six weeks due to a rib stress fracture, missing the French Open was a serious possibility. After winning his favorite major, Nadal revealed that he was dealing with chronic foot pain throughout the tournament and said “I have no feelings in my foot.”
The 36-year-old even admitted that he has no clue how much longer he will play because of the wear and tear of his body has accumulated over the years. While Nadal is still playing at a high level, the physical tole that he has put on his body might force him to hang it up for good, sooner than later.
Djokovic, on the other hand, is obviously the freshest and least injury-prone of the three right now. 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 choice. With 20 Grand Slams to his name, the sport’s greatest returner is still in the best position to retire with more slams than Federer and Nadal, given that no player today can match the 35-year-old’s endurance, durability and ability to hold up physically the longer a match goes on.
The only major roadblock 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 not a convincing way to answer that.
Why? Because there’s no worthy successor currently in place.
If you examine the history of most professional team sports or individual sports, in each era there is usually one athlete, or sometimes two or three, that stand out and define that particular period of time. And after they decline or retire, it transfers over to the next generation and so on, with the game being left in good hands.
There are examples of this.
In NBA history, it started with George Mikan in the 1950s, transitioned 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 went from the Sugar Ray Robinson era of the 1940s/50s, to the Muhammad Ali era in the 1960s/70s, to the Marvin Hagler-Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran-Tommy Hearns ‘Four Kings’ epoch in the late-1970s/ 80s, to the Mike Tyson-Julio Caesar Chavez-Pernell Whitaker-Roy Jones, Jr.-Oscar De La Hoya period of the late-1980s/90s, to the Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather, Jr. reign in the 21st century, to now where the leading fighters have been Canelo Alvarez, Naoya Inoue, Vasiliy Lomachenko, Terence Crawford, Errol Spence, Jr. and Oleksandr Usyk.
It applied in both women’s and men’s tennis history too.
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 ’00s and Serena in the ’10s.
Rod Laver was the guy in the ’60s. Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg led the way in the ’70s. John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl along with Borg and Connors brought men’s tennis to new heights in the ’80s. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi had American tennis surging in the ’90s. And as we know, Nadal, Federer and Djokovic have had a direct chokehold over the sport in the 21st century.
What player or players will take over the mantle after The Big Three?
Who’s going to be the face of men’s tennis in the 2020s decade?
Honestly, I don’t see anyone out there.
(BTW: Women’s tennis has the same problem and it’s much worse. The WTA is lacking the star power and quality that Serena, Venus and Maria Sharapova brought to the table, plus the dearth of player rivalries, compelling matches, inconsistency plaguing the top 10 -15 players week-to-week, minimal coverage by sports media and networks, and most importantly fan interest, has the sport in a quandary. Maybe I’ll get into that in another column.)
I mean don’t get me wrong, Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, Dominic Thiem, Matteo Berrettini and Carlos Alcaraz all are in their twenties (Alcaraz is 19), have provided stiff competition for the Big Three in the last couple of years, have been Grand Slam finalists (Tsitsipas, Berrettini) and can call themselves a Grand Slam champion (Thiem, Medvedev), however none of them, so far, have been able to truly break through and close the gap.
With Federer playing less and less, Djokovic and Nadal are still leading the pack, as both have combined to win the last five ATP Player of the Year awards (Djokovic 3, Nadal 2).
Take European Soccer right now.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have both been conquering over the footballing world — on the pitch and off it — for over a decade with fans and media members alike totally fixed on their duopoly. Even so, the sport is better equipped to cope without the two when they walk away or start declining — which they each have gradually — because of the many stars and top-notch footballers already in place, led by Kylian Mbappe, Erling Haaland and Pedri . European Football will be in good hands.
Tennis not so much.
Maybe it’s unrealistic to put high expectations on the younger generation. Some of those players might dominate in spells and play exceptional in certain stretches but it comes down to sustaining that high level, which will be the biggest challenge. What makes the Big Three’s achievements stick out is their longevity and how long they’ve each been at the top.
The enormous problem current and future players have and will have is not just breaking or equaling all three’s records but convincing us they are better, but more realistically, deserving of our attention.
Who’s going to knock the three GOATs off their perch and take the torch in terms of statue, fanfare, respect, marketability, box office attraction, worldwide recognizability, global appeal, viewing experience and most importantly, keeping the sport relevant?
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.
This will be no different.