Men’s tennis is sitting pretty at the moment. It has been for nearly two decades.
It has been an ongoing joyous saga that has produced fan satisfaction, attracted affection from around the world, countless high-stakes matches, drama to the highest degree and probably the highest quality of tennis ever played. 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 engines of the needles.
It comes as no surprise to anyone who has followed tennis for some time, but these three current legends together have led their sport in a way that no athlete or athletes have since Tiger Woods did in the late 1990/00s and Serena Williams in the 2000s and 2010s. .
They’ve had that level of stranglehold on the sport. There is no statistic that exemplifies it more than this.
Since 2004, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have combined to win 61 of the last 73 Grand Slam titles. You can break their three-way rivalry into three distinct periods where, in unison, they have been in complete control of men’s tennis.
From the 2005 French Open to 2009 Wimbledon, the three combined to win 18 consecutive Grand Slams, with Federer (11) and Nadal (6) taking up the majors compared to Djokovic’s. From 2010 to 2014, the three of them won 16 Grand Slams out of 20 (Nadal 8, Djokovic 6, Federer 2), including 11 in a row in one stretch. From 2015 to the present, the trio have maintained their winning ways by winning 24 of 29 Grand Slams played (Djokovic 13, Nadal 8, Federer 3), which also included a 14-consecutive Slam winning streak.
Not only have they imposed their will on the rest of the field for so long, but it is a self-evident fact that the ATP Tour has relied heavily on them to be the faces of men’s tennis.
What happens when ‘The Big Three’ are gone?
What can be done with men’s tennis when arguably the three greatest players in history, but also the three biggest stars in the sport, leave the game for good?
I know, it’s hard to think of something like that when we’ll all be enjoying the ride, however, the end is closer than we think. In fact, it is fast approaching.
For Federer, the 20-time Grand Slam winner (first male player in history to win 20 slams) is basically one foot away from retirement. The greatest bowler in men’s tennis history will turn 40 in August and has not played since he lost in the Wimbledon quarterfinals last July. Two knee surgeries in the past two years have kept him off the court, as his status remains up in the air as to when, if he ever, will compete again.
At this stage of Federer’s career, he is 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 14th French Open title at Roland Garros. What made it even more impressive was not that the Spaniard won on clay, where he has asserted his dominance like no other athlete has ever done in a single individual sporting event, but rather the nagging injuries he dealt with before the second. major of the year that raised concerns about whether he would be fit to play.
Nadal has always battled injuries throughout his body, but when it was reported on March 22 that he would be out for four to six weeks due to a stress fracture in his ribs, 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, saying, “I have no feeling in my foot.”
The 36-year-old even admitted that he has no idea how much longer he will play due to the wear and tear his body has accumulated over the years. While Nadal continues to play 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 he had to bet on which one is more likely to play at least five more years on tour, then the Serb would certainly be the pick. With 20 Grand Slams to his name, the best returner in the sport is still in the best position to retire with more slams than Federer and Nadal, given that no player today can match the stamina, durability and ability to physically resist the player from 35 years. the longer a match lasts.
The only big 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 convincing way to answer that.
Why? Because there is currently no worthy successor.
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 decline or retire, it gets carried over to the next generation and so on, leaving the game in good hands.
There are examples of this.
In NBA history, it began with George Mikan in the 1950s, passed Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell in the 1960s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1970s, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1970s. in the 1980s, Michael Jordan in the 1990s, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal in the 2000s, LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant in the 2010s.
We saw it in boxing.
We go from the Sugar Ray Robinson era of the 1940s and 1950s, to the Muhammad Ali era of the 1960s and 1970s, to the Marvin Hagler-Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran ‘Four Kings’ era. Tommy Hearns 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 80s/90s, to the reign of Manny Pacquiao- Floyd Mayweather, Jr. in the 21st century, to now where the standout fighters have been Canelo Alvarez, Naoya Inoue, Vasiliy Lomachenko, Terence Crawford, Errol Spence, Jr. and Oleksandr Usyk.
It was also applied in 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 ’00s and Serena in the 2010s.
Rod Laver was the guy from the ’60s. Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg led the way in the ’70s. John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl along with Borg and Connors took men’s tennis to new heights in the ’80s. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi they powered American tennis in the 1990s. And as we know, Nadal, Federer and Djokovic have had direct control over 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 out 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, plus a 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 dilemma. 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), they’ve provided tough competition for the Big Three over the last two years. years, they have been Grand Slam finalists (Tsitsipas, Berrettini) and can call themselves Grand Slam champions (Thiem, Medvedev), yet none of them, so far, have been able to break through and close the gap.
With Federer playing less and less, Djokovic and Nadal continue to lead 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 right now.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been taking the football world by storm, on and off the pitch, for over a decade with fans and members of the media totally obsessed with their duopoly. Still, the sport is better equipped to cope without the two when they move away or start to decline, which each gradually has, due to the many stars and top-flight footballers already in place, led by Kylian Mbappe. , Erling Haaland and Pedri. . European football will be in good hands.
Not so much tennis.
It may not be realistic to place high expectations on the younger generation. Some of those players may be proficient in spells and exceptionally playable in certain stretches, but it all comes down to maintaining that high level, which is going to be the biggest challenge. What makes the achievements of the Big Three stand out is their longevity and how long they’ve been at the top.
The huge problem that current and future players have and will have is not only to break or equal the records of the three but to convince us that they are better, but more realistically, worthy of our attention.
Who is going to knock all three GOATs off their perch and take up the torch in terms of statue, fanfare, respect, marketability, box office pull, worldwide recognition, global appeal, viewing experience, and most importantly, keeping the relevance of sport?
Quite simply, men’s tennis has a huge void to fill after the Big Three. The journey has been incredible, but all good things must come to an end.
This will be no different.