Imagine rising to the highest level of your chosen profession, getting to the point where you’re better at it than all but a small handful of people. You work tirelessly to improve, eagerly anticipating the day when the incumbent stars exit stage left and your moment in the spotlight arrives.
But they never leave, and your moment never comes.
Instead, you remain an understudy, unable to break through, relegated to the leftovers for your entire career. Would you be satisfied with the extraordinary things you still accomplished, or bemoan the extent to which your life and legacy might have been different had you been born into a more forgiving era? Would you be grateful, or resentful?
More than one cohort of men’s tennis players has faced that question thanks to the unparalleled and so far unyielding greatness of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, the three most prolific Grand Slam winners in men’s tennis history, whose primes have overlapped for more than a decade.
Though all three have dealt with injuries, suffered droughts and dips in form, and had stretches that suggested their runs of dominance were over for good, they’ve all managed to rebound and re-establish themselves as a cut above the rest. At ages 38, 33, and 32, respectively, they still have the ATP Tour under their thumbs, occupying the top three spots in the rankings (with a massive gulf separating the third-ranked Federer from No. 4 Dominic Thiem).
They have collectively won the last 11 majors – making it 52 of the past 61 won by one of the three, dating all the way back to 2004. Save for a nine-month interregnum in 2016 and 2017 during which all of them were hobbled and Andy Murray took up the torch, one of them has been the world No. 1 every week since February of that year.
The Lost Generation(s)
Head-to-head competition is a zero-sum game, so the success those three players accrued came at the expense of everyone whose careers overlapped with theirs.
Their preeminence spans multiple generations, with different iterations of the ruling class forming and dissolving along the way. It began with Federer’s solo domination early in his career, when he relegated guys like Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt to bridesmaid status. Nadal emerged to create a duopoly while commencing a Roland Garros hegemony that rendered clay-court specialism obsolete and shows no signs of relenting a decade-and-a-half later. Djokovic and Murray eventually joined the fray, leaving perennial top-10 players such as Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to fight for the scraps.
Then came the first wave of would-be usurpers who were expected to supplant or at least challenge the kings, led by Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov, and Milos Raonic: the so-called Lost Generation. Only Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic, who don’t really belong to that group, broke through to win a US Open.
Behind them is another tide of up-and-comers: the Next Next Gen, featuring the likes of Thiem, Nick Kyrgios, Alexander Zverev, Karen Khachanov, Daniil Medvedev, and Stefanos Tsitsipas. That group is still young, but so far it’s been more of the same; for as much promise as they’ve shown, their path is still blocked by the same three guys.
Of that crop of players, only Kyrgios, Tsitsipas, and Thiem have claimed wins over every member of the Big Three. Medvedev, the latest of those youngsters to break out, has beaten Djokovic twice this year, including in the semis of the Cincinnati Masters last week. But even he acknowledges that he’s a long way from solving the sport’s three-piece puzzle.
“At this moment, I can only do it against Novak, one of the Big Three,” he told reporters after his monumental Cincinnati win. “I won only three games against Rafa last week. I mean, I have not much to say.”
There’s been more parity at tournaments outside the Slams, with a wider set of players beginning to break through at the Masters 1000 events. But even with a greater focus on load management late in their careers, the Big Three have collectively won four of the seven Masters events so far this year. They’ve combined for 96 such titles overall. Outside of Murray (with 14), no other active player has more than three.
Each member of the trio has a surface on which he dominates, and each has a signature Slam he’s won more than any other player: Nadal with his 12 French Open titles, Federer with his eight Wimbledons, and Djokovic with his seven Australian Opens. There are unique challenges to playing each of them, equal parts physical and mental.
“Federer takes almost every ball on the rise, which takes time from you, especially if you try to come in,” Mischa Zverev said in a 2017 interview. “And the other thing is, he can position his feet the same way for down the line, for crosscourt, and for a lob. So that gives me no chance to read where he’s going, where with most other players I can, based on how they position their feet on the court.”
“The patience that Rafa has is amazing,” Tsitsipas said last year. “He never cracks. He will always grab you like a bulldog and he will always make you suffer.”
“You have to play the perfect point to win it against him,” David Goffin said of Djokovic at Wimbledon in July. “Then he’s returning in your feet all the time. He puts you under pressure all the time.”
Jim Courier, who played in an era with the likes of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and Stefan Edberg, recently described what the Big Three are doing as “mindblowing.”
“The level of athleticism, their professionalism, their dedication, their understanding of scheduling, there’s so much that they do right that leads them to this success,” Courier told Rennae Stubbs on the “The Raquet Magazine Podcast.” “And they have a circumstance where the surfaces have become more homogenized, which allows them to play a similar style across all surfaces.
“But the thing that I think separates them from the other great players is their defensive capabilities. Because most of the great players historically are offensive-minded players. Pete, if he was having a good day, was absolutely unbeatable, but on bad days he was vulnerable. And these guys, if they’re having a bad offensive day, they just fall back and play defense.
“They’ve shrunk the bandwidth of their good and bad days to the point that it’s almost a flat line.”
Presumably, there will be an eventual changing of the guard, but that transition has been continually postponed. No active men’s player under 30 has won a major.
“I mean, I think it’s definitely not a – how do you say – regular time in tennis in the men’s game,” Federer said in July at Wimbledon, where he played Nadal in the semis and Djokovic in the final. “Because I don’t think we would have thought that Novak, me, and Rafa, all of us, were going to be so solid, so dominant for so many years.
“I think that, number one, (we) stopped a lot of runs from the younger guys. Number two, I’m not sure – were they as talented as Rafa, Novak, and myself and others? Maybe also not.”
Theories of relativity
In Cincinnati, I asked Djokovic and Federer whether they felt any guilt about their roles in denying their peers success at every turn. Their answers were similarly far-reaching, touching on the importance of relativity and perspective in general.
“Not really,” Federer said. “I don’t know. Everybody tries their best, you know? In the juniors maybe I felt bad sometimes, just because I did. Don’t know why.
“Afterwards, I guess it’s part of the business. You want everybody to do well, and that’s why I’m generally happy when somebody does well, because like you said, not everybody can attain, you know, whatever it is. But what you can attain is the best of yourself.”
Djokovic, after a ruminative monologue, concluded: “I do have compassion for the other guys.”
In his estimation, though, the bigger issue is the stigma that losing carries.
“I’ve been talking with my team a lot about what is the definition of success, not just in tennis but in sport and in life in general,” he said.
“Of course a lot of players will tell you, and it’s true, that when you lose a tennis match, you learn much more than when you win it. When you win a tennis match, it kind of fades away quicker, (while) a loss sticks with you for a longer time.
“It actually defines you as a human being and as an athlete how you overcome that loss, how you deal with it, how you face it and how you allow it to kind of get you stronger and grow psychologically and emotionally. Or you allow it to control you and basically bring you down.
“What I like about (the) college system in the United States is that you always feel you’re part of the team. Whether you win or lose, you are contributing to your team on the court, off the court. I think that sometimes I get a sense that there is too much pressure on the shoulders of young tennis players – that they have to be Grand Slam champions, that they have to get into top 10.”
Let’s say you’re one of those perpetual strivers: Would you be able to just enjoy the ride, rather than lamenting your lot as an also-ran in an age of legends? Federer thinks so, and he partly blames the media – and the unrealistic way outsiders measure success – for the skewed perception of those players.
“I think probably if you ask a lot of the guys on the tour, they’d say, ‘I did much better than I expected,'” Federer said. “The dream is, of course, to be top 100, top 10, world No. 1, winning tournaments and all that stuff, but, you know, to be able to make a living from what you wanted to do, I think that’s the cool bit.
“That’s when sometimes it gets a bit rough. All of a sudden you achieve your dream and you’ve been told you’re terrible, because you didn’t win so-and-so. You’re, like, ‘OK, you know what? Get lost. I don’t care what you say.’ And that’s the truth. You’ve got to do what you can do best and make yourself proud, your family, your country, whatever it is.”
Having one or two elite skills once was enough in tennis but competing for the biggest titles over the past decade has meant ticking every box. You need power and variety and athleticism and durability and consistency and mental toughness and desire. For one reason or another, everyone else has found themselves lacking.
Take Berdych, whose combination of balance, movement, and baseline consistency from both wings likely would’ve made him a multi-time Slam champion in any other era. But the lack of variety or unpredictability in his game rendered him helpless against the kings.
Berdych did beat Federer and Djokovic to reach his lone Slam final at Wimbledon in 2010, but then he ran up against Nadal and lost in straight sets. The challenge of winning a Slam under those circumstances was simple, as he once explained: “I beat one guy, then there was another waiting. In the final was another one, as well.”
A young Del Potro complemented his freakish power with impressive agility for his size, and when he beat Nadal and Federer back-to-back to win the US Open at age 20 in 2009, he looked poised to join their ranks. But he hasn’t been able to stay healthy for long enough to remain there.
Ferrer packed enough grit into his diminutive frame to reach 17 Grand Slam quarterfinals, five semis, and one final while climbing as high as No. 3 in the world. He defended and counterpunched indefatigably, and ground most opponents into dust. But against the trio of players who could match his endurance and will while trumping every weapon in his arsenal, he was severely outgunned. He wound up seeming like an over- and underachiever at the same time.
Kyrgios possesses the talent, moxie, and well-rounded skill set to hang with those guys, but he doesn’t have the consistency, commitment, or temperament to make it matter.
Then there’s Murray, who exists in a class of his own. On one hand, he’s been jobbed by the Big Three worse than anyone, with eight losses in Slam finals and another eight in Slam semis against one of Djokovic, Nadal, or Federer. On the other hand, for most of his career he’s been part of the group that’s held everyone else at bay; the bouncer who denied outsiders entry into the club. In a way, he also legitimized what the other three did. It’s a testament to their greatness that they combined to limit an all-time player to just three Slam titles.
Murray’s perpetual quest to scale that impossible mountain also wrought destruction on his body, ultimately forcing him to have major hip surgery that, based on the early returns, appears to have ended his run as a Grand Slam contender. The career he managed to carve out in the era he played in is one of the sport’s great underappreciated achievements; for so much of his career, people defined him by what he couldn’t do.
Grand Slam champions, 2004-19
* Federer also won Wimbledon in 2003 for his first Grand Slam title
No sport is exempt from the debate about whether dominance or parity is more beneficial, but people rarely claim that the Big Three have been bad for tennis. For all the earnings their stubborn excellence has denied their peers, they’ve also made the sport more profitable in general by raising its profile, crafting epic rivalries, and giving casual fans familiar touchstones.
Some players also say that competing in an era with those three forced them to work harder, work smarter, and grow their games in ways they might not have otherwise. The level at which men’s tennis is played – the speed, fitness, power, finesse, and ingenuity across the tour – is arguably higher because of them.
Stan Wawrinka got a tattoo to remind him that failure was part of the process and that “we’re not all Nadal or Djokovic, who can win most tournaments.” Soon afterward, he discovered a wellspring of belief that propelled him to three incredible Slam titles, all of which required him to beat at least one of the Big Three along the way.
“I was very lucky,” Wawrinka recently reflected.
“We are in an era dominated by the Big Four, especially Roger, Rafa, and Novak. Over the last years, they almost took everything. For now, (as) I see it, it’s an honor to be able to share the same era with the greatest ever in our sport.”
Easier to say, perhaps, for a guy who actually busted through to taste Grand Slam glory on multiple occasions, but he’s not the only one who feels that way.
“I am very happy with everything I did, and you know I played with Roger, Rafa, Novak, Andy Murray – four of the best tennis players in the history,” Ferrer said before retiring. “But for me, it was good because I improved a lot my game. Maybe without them, I would never be No. 3 in the world.”
It’s not just that everyone on tour has spent their careers chasing those three, it’s that those three have forced everyone else to reconsider the physical and metaphysical dimensions of the sport.
When asked what he’d learned from Nadal after losing to him in last year’s Rogers Cup final, Tsitsipas said: “How much I have to work. How much gap there is between him and me in our games, and how much more I need to … bust my ass on the court. Work more hours and become stronger and a more solid baseliner. And withstand pressures – physical pressures on the court that to him just seem like nothing special. That’s the big difference between my game and his game.”
Of course, the player or players who ultimately take up the baton from these stalwarts will have an impossible standard to live up to. Maybe it’s naive to think the marks these three are setting will stand forever; Sampras’ 14 major titles once felt untouchable. But it is hard to imagine we’ll ever again see three players of such singular physical and mental aptitude, all playing at the peak of their powers at the same time.
This has been labeled the golden age of men’s tennis for a good decade and counting. It’s unclear how much longer it can last, but whenever it does finally end, the sport will be completely, irrevocably changed.
Joe Wolfond writes about basketball and tennis for theScore.