After the French Open final in July, Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked tennis player and the tournament’s top seed, shed tears, but not because he had lost the match to eighth-seeded Stan Wawrinka. He was moved by the crowd at the Roland Garros Stadium in Paris, which gave the Serb a roaring standing ovation during the award ceremony, clapping and whistling for nearly three minutes.

The excellence of the match partly contributed to the prolonged applause, but there was another reason for the crowd going as wild as a tennis audience is capable of going. After the final ball gave Wawrinka the match, Djokovic was the embodiment of spontaneous graciousness as he hugged and congratulated the Swiss.

In his speech, the polyglot Djokovic, speaking in French, said what his body language had earlier made amply clear even on the lifeless television screen: he had the greatest respect for Stan. Wawrinka’s speech, in turn, was full of encomiums for an opponent who had seemed unstoppable all year.

Given the huge expectations from Djokovic, who had come into the tournament with a 28-match winning streak, and his huge desire to win the one Grand Slam that had eluded him, his behaviour deserves praise in proportion to what must have been a massive disappointment.

His tears also came against a background. No matter how superbly he had played, he could not evoke the adoration of fans the way Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal did. I don’t think this is a result of his game, which some people uncharitably call “robotic” – because Nadal is as much of a defensive player slugging it out from the baseline.

I think it partly has to do with timing – Djokovic rose to the top after the Swiss and the Spaniard were locked in a fierce rivalry at the top of the game,and most fans were already invested in one of the two. For a variety of reasons, which are not germane here, that has changed. As the French Open spectators demonstrated, Djokovic now lacks no love.

The Big Five

This combination of mutual respect and vulnerability is what makes the Big Five of men’s tennis such great role models, quite apart from their stunning achievements on court.Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Nadal, seeded one, two, three and eight in the US Open, which began on August 31, have long been called the Big Four of men’s tennis.But Wawrinka, seeded five, surely deserves to be part of an enlarged club after his French Open victory.

Between them, these five players have won all but two of the Grand Slam titles from 2006. The two exceptions were Marin Čilić, who won the US Open in 2014,and Juan Martín del Potro, who won it in 2009.

Murray and Wawrinka may be a bit behind in terms of Grand Slam victories, with two each, compared with Federer’s 17, Nadal’s 14 and Djokovic’s 9, but on many important occasions their game is up there with the triumvirate’s. The two also have unique strengths: Wawrinka’s one-handed backhand is considered by some to be the best in the game and one of the best of all time, while Murray’s passing shots on the run, both forehand and backhand, are exceptional.

Not only do these five players bring out the best in each other, leading to highly competitive matches, but three of them, namely Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, are all candidates for being the GOAT, the Greatest Of All Time. I reiterate what thousands of vastly more knowledgeable commentators about the game have said, not to underline these players’ sporting greatness but to justify why it makes sense to throw a fence around these five.

Tears and bonhomie

Djokovic and Wawrinka’s post-match cocktail of tears and bonhomie at Roland Garros is the just the latest intoxicating post-match spectacle. Which Federer fan does not remember the Swiss maestro breaking down after losing a marathon five-set duel to Nadal at the Australian Open final in 2009? After about a minute of just staring at the microphone, Federer said, “Maybe I will try later” followed by “God, this is killing me” followed by tears.

He was so choked up that an official deftly announced that Federer would speak later, allowing him to step back and try to compose himself. At this point, which Nadal fan does not remember the Spaniard tenderly putting an arm around Federer to commiserate and make him feel better?

Just a year later, at the same venue, Andy Murray was in Federer’s shoes, after losing the Australian Open final in straight sets, and Federer was in Nadal’s. After picking up his runners-up trophy, Andy Murray let the tears flow. After composing himself, he tried to leaven his gloom with a sprinkling of humour: “I can cry like Roger. It’s just a shame I can’t play like him,” he said.

In 2012, it was the same plot and dramatis personae but in a different setting: the hallowed centre court of Wimbledon. Murray had played his first final there in front of a home crowd, adding to the disappointment of merely losing a Grand Slam. Dissolving into tears during the ritual post-award interview with the BBC, Murray nevertheless managed to say, using characteristic British euphemism that even at the age of 30, Federer had shown “what fight he still has left in him”. At the end, he walked up to Federer and the two hugged.

The world’s most glittering athletes, physically and mentally as tough as diamonds, crying for the whole world to see makes them appear less ethereal and more of this earth. As part of a generation of players whose every move is scrutinised by the mainstream and social media, their letting go is all the more surprising and remarkable.

As members of a rarefied stratospheric realm of near-perfect athleticism, each of them can surely deeply empathise with what the other feels. Only Nadal can understand Federer’s tears, Federer Murray’s, and Wawrinka Djokovic’s. Their bitterest foes on court are best placed to understand their emotions off it.

Their graciousness and tears are therefore more than just good manners: they offer fans a rare glimpse into that rarefied world – something we might witness yet again at the US Open men’s single final scheduled for September 13.

Image and reality

It is, of course, impossible to evaluate how authentic these players’ public demeanour is. After all, the huge endorsement money at stake is certainly an incentive for sports stars to cultivate a suave image. And the glare of social media makes politeness and sportsmanship not just desirable but prudent.

Yet despite the forces that encourage good behaviour, it is hard to consistently put on a good face. And we must surely judge people not by one incident but their actions over time. At the very least, one can say that the Big Five have considerable self-control. This is not something to take for granted: lesser players, such as Bernard Tomic, Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis, are unable to exercise the same restraint.

It is also true that the Big Five’s record is not perfect. They have argued with umpires. And some of them have sparred with each other. Federer and Djokovic, for instance, went through a phase in which their relationship was tense, probably magnified by the media, and mostly the result of the Serb’s tactless father. During the Monte Carlo Masters, Federer turned to Djokovic’s apparently raucous parents and told them to “be quiet.”

But none of this crossed a line or became a pattern. Moreover, I am not talking about frie­­ndship; I am talking about mutual respect. And that is something that both Federer and Djokovic seem to be increasingly expressing – the latest examples being their comments after their finals matches in this year’s Wimbledon, which Djokovic won, and the Cincinnati Masters, which Federer won.