The year is 2030, there is live tennis happening every week and a Grand Slam is approaching.
Going by the laws of nature and physics, it’s safe to imagine that the top three seeds in men’s singles are not named Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. Maybe one of them is still in the draw, given how time seems to work differently for them. Or maybe they have long since retired.
Who knows how many Majors they have by then? Who knows which member of the ‘Big Three’ – as they are known – now leads or has won the race for the most men’s singles Slams?
But if there is one thing that tennis fans will know for sure 10 years down the line, it’s that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic together created a phenomenon that will perhaps never again occur in the history of the sport.
The Big Three created an era of tennis so superlative and successful that it was impossible to conclusively assess who had the greater career for good part of a decade. An intersecting graph of not two but three major rivals at the highest level. They arrived at different times but their paths were so intertwined, it was impossible to separate ones’ achievements from the other’s failure. And that is the true GOAT (Greatest of All Time) – not either of the players but the golden era they produced together.
Fans and writers will look back at the mid-2000s and 2010s in amazement and wonder how three men went through 15 years at the top of their games and still remained in contention as the top three seeds when they played the first Grand Slam of 2020. How three men won a total of 33 out of 40 Majors in the span of a decade. How most Grand Slam previews and predictions were futile if the three of them were fit and playing.
For the last 15 years, men’s tennis has been sensational, path-breaking, age-defying, excruciatingly physical, utterly competitive yet somehow predictable at the biggest stage. But one thing it hasn’t been is monotheistic, as hard as the individual fan bases have tried.
On their own, each of the Big Three represent an attribute so exemplary yet so different from the other, the comparisons are commonplace, practically customary.
Roger Federer makes tennis look effortless, easy. Rafael Nadal makes his tennis look impossible, energy-sapping. Novak Djokovic makes tennis look efficient, enduring.
When Federer first ascended to the summit in early 2000s, he was heralded for his elegant shot-making; balletic and graceful is the style associated with his play. When Nadal, with his pirate pants and sleeveless vests came into his own in mid 2000s, it was all about working hard for the points. Relentless is the word still used to describe him. For Novak Djokovic, who blasted through the Fedal hegemony in early 2010s and fortified his place in history, the theme is clinical, precise, effective tennis.
For these distinct qualities and the times they broke through, fans have their favourite and ready reasons for the intense fandom, which invariably causes them to dislike and even dismiss the claims of the other two when it comes to tennis greatness.
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But with the benefit of hindsight, it is evident that these differences have played a pivotal role in making modern men’s tennis what it is today. In 2020, the comparison and competition should be a celebration of the identity and flavor it brings. It is this combination of grace, grit, and gumption that made men’s tennis immensely watchable and become one of the most widely followed global sport.
But a part of fandom will always be fundamentalist.
For people who look for beauty and art in sport, Federer’s fluid service motion and one-handed backhand evokes devotion. People who appreciate hard work and never-say-die spirit admire Nadal’s pure back-breaking work and willpower. For people who relate to the resilience and upsetting odds, Djokovic’s tenacity and physicality is worth rooting for.
Countless fans have rated these qualities high enough to place these three on pedestals while forming some of the fiercest fan armies in sport to fight for them. There have been others who have embodied these qualities, and won accolades enough to have a loyal fan following of their own. Andy Murray’s work ethic is probably unmatched, Stan Wawrinka can produce the most picturesque of shots.
But the consistency, versatility, longevity of the Big Three is on another level, hitherto unseen in tennis. And in a way, these are not qualities they developed in isolation, but were moulded in the fire of competition between them. They became who they are because they pushed each other to the limit.
Their individual records are incomparable – 20, 19 and 17 Grand Slams each – but what sets Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic apart is the environment they created together. In a strange way, the true significance and challenge of the Big Three fandom is in appreciating it as a whole.
Had it not been for their individual achievements, the other two might not have occupied the place they do in the pantheon. In sport, as in life, it is the darkness of failure that makes success shine brighter. In a similar way, for Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic their constant setbacks against each other has lit up their achievements even more.
Nadal has dominated the French Open for more than a decade but it is that scintillating win over Federer at Wimbledon that is often remembered as his greatest triumph. Federer had 20 Majors but most will remember his matches against the other two – win or loss – as his greatest at Grand Slams. For Djokovic, the only man to win all nine Masters 1000 titles, almost every big title has come after a physically grueling battle against either the Swiss or the Spaniard.
Federer’s fans couldn’t have enjoyed half the thrill they have had he not constantly tasted failure at some of the biggest moments against Nadal and Djokovic. Nadal’s journey would not have been half as satisfactory if it had not come so close on the heels of Federer’s success, providing a counterpoint. Djokovic, who has been so plain in his desire to be the best, could not command as many fans without the raw hunger to outdo not one but two great players on a consistent basis.
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Of course Federer winning five consecutive Wimbledon and US Open titles in the 2000s was no less special. Nadal winning his first French Open as a teen and never letting go is still incredible. Djokovic’s path-breaking 2011 was not conditional to any other player.
But it is only in the last few years when they have competed together in their 30s that a clearer picture of their collective importance emerged. Pete Sampras, who comfortably held for the most men’s singles Major at 14, retired at 31 in 2002. Since then, each of the Big Three has sailed past that mark and looked set to keep adding to it well into their 30s.
The three most successful men in singles Grand Slam history have not only raised their own game as they got older, they elevated the competition with constant reinvention and incredible fitness. The desire to add to the Grand Slam tally has pushed them to try harder, even when Federer is 35 and coming off a knee surgery, when Nadal is battling another injury layoff or Djokovic is struggling with motivation.
In a way, their recent success is a bit of a Domino effect, with one’s success motivating the other. From 2017 onwards, they have won all the Grand Slams on offer and maintained such a stronghold at the top that it seems unlikely to be broken soon, even as Majors are delayed and cancelled this year.
But there will always be reasons to root for one player. It can be the style of play, the personality away from the tennis court or just how watching one can make you feel.
And that’s alright, as long as tennis watchers don’t lose the overall picture – that we can divide and love our favourite all we want, but tennis is made richer by Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic fighting together, win or lose. It would be impossible to celebrate, or even enjoy the achievements of one player without the counterpoint provided by the others.
With the tennis world at a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic, we may or may not have any more Slams this year. But whenever the next Major comes around, it will still be in the realm of possibility that it will be won by one of the Big Three, no matter their age or how much time they have been away from the sport. We don’t know who will end with the most Grand Slams, but we do know they will make every tournament they participate in more competitive.
This confidence in their collective calibre is what should be celebrated, it’s the true charm of the Big Three fandom.