When we speak of the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, many see it, including myself, as our great fortune to have been able to watch such immense talents in their prime. Time after time we hear cyclical debates about who is the better player, and time after time we see SportBible post for the 16th time that year “Let’s just sit back and enjoy it while it lasts”. The same can be said, without doubt, for ‘The Big 3’.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, have been pillars of excellence and consistency throughout my lifetime, and I once again find myself incredibly lucky to have seen these giants dominate tennis for nearly 2 decades.
I found myself scrolling through my Twitter feed for the 12th daily outing a few years back, and saw something that stuck with me ever since, and is the driving force behind today’s blog. In an almost guilty way, I find myself cheating on my hero’s, and asking the question:
Will men’s tennis be a more interesting sport when they retire?
From Wimbledon in 2003 up to and including the 2020 Australian Open, this trio has dominated men’s singles for nearly a generation, winning 56 of the 67 Grand Slam titles, with Federer accounting for 20, Nadal 19 and Djokovic 17. We are starting to see a new generation of talent coming through the ranks, trying to impose their mark on what is a canvas hoarded with the prints of the Big 3. Many tennis fans, myself included, have for years been in the mindset that “this is the year someone else takes the reigns”, and every year we are proven wrong.
There is no doubt in my mind that over the coming years, most likely ending with the retirement of Djokovic, we will see the likes of Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsistipas to name a few, take advantage of an ageing Big 3 and capitalising. We have already seen new Slam finalists in the last 2 slams (Medvedev/US and Thiem/Australian), both succumbing to men’s tennis titans Rafa and Novak. But one thing is for sure, the tides are turning on men’s tennis, and I find myself often reminiscing over years gone by, and the good fortune of having been able to watch The Big 3.
Those fans who remember the days when Grigor Dimitrov made his ATP Tour debut, with many taking one look at that backhand and dubbing him “the next Roger Federer”, will remember the hype surrounding him. The conclusion I think one has to make with regard to up and coming talent over the past 20 years is that they simply “got in at the wrong time”. Joining a tour where over 85% of Slams are won by 3 players will likely be intimidating, and in reality the younger players stepping on court with The Big 3 are less nervous about the match in comparison to meeting their childhood heroes.
“I feel like those guys have taken away an entire generation of Grand Slam winners,” Andy Roddick
Let us side-track for a moment: The year is 2001, 4th round of Wimbledon, a 20-year old Roger Federer up against a prime 30-year old Pete Sampras. Federer prevails in a 5-set thriller in a match seen by many as the ‘passing of the torch’ to the new age of men’s tennis. When trying to determine when The Big 3 will retire, we see here an interesting example. Sampras retired just over a year later, having just won the US Open in 02. Now, nostalgic tennis fans want to see Federer retire at Wimbledon having won it, Rafa on the dust at Rolland Garros having won it, and Djokovic…meh anywhere. The time is coming, certainly for Roger and Rafa, to pass on this torch. Djokovic will carry it, as he has for the past 7-8 years, before handing over to the new generation of tennis.
Back to the question at hand. When Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Federer in the 4th round of the Australian last year, there was a new buzz once again saying this could be the player to dethrone the Big 3. Tsitsipas meets Nadal in the Semi-finals, losing 3-0 and winning only 6 games. It would be silly to read into this too much, as players have off days and its one match in what will no doubt be an illustrious career, however, there is a more sombre point to be made.
It feels like the clock is against us. If The Big 3 keep winning slams until the day they retire, what does that say about the next generation of talent coming through? There will be an eternal grip they cannot escape, with the cynics playing the “they wouldn’t have stood a chance against The Big 3” card, and murmurs that “tennis is not the same as it used to be”. A scary prospect that perhaps future generations may never live up to what we have experienced, regardless of whether they deserve the same amount of praise. Sports fans are often spoilt and impatient in waiting for young players to don a hero’s cape, and forget that great expectations will inevitably stunt developing athletes growth before they have had the chance to accumulate sufficient experience.
Tennis will become more competitive when The Big 3 retire, there is no doubt about that. While a new generational talent might come into the fray, it is highly unlikely they will be able to replicate the success of these players in their lifetimes, although I hope I am wrong. Yes, I am bored of seeing the same players win Slam after Slam, but think for a moment about how they will have improved the base-standard of tennis on the ATP Tour, you become the best by playing the best, and I am optimistic that this will come to fruition in the coming years.
So, while tennis fans around the world can have little complaints regarding the quality and excitement of tennis they have witnessed over the past 20 years, one thing is for sure: Enjoy it while it lasts, but be excited for what is to come.
P.S. If you have a spare 31 minutes which a lot of you do, watch one of the greatest tennis matches ever played.