January 29, 2017 – Australian Open Men’s Final: after exactly three hours and seven minutes, Nadal leads three games to one, fifth set. As an avid fan of Federer, I stood in front of the TV biting my nails and praying to see a glimmer of hope that Federer could win the set, and the Australian Open Championship. The highly anticipated “Fedal” match-up came to a conclusion with Roger Federer winning five games in a row against Nadal, and lifting his 18th Grand Slam trophy.
This match was special in the hearts of all Tennis fans – both Federer and Nadal, pushing into their 30s and having not played for the previous six months due to injuries, giving us one of the greatest matches in their rivalry.
The Big Three
That match was considered near-impossible and the first predicted end of the era of the Big Three: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. Let me put into perspective why they were dubbed the “Big Three.”
Since 2004, there have been a total of 72 Grand Slam tournaments. In that, the big three have won a whopping 61 of them! Why stop there? Federer first held the year-end number one rank in 2004 having won his first three Grand Slams that year. In the 18 years after, there has only been one year where a person outside the big three held that title – Andy Murray in 2016.
Wimbledon 2009: Federer is the Greatest of All Time
Pete Sampras held the record of most grand slams for seven years (2002 to 2009). Roger Federer matched that record in the 2009 French Open. On July 5th, 2009, I witnessed one of the greatest victories of Roger Federer that made him the greatest of all time.
Federer was the fan-favorite playing against Andy Roddick, the god of serves. At the time, there was a rule that a tiebreaker (think of it like a longer game) would not be played in the final set when it was six games all. The players had to win by a two-game difference. I still remember watching it with my family back home and having a rollercoaster of emotions – I really wanted Federer to win. After more than four hours, Federer finally broke Andy Roddick’s serve to win the final set 16 games to 14, and the championship. I watched some parts of the match again to write this, and it sent chills down my spine.
Federer was crowned the greatest of all time.
French Open 2021: The War that Djokovic Won
Of his 21 grand slams, Nadal has a whopping 13 titles in just the French Open – the clay surface complimenting his aggressive high-topspin style. In all of the French Open tournaments he has played, Nadal has lost only three matches out of more than 100. The third loss is the war that Djokovic won in the 2021 French Open Semi-final.
Just in the previous year’s final, Nadal thrashed Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 to win his 13th title. This year looked like it was going to be a repeat but in the semi-final with Nadal leading the first set 5-0. Although Djokovic lost the set 3-6, Nadal had lost all his momentum struggling to even win the first. When I was watching the clash of titans, it almost felt like Djokovic decided to turn his gears on and suddenly play like an aggressive player. Djokovic’s playstyle is to stick to the baseline with inhuman defense and allow the opponent to make mistakes. He was determined for this one – he not only matched Nadal’s aggressive nature but maintained his defense. I only started watching from the second set and I could see no force on earth or heaven that would enable Nadal to win. Djokovic won the match bagging the next three sets and went on to win his 19th Grand Slam.
Many argue Nadal was injured at the time and he could not play his best but I doubt it would have changed the outcome. As much as Djokovic is my least favorite of the big three (and maybe even of all tennis players), I saw a monster play that day, and never in my life, I thought I would call a player that when Nadal is on the other side of the court.
Australian Open 2022: Nadal is the Greatest of All Time
After that devastating loss in the 2021 French Open, Nadal withdrew from Wimbledon, the 2021 Olympics, and the US Open citing recovery from injury and the need to protect his body. So when you are mentally and physically down after the worst loss of your career, there is not much expectation when you come back on tour.
The stakes were very high with the 2022 Australian Open. The big three are tied at 20 grand slams apiece. Federer is still out with injury, and Djokovic lost his chance at his 21st in the US Open and just got deported from Australia as he was not given a vaccination exemption. Even without the other two, Nadal was not expected to fare very well because frankly, the new generation players were killing it. Danill Medvedev won his first slam at the US Open beating Djokovic and was among the players anticipated to win the Australian Open.
Nadal kept going and reached the final to face Medvedev. It seemed like Medvedev was going to win, leading two sets to none, and with a 3-2 lead in the third with two breakpoints in the sixth game. Winning that one point would have led Medvedev to his second grand slam and the title “GOAT Blocker” because it would have been the second time he denied the big three a chance at becoming the new greatest of all time.
However, he was playing against Nadal – the epitome of mental strength and resilience in tennis. From the seemingly impossible situation, Nadal won that game, that set, and the next two sets to win his 21st grand slam title.
Nadal is the undisputed greatest of all time now with the most grand slams held by a single person in the open era of men’s tennis.
Is this the End of the Greatest Era of Men’s Tennis?
The end of last year was gloomy, to say the least. Federer lost his final match, got a bagel (losing a set 6 – 0), and had to undergo surgery. He is set to return in July for Wimbledon but can he perform at the same level as his prime? As saddening as it is to say, I don’t think so. I will just be happy to see him play one more time. Over the last year, Djokovic proved that he is not infallible. He lost his 2021 Olympics match for Bronze, and his US Open Final against an up-and-coming Daniil Medvedev which would have sealed his status as the greatest of all time is the only player to have won 21 grand slams and all four slams in one year. More recently, he lost his quarterfinal match with the unseeded Jiri Vesely in the Dubai Open. In addition to this, he has embraced the consequence of not being allowed to participate in tournaments with vaccine mandates as a result of his “pro-choice” no-vax stance. Among all this, Nadal starts his 2022 season by winning the Australian Open and as of the 16th of March, has a 17-game season-opening win streak – the best of his career.
I don’t think the greatest era of men’s tennis is over… yet. Until the big three utter the words “I’m retiring,” it is not over. Don’t get me wrong, this era of tennis is definitely on its last legs. The big three are starting to fatigue starting with Federer and it shows. I just hope it lasts as long as possible.
Who knows maybe it is not the greatest era of men’s tennis after all. People thought the same when Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were dominating the tour in the ‘90s and early 2000s. Only time will tell…