Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — the holy trinity of tennis — have ruled our hearts and the world of tennis since 2004. It would be tough to find a fan that doesn’t pick either of the three as their favourite. Together this Golden Trio has scaled those heights where no one has ventured before, winning a mindboggling 56 of the last 67 Grand Slams since Federer’s 2003 Wimbledon victory, including 14 of the last 15.
The domination started with Federer. The Swiss Maestro won his first Grand Slam way back in 2003 and there has been no looking back since. Federer’s effortless, calm, demeanour and his rare one handed back hand, which is a joy to watch, has won him a record eight Wimbledon titles, six Australian Opens, five US Opens and one French Open in the course of his extra-ordinary career.
Nadal came in next and quickly became the ‘King of Clay’. The Spaniard has won an unprecedented 13 French Open titles. Nadal’s dominance on clay is also highlighted by 60 of his 86 ATP singles titles coming on this surface, including 25 of his 35 ATP Masters 1000 titles, and his 81 consecutive wins on clay is the longest single-surface win streak in the Open Era.
Djokovic was the last to enter the party with his 2008 Australian Open victory. The Serb quickly joined Federer and Nadal at the top. In 2011, he surpassed the duo to become the No. 1 for the first time as he won three out of the four majors and his first five Masters events of the year. Novak has won a record eight Australian Open titles and is still going strong.
Currently, Federer (39) and Nadal (34) are tied at 20 Grand Slams each — an all time record — with Djokovic (33) tailing them at 17 but the Serbian has age on his side.
Between 2004 and 2020, there have been just six other players who have won a Grand Slam. An entire generation of players has gone by trying to get the better of these three legends and etch their names in history. Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, Tomas Berdych, Kevin Anderson, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and the now retired David Ferrer comprise the ‘Lost Generation’ who are all past their prime and will probably never taste Grand Slam glory thanks to the troika of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
Andy Murray and Stansilas Wawrinka have been the most successful in challenging the Big Three’s hegemony. The duo has nabbed three Grand Slams each. Murray also claimed the number one spot for 41 weeks before injuries marred his career. Marin Cilic took the 2014 US Open by defeating Kei Nishikori while Juan Martin del Potro stopped the trio’s 18 slam winning streak when he defeated Nadal and Federer on consecutive days to win the 2009 US Open. But the Argentine’s career was plagued by injuries and the Big Three continued to defy norms by not only winning but also maintaining the gap in quality between them and the chasing pack, despite playing at ages when many would contemplate calling it quits.
We fans have become so accustomed to Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic winning major titles that when a new name reaches the summit clash it feels like an aberration.
However, the landscape of men’s singles tennis may be changing. A new generation of fearless big-hitters led by Austria’s Dominic Thiem are knocking at the door, eager to smash the Big Three’s monopoly over the sport. For the second successive year, the final of the Nitto ATP Finals did not feature Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal.
The most tenacious of the bunch, this Austrian was able to pull off something that several other players have shown promise of in the past decade but could not achieve — winning a Grand Slam. After tasting defeat in three finals — losing twice to Nadal in Roland Garros (2018, 2019) and once to Djokovic in Australian Open (2020) — the 27-year-old finally lifted his maiden Grand Slam title in 2020.
In 2020, Thiem not only won the US Open but also reached the final of the Australia Open, defeating the mighty Rafa Nadal on route and lost only to the formidable Djokovic but not before dragging the match to five sets. He also reached the summit clash of the ATP Finals for the second consecutive year.
Fondly known as the ‘Prince of Clay’, Thiem is armed with ferocious ground strokes laced with enormous topspin and speed. The Austrian is an incredible athlete who has the ability turn defence to offense from nearly impossible situations, a skill he exhibited at the 2020 US Open when he made marvellous comeback to win the title after he was two sets down against Alexander Zverev.
A known quantity in tennis for some time now, Daniil Medevedav announced himself to the broader sporting public when he was about to script one of the most remarkable comebacks in tennis history only to go down in an agonising five-set defeat to Rafael Nadal in the 2019 US Open final.
The 24-year-old went on to win four ATP Tour titles in 2019, adding two more in 2020. On route to the 2020 ATP Finals title the Russian defeated No. 1 Djokovic, No. 2 Nadal and No. 3 Thiem to become first player to defeat the top 3 in tournament history and anywhere on ATP Tour since David Nalbandian achieved the feat in 2007.
Medvedev’s USP is that he can adopt a different style of game to in a bid to either throw off the opponent or neutralize them. He can serve and volley on a break point, or rush to the net off a return. His height and flexibility allow him to stretch out for a lot of shots others would need a step or two to get to especially off the backhand.
Stefanos Tsitsitpas rapid rise took the tennis world by storm. The Greek starlet enjoyed a breakthrough year in 2018, winning the Stockholm Open. He became a household name when he upset Roger Federer in the fourth round of the 2019 Australian Open, saving all twelve of the break points he faced. The same year he qualified for the ATP finals for the first time and went on to win the tournament defeating Federer in the semifinals. With the victory, the charismatic Greek became the youngest winner of the year-end championship since Lleyton Hewitt in 2001. In the coronavirus curtailed 2020, Tsitsipas won one ATP event and ended the year ranked sixth.
Tsitsipas possesses an all-court game. He attacks the net when given the opportunity and is a big banger who can hang with just about anybody on tour. The 22-year-old also hits a mean one-handed backhand.
Alexander Zverev already has 13 ATP titles to his name. Better known as Sascha, the 23-year-old is currently ranked number 7 and has been a permanent fixture in the top 10 since July 2017. The prodigiously talented German captured three ATP Masters 1000 titles in less than a year: 2017 Rome at age 20, 2017 Montreal at age 20 and 2018 Madrid at age 21.
He then went on to defeat Novak Djokovic in the 2018 ATP Finals to win the trophy. Sascha reached his first major Grand Slam final at the 2020 US Open where he lost the title to Dominic Thiem in a final-set tiebreaker.
Touted as the future world number 1, Sascha’s strengths lie in his aggressive baseline and two-handed backhand, accompanied with a remarkable serve which he hits flat and hard with the help of his towering height. His superior height and solid groundstrokes make him a threat everywhere.
While these young guns are challenging the Big Three on the circuit, they are yet to get a breakthrough in Grand Slams. Thiem did win his first Grand Slam last year but who is to say what would have happened had Djokovic not been defaulted. (Novak was ejected from the tournament after he inadvertently hit a line judge in the throat with a ball smacked in anger during his fourth-round match.) After all the Serb was the favourite to win and exhibits his best tennis on hard courts.
Although the old guard has started showing the first signs of cracking, Rafael Nadal is confident there is still time before any of them hang up their boots. “We’ll still be here for a while longer, competing and striving to win,” the Spaniard said.
One must not forget, to keep playing tennis at the highest level for over decade (almost two in Federer’s case) requires a lot of planning and motivation alongside talent. And these three have proved it time and again that they know how to chart a way out of injuries and set-backs. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are now playing for history and are more motivated than ever to achieve it. So, it wouldn’t be prudent to write any of them off just yet.
However, when the day arrives when they start retiring it is going to leave vaccum in all our lives. We are all going to miss Roger’s elegance, his fluid motion similar to Beethoven’s symphonies, Rafa’s brute strength and trademark grunts and Nole’s flexibility and even the sound of his shoes screeching as he skids on hard courts.
But one thing is for certain we are unlikely to witness a pure supremacy like that of these legends.