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30 Jul 2018

The Great Three: A tale of unparalleled dominance

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Defying expectations

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Subtle differences

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Recent trends

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What next?

(Photo credit: Marianne Bevis)

The sport has never seen anything like it. In fact, sport has never seen anything like it. Three equally matched titans dominating the tennis world for over a decade-and-a-half. It began with Federer, who after winning his first Major in 2003 at Wimbledon achieved a dominance that looked unchallengeable and whose place at the top would seemed beyond question. Yet even as Federer compiled some of the greatest seasons of all-time, his challengers were stirring.

The first was Nadal, who time and time again denied Federer on the dirt, with his fearsome topspin and relentless aggression eventually carrying the fight to Federer on all the surfaces. It was a rivalry for the ages and the twin crowns of the tennis world earned fans and titles on an unprecedented scale. Yet there was one more to come, for Novak Djokovic asserted himself into the conversation with one of the great seasons in tennis history and hasn’t looked back.

Defying expectations

After their phenomenal achievements, the Great Three might have been forgiven for resting on their well-earned laurels. But instead they have continued to improve and impress. Federer not content with his mastery of the tennis court, has seemingly also fought and won a battle with time itself. He has continued to scale new heights and adjusted aspects of his game to increase his longevity such as approaching the net and coming over his backhand more often.

Nadal has long since dismissed the notion that he was just a great clay courter by winning Wimbledon twice, an Olympic gold medal in both doubles and singles and four hard court Majors. Nadal too has grown and adjusted over the journey and is a far more complete player now then when he arrived on Tour. His serve has improved notably, peaking at the 2010 US Open, but he has also been striking his backhand more aggressively under the tutelage of Carlos Moya.

Djokovic, who holds a favourable career head-to-head record over both Nadal and Federer, arguably achieved a level of dominance greater than that achieved by his great rivals when he held of all four Grand Slam titles at once in 2016. Thereafter he seemed like a spent force as injury and mental fatigue took their toll. But like Nadal and Federer, he has risen again, with his Wimbledon triumph the culmination of the momentum he had been building since reuniting with Marian Vajda.

Subtle differences

The beauty in their great rivalries is to be found in the differences between them. Though they are of similar heights, weight and athletic ability, and capable of striking the ball with great accuracy and venom over the course of a five-hour match, stylistically they share little. Federer’s smooth, clinical aggression is met by the raw, almost bestial power of Nadal and the relentless iron walls of Djokovic’s defence.

All have found a route to victory against the other. Nadal’s whipping topspin forehands brought Federer’s unchallenged superiority crashing down by punishing his weaker backhand. Yet when Nadal tried to do the same to Djokovic, the Serb met him with a backhand hit with such power and accuracy as Nadal had never encountered before. Federer, outmatched from the baseline, improved his serve and volleying to present a new challenge to both men.

Djokovic’s unparalleled returning skills and his ability to combine seemingly impenetrable defence with controlled aggression once put both Nadal and Federer on the back foot. But Nadal countered his baseline brilliance by stepping out of his comfort zone and taking his forehand down the line and into the Djokovic forehand, exploiting the open court the Serb often leaves. Federer heightened his own aggression off return to throw Djokovic off, with his 2015 Cincinnati win the result of just that.

Recent trends

Nadal’s comprehensive head-to-head edge over Federer was pegged back last year as the Swiss won all three of their matches. That, coupled with his win in their 2015 match in Basel, has helped him to achieve something closer to parity in a head-to-head that now reads 23-15. Federer’s willingness to step into and hit over his one-handed backhand, particularly on the return of serve, was a vital element in his resurgence and led him to victories, not only against Nadal, but the whole Tour.

But the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry has reached different heights. Like any two champions, they bring out the best in each other. Djokovic reached a level against Nadal that has arguably never been matched with the 2012 Australian Open final, which finished just seven minutes short of six hours their standout contest. It was also the third consecutive Grand Slam final in which Djokovic had triumphed over Nadal after victories in 2011 at Wimbledon and the US Open. 

Between them, they won nine consecutive Grand Slams between them from 2010 to 2012 and have faced off 52 times, more than any other two male players. And their most recent encounter, an instant Wimbledon classic, was another advert for their rivalry. To the unfamiliar viewer, their matches may have the air of two heavyweights probing one another, searching for a weakness in the opponent’s defences so as to land the killer blow.

But more often, they simply stand toe-to-toe from the outset, slugging it out until one of them can carry on no longer. That truth is revealed by the lunging efforts to deny the other a clean winner, the ferocious grunts and roars that echo around tennis’ most famous arenas as they will themselves to one more effort and the sheer exhaustion painted on their faces at the end of every contest. And with many battles perhaps still to come, the greatest chapter in their rivalry could be as yet unwritten.

What next?

For Federer the question has become whether or not he can claim another Major title. Since winning his 20th Grand Slam in Melbourne, the great Swiss has struggled to find his best form. Losses to Thanasi Kokkinakis, Borna Coric and Kevin Anderson have done much to dent the aura he had built over the past two years. And with Djokovic and Nadal peaking, and Alexander Zverev perhaps close to Grand Slam success, it is possible that Federer’s Grand Slam winning days are over.

But can anybody match his tally? Djokovic has an outside chance, with 13 Grand Slam titles. But Nadal, just three behind is perhaps a more likely challenger. At Wimbledon this year, he was more willing to step inside the baseline to return second serves, and if his backhand and down the line forehand are humming like they were against Djokovic and Del Potro, he looks capable of winning Slams on any surface, though Federer and Djokovic will still present formidable obstacles. 

The reality is that anything is possible, so often they have achieved the impossible and prevailed against all the odds. Their rivalry, their sustained dominance, their majesty, will surely be remembered for as long as people are still picking up tennis racquets. And, astonishingly, they haven’t finished yet.