The Incomparable “Big Three” Are Poised to Make More History - UBITENNIS
Connect with us

Focus

The Incomparable “Big Three” Are Poised to Make More History

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have been battling mightily for many years to claim the game’s top prizes, and yet they all remain highly motivated. What they have already achieved by winning 58 majors collectively is amazing, but these three magnificent players are still at the forefront of the sport. This piece examines how they have established themselves as the all time leaders among the men at the majors, but also projects the way their gripping race through history at the Grand Slam events might end

Avatar

Published

on

We are glad to announce that Steve Flink, the 2017 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee and long-time tennis insider, has joined the Ubitennis team. He will be writing two monthly long-form features on some of the most relevant topics in world tennis, starting today with a prediction on who will end up winning the most Slam titles among Djokovic, Federer and Nadal.

 

The greatest players in the game of tennis set themselves apart with their supreme craftsmanship, extraordinary artistry and astonishing match playing acumen. They are superior athletes, top of the line competitors and outstanding individuals who know how to achieve with the force of their wills, the strength of their minds and the depth of their commitment. They are better than anyone else because they find the taste of defeat intolerable and they can handle almost unbearable pressure with both equanimity and creativity.

Enter Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, a trio of icons who have thoroughly captured the imagination of the sporting public collectively for nearly two decades, comprehensively dominating the sport with their enduring exploits as commendably as it can be done. Think of it: Federer and Nadal now stand together at the top of the men’s list for most major singles titles won with 20 each, while Djokovic is only narrowly behind his two chief rivals with 18. Federer is 39 years old, Nadal 34, and Djokovic 33, but it hardly seems to matter; all three are impenetrable and, in many ways, ageless. They have battled ferociously against “Father Time”, and still remain the pace setters of the sport at the biggest tournaments.

After Djokovic recently secured his ninth Australian Open title to close the gap between himself and his renowned Swiss and Spanish rivals, sports fans everywhere across the globe started focussing with renewed vigor on the fascinating race for historical supremacy at the uniquely prestigious Grand Slam events among these towering performers. It made all of us reexamine the race, project what might be coming, and look at who will eventually stand atop the tennis mountain when all is said and done.

But before offering my prognosis on how this will all play out, let me reflect on what has transpired over the years that has brought us to this juncture. The past is not entirely prologue, but it is well worth considering in determining what the future might hold for this incomparable trio.

By the end of 2005—when Djokovic was already No. 83 in the world but still only 18 and not yet an authentic contender for majors—Federer had already collected six Grand Slam titles. He had taken his first major at Wimbledon in 2003, adding three of the premier crowns in 2004, and then capturing two more in 2005. That was the year when Nadal at 19 claimed his first major at Roland Garros, and so, even though he was five titles behind his Swiss rival, the dynamic Spanish left-hander was officially on the board and in the chase.

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, French Open 2005
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (Photo Credit: Live Tennis)

Three years later, at the end of 2008, Federer had widened his lead over Nadal. He now owned 13 major crowns, while Nadal had lifted his total to five yet trailed Federer by an even wider margin than was the case only a few years earlier. Nonetheless, after taking his fourth title at Roland Garros that year, Nadal at last succeeded somewhere else at the Grand Slam Championships, toppling Federer on the lawns of the All England Club in an epic 2008 final to take the world’s premier title at Wimbledon for the first time.

That was surely a pivotal moment not only in the Nadal-Federer rivalry, but also within the realm of the sport. Federer had won Wimbledon five years in a row up until then, but Nadal had overcome the world’s best grass court player on his favorite turf. Meanwhile, Djokovic made his mark during that 2008 season in Melbourne, taking his first title at the Australian Open, claiming his maiden major in the process. That, too, was a landmark moment in tennis history, and clearly a sign of things to come for the charismatic Serbian.

Let’s move on to the end of 2011, when Djokovic celebrated a spectacular season which included triumphs at three of the four Grand Slam events. He had commenced that campaign magnificently, sweeping 41 matches in a row before Federer upended him in the semifinals at Roland Garros.

With that groundbreaking 2011 season, Djokovic now had four Grand Slam titles in his collection but Federer and Nadal stood far above him with 16 and 10 respectively. Remarkably, in 2009, Federer had broken Pete Sampras’s record of 14 men’s majors with his sixth Wimbledon title run. But Federer won only one major in 2010 and none at all in 2011. Nadal picked up five in a three year span to finish 2011 closer to Federer but still well behind the Swiss. And yet, both Federer and Nadal knew that Djokovic was now unmistakably and irrevocably in the hunt. It was still inconceivable then that Djokovic could ever catch up with Federer, but astute followers of the game knew that Djokovic was just beginning to explore his full potential.

Sep 13, 2015; New York, NY, USA; Novak Djokovic of Serbia greets Roger Federer of Switzerland before the Men’s Singles Final on day fourteen of the 2015 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The fact remained that Djokovic picked up only three more majors from 2012-2014—less than many astute observers anticipated. Nadal amassed four majors across that three year period, while Federer took just one Grand Slam title in that span—Wimbledon in 2012. And so the count stood this way when the curtain closed on 2014:  Federer 17, Nadal 14, and Djokovic 7. 

Consider where things stood at the end of 2017. That season Federer and Nadal divided the four majors while Djokovic had a difficult season. In 2015 and on into 2016, Djokovic had established himself as the first man to win four majors in a row since Rod Laver won his second Grand Slam in 1969. He won three majors in 2015 and two more in 2016 but then suffered with elbow issues in 2017 and was unable to add to his collection. By the time 2017 ended, Federer had climbed to 19, Nadal had amassed 16 and Djokovic held 12 of the big prizes. The cognoscenti of tennis was fixated on the race between Federer and Nadal. They were a pair of revitalized competitors who were climbing regally through history, but well aware that Djokovic was making inroads.

Nevertheless, since Nadal is five years younger than Federer, there was a growing feeling that he was the man who might eventually equal or surpass Federer at the majors. Djokovic was struggling physically. Most authorities believed that the Serbian was destined to conclude his career in third place on the all time list, likely to pass Sampras eventually yet a long shot to overcome Federer and Nadal.

But look at what has happened since. Djokovic had surgery on the elbow, but by the middle of 2018 he was once more at the top of his game and back in the flow of winning when it mattered the most. He secured the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles in 2018, added two more majors in 2019, and has now been victorious at the last three Australian Open Championships.

He has been the champion at six of the last ten majors, raising his total of career Grand Slam titles to 18. Nadal, meanwhile, tied Federer at 20 last autumn with his 13th French Open triumph. The Spaniard’s consistency—most prominently at Roland Garros—has been his greatest virtue. He set a men’s record by securing at least one major for ten years in succession (2005-2014). In 14 of the previous 16 seasons, from 2005-2020, he took one or more majors. He has earned his place right alongside Federer at the top of the list. The Swiss Maestro, however, has been out of circulation at the majors since he lost to Djokovic in the semifinals of the 2020 Australian Open. Prior to that, he had two match points in the 2019 Wimbledon final before falling short against Djokovic in a blockbuster, bowing gallantly in a fifth set tie-break played at 12-12. He had missed out on a golden opportunity to oust both Nadal and Djokovic in the same Grand Slam tournament, a feat he has never realized.

Federer will return soon in Doha after more than a year away from the game following two knee surgeries. He must never be underestimated. In 2017, he returned from another knee surgery and, after six months away from the game, stunned Nadal in the final of the Australian Open, spectacularly winning five games in a row from 1-3 in the fifth set to seal the crown. Later that year, he won his eighth Wimbledon title to set a men’s record and then, at the start of 2018, defended his Australian Open crown.

That was Federer’s third triumph in his last four Grand Slam tournaments (he skipped the 2017 French Open) and the Swiss was on a glorious run. But now he faces the reality of turning 40 in August and coming back after a long hiatus. He might well bypass Roland Garros again and pour all of his energy and inspiration into winning Wimbledon for the ninth time and thus secure a 21st major.

As the most natural grass court player in the world and a champion utterly determined to flourish once more when it counts the most, Federer must be taken seriously in London. And that could be his last best chance to prevail at a major tennis tournament. I would not put it past him to win this year on the Wimbledon lawns.

And yet, as prodigious as he remains, the odds are against Federer winning any more majors. But that is not the case, of course, with both Nadal and Djokovic.

Rafa Nadal e Novak Djokovic – Roland Garros 2020 (via Twitter, @rolandgarros)

The Spaniard will be a huge favorite in June to win Roland Garros for the fifth year in a row and the 14th time overall. He would then move ahead of Federer for the first time and lengthen his career lead over Djokovic at the four majors to three titles. Djokovic has worked inordinately hard to move within two titles of his premier rivals, and a Nadal victory in Paris (which I fully expect) would put an added burden on Djokovic at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Djokovic would sorely need to win at least one of those two tournaments. Prevailing at both will be difficult, but not impossible. He has won five Wimbledon titles altogether, including the last two times he played there in 2018 and 2019. At the U.S. Open, Djokovic has not exploited his opportunities nearly as well, losing five of his eight finals in New York.

My prediction is for Djokovic to win one more major this year at Wimbledon, and thus remain two behind Nadal. He would then be only one behind Federer in this compelling historical chase. In my view, Nadal will conclude the 2021 campaign with 21 majors and Djokovic will stand at 19.

What happens then? To be sure, 2022 will be crucial for both the Spaniard and the Serbian. I believe Djokovic has a very good chance to take his tenth Australian Open title, and will once more make a big push at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The view here is that he will capture two majors (the Australian and U.S. Opens) during the 2022 season. The question is this: will Nadal win a 15th French Open? If he does, (and I say he will) the two great players would be separated by one major title heading into 2023 as Nadal gets to 22 and Djokovic makes it to 21 next year.

The view here is that 2023 could well be the last big year for both superstars. Nadal will turn 37 in June of that year; Djokovic reaches 36 in May. They must make the most of their openings. I am guessing that Nadal will finally lose again at Roland Garros and that he will not win any of the “Big Four” titles in 2023. Djokovic, however, will find a way to secure two more majors at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. That would be a tall order for the Serbian, but I believe he can realize that feat.

So there you have it. Djokovic will conclude his career with 23 majors and Nadal will settle for 22. Federer should remain at 20. Would that resolve, once and for all, the G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time) debate? Not necessarily. First of all, neither Rod Laver nor Pete Sampras can be overlooked in that debate. Laver won two Grand Slams, achieving that feat in 1962 and 1969. Sampras spent a record six consecutive years at No. 1 (1993-98) in the world and competed in an era when there was a greater diversity of playing styles in the upper regions of the sport, and yet he won 14 of 18 finals at the Grand Slam events. In my view, Sampras at his best indoors and on hard and grass courts is a better player than anyone who has ever lifted a racket.

Can we judge Federer, Nadal and Djokovic solely on their numbers at the major tournaments? The answer, emphatically, is no. Djokovic currently holds a 29-27 career head to head lead over Nadal and has a 27-23 record against Federer. Those figures matter. That strengthens the Serbian’s case. A feather in the cap of Federer is his astounding consistency. He has won 103 tournaments overall in his career while Nadal has amassed 86 and Djokovic 82. I doubt either Nadal or Djokovic will ever catch up to Federer. The larger question is: can Federer can move past Jimmy Connors, who owns an Open Era record 109 career titles? I doubt Federer will surpass Connors, but he has an outside chance. Federer once reached 23 consecutive semifinals at the majors (2004-2010) in his prime and made it to at least the quarterfinals in 36 straight majors (2004-2013). That is an unmatched standard of enduring excellence.

Djokovic will break Federer’s record for most weeks at No. 1 in the world next week when he goes to 311, and, if he can finish 2021 at No. 1, he would be the first man ever to end seven years stationed at the top. And what of Nadal? No one has ever dominated so comprehensively on a surface as he has on clay. So only time will tell where these three great men end up on the historical ladder of tennis. Meanwhile, we can all marvel at this trio as they make more history, inspire us with their heroics and wrap up their shining careers.


Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist and writer for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.

Focus

Felix Auger Aliassime wins all Canadian battle with Denis Shapovalov in Barcelona

Avatar

Published

on

Felix Auger-Aliassime (@TennisCanada - Twitter)

The Montreal native needed less than 90 minutes to dispatch his good friend and book a spot in the quarterfinals.

 

Felix Auger Aliassime booked his spot in the quarterfinals of the Open Banc Sabadell in Barcelona beating his fellow Canadian and good friend Denis Shapovalov 6-2, 6-3 in one hour and 20 minutes.

“Against a player like Denis (Shapovalov) is positive, I was able to do a lot of good things out there and hopefully I can keep that form going”

It was the number 10 seed who got off to the best possible start holding his opening service game and earning his first breakpoint of the match with his powerful forehand.

The number seven seed played a bad service game and would get broken after serving a double fault to give his opponent a 2-0 lead. The world number 20 would break once again to take a commanding 5-1 lead and serve for the set but was broken in the process.

The Montreal native would break right back the following game to take the set in a mere 38 minutes after another double fault from the world number 14.

Between the first and second set Shapovalov called for the trainer and took a medical timeout to have work done on his left shoulder. It didn’t seem to change the game that much as like the first set Auger Aliassime would hold serve and get the early break.

At 5-2 the number 10 seed would have two match points on his opponent serve but the number seven seed did a good job saving both. The Montreal native would get a third chance to seal the victory but once again the world number 14 would deny him the opportunity.

He would save one more match point before holding serve and the world number 20 would serve it out. He will next face Stefanos Tsitsipas after he beat Alex De Minaur 7-5 6-3.

After the match Shapovalov told Ubitennis if he thinks his good friend Auger Aliassime has the upper edge on him on clay being that now he has beaten him in both Madrid and Barcelona.

“He was the just the better player today and I need to play more”

After the match in his post match press conference Auger Aliassime told Ubitennis his thoughts of having fans back in the stands this week in Barcelona.

“Little by little we are seeing tournaments having fans again, I think it gives hope that things are coming back to what we used to have and I hear in Madrid they will have fans too, It’s great to have fans again, I had a great time in Australia and Mexico and I’m happy to see faces again in the stands”

Continue Reading

Focus

Rafael Nadal Survives Ivashka Scare In Barcelona

Rafael Nadal moved into the last 16 after surviving a big scare from Ilya Ivashka.

Avatar

Published

on

Rafael Nadal (@WeAreTennis - Twitter)

Rafael Nadal edged out Ilya Ivashka 3-6 6-2 6-4 to reach the third round in Barcelona.

 

The 11-time champion survived a big scare against the Belarusian as he broke on three occasions to reach the last 16.

Nadal will now face the winner of Kei Nishikori and Cristian Garin on Thursday.

It was a slow start from the Spaniard, who was broken straight away as he failed to adapt to the heavier conditions.

However this didn’t effect the world number 111 who went for the high-percentage shots and put Nadal under serious pressure.

Narrowly surviving a double break scare, Nadal eventually found his rhythm and confidence on serve but couldn’t pressurise his opponent on return.

Ivashka’s big hitting and big serving troubled Nadal as he was able to blast winners past the world number three and took advantage of Nadal’s lack of match-play.

Another break in the ninth game sealed the opening set for Ivashka in 53 minutes.

There was more to like about Nadal’s game in the second set though as he played a cleaner set of tennis, mixing his shots up.

Ivashka failed to deal with Nadal’s angles and heavy spin as in this set the Spaniard didn’t miss many shots.

In the end Nadal’s consistency was too much as a break in the opening game and fifth game sealed a comfortable set of tennis.

The final set produced both players playing solidly well throughout the set with Ivashka showing flashes of occasional brilliance as he target the down-the-line shots.

Despite Ivashka’s big-hitting, Nadal did what champions do and wore down the Belarusian before breaking when it mattered most for a 4-3 lead.

Keeping his cool and troubling the world number 111 with his energy and aggressive showcase of tennis, Nadal eventually closed out the match in 2 hours and 21 minutes.

A valiant effort by Ivashka who played some of the best tennis of his career but the king of clay prevailed to set up a third round meeting with either Kei Nishikori or Cristian Garin.

In other results Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev moved into the last 16 with 6-0 6-2 and 6-4 6-3 wins over Jaume Munar and Federico Gaio respectively.

Continue Reading

Editorial

No Questions For Hurkacz: Who Is To blame? Fans Blast Reporters, But Is It Really Them?

Hubert Hurkacz goes to the interview room but nobody is connected. A social media storm ensues, but not many people know how things really work

Avatar

Published

on

Among the funny videos published by Tennis TV last Tuesday on their social media accounts, there is some footage from Hubert Hurkacz’s press conference after his successful debut in Monte Carlo against Italian qualifier Thomas Fabbiano.

 
https://twitter.com/TennisTV/status/1381985240479113226?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1381985240479113226%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_c10&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.ubitennis.com%2Fblog%2F2021%2F04%2F14%2Fnessuna-domanda-per-hurkacz-di-chi-e-la-colpa%2F

No journalist was connected with the press conference (let’s remind everyone that even the few journalists present onsite in Montecarlo are required to use video conferencing to talk to players, due to the ATP’s COVID-19 protocol), nobody asked questions to the Miami Open champion, who was able to fulfill his press obligations in less than a minute recording a vocal message in his native language for the Polish press.

The ATP did not appreciate having to submit the player to a press conference where no questions were asked, especially because it happened twice on the same day: Dusan Lajovic, too, was taken to the interview room after his defeat against Daniel Evans, but no questions were asked.

And it almost happened the same also to Fabio Fognini: at the start of his press conference, only Ubaldo Scanagatta and Alessandro Stella from Ubitennis were connected online. As some of you may know, Fognini does not talk to Ubitennis and has been doing so for several years, but in order to avoid another debacle, the ATP moderator invited Ubaldo to ask a question and Fognini felt compelled to respond.

Of course, social media users were quick to blame the accredited media addressing all sort of insults towards those journalists present in Montecarlo (although very few were actually present at the Country Club, but not many people knew that) who they believed were guilty of snubbing Hurkacz’ press conference, probably because they were not very familiar with press conference procedures.

Before I move on to explain what has happened, just a few words from me: I have not decided to write this piece as a justification for journalists, neither to complain about the problems we face while doing our job. Nobody is forcing me to do what I do, I’m here by choice and I am happy to do what I do, but I would like to explain that sometimes things are not as black-or-white as they may appear at first.

Every media accredited to a tournament is entitled to request an interview with a player on a day when this player is scheduled to compete: the request has to be submitted in writing to the ATP Communication Manager in charge, normally by email, as early as possible during the day. It has to be specified when we want to talk to the player (normally, after their match, or their last match if they play more than one), if we are requesting a one-on-one interview or a press conference for multiple media to attend, and if we want to talk to the player regardless of the result of the match or only if they win.

Evidently, someone had requested to talk to Hurkacz, but then decided not to take part in the press conference. This should not happen, but let’s see how events may have unfolded.

Usually, at the end of the match, an ATP Communication Manager approaches the player, explains to him (or her, in case of WTA tournaments) the requests that have been received and agrees on a time for the media commitments. In case journalists are present on-site, a public announcement is made in the media room about the agreed time for the interview or press conference; since now most reporters are working remotely from home, there is a WhatsApp chat where all the interview times are noted, and a reminder is sent right before the player walks into the interview room.

In this case, no announcement for the time of the interview had been made, and the only message sent on the chat was the one advising that Hurkacz had already arrived in the interview room.

Since last year, all of us who cover tournaments year-round have had to get accustomed to a new way of working, as did many other workers all over the world. While we are present onsite at a tournament, we live and breathe the event, we spend hours and hours in the media room and we are totally absorbed by the tournament. Now that we are watching matches on TV and we work remotely from home, the full immersion effect has gone, and we all need to balance the coverage of tournaments with the tasks of our everyday life. For example, at tournaments journalists can usually avail of a cafeteria to have their meals; at home, I don’t have a cafeteria, if I want to eat, I need to cook my meals myself, and sometimes also go to the supermarket to get groceries. This requires time, and in tournaments where matches start at 11 a.m. and go on until way past midnight (like the Miami Open, for example), this means we sometimes have to find some time to get away from the PC and attend the more mundane tasks of everyday life.

Not receiving any kind of forewarning of when a press conference may take place is incredibly inconvenient, because it does not allow us to plan our work and schedule the breaks to take care of everything else, from doing laundry to walking the dog. Especially because or job is not just attending press conferences, it’s also writing or talking about them, and, from time to time, if possible, watch some tennis matches.

Most certainly whoever had requested the player and then realized they would not be able to attend the press conference, should have contacted one of the ATP Communication Managers to let them know. Maybe there was an emergency and they could not send a message in time, but it’s really good practice to do that. When covering tournaments onsite, we would need to be present “in the flesh” for the interviews we had requested, and if it so happened that we were stuck on a court attending another match, we would normally go out of our way to notify the Communication Managers of our delay. In today’s environment, there may be other mishaps occurring: a sudden call from the boss, a last-minute deadline popping up: this is our job after all.

Some of you may say: but why don’t you take shifts as it happens in many jobs that require extended duty hours? Yes and no. First of all, it’s not that easy to plan shifts not knowing when matches start or end (and interview times are tied to when matches end), with possibly some rain delay thrown into the mix as well. But there are also external problems: not every person in our (virtual) newsroom has access to virtual interviews or to the WhatsApp chat. Tournaments can decide whom to admit at their discretion, and as far as the Rolex Montecarlo Open is concerned, our deputy editor Alessandro Stella, the only representative for Ubitennis in addition to our CEO Ubaldo Scanagatta , was refused accreditation for this year’s tournament because priority had to be given to French or Monaco media.

Ubaldo, who has probably spent as much time at the Monte Carlo Country Club as the custodian, received his confirmation letter just the week before the tournament, and it was only his insistence on being able to delegate some of his staff to attend press conferences that allowed Alessandro Stella to gain access to the virtual interview room. At the beginning of the season, the ITWA (International Tennis Writers Association) requested that generic credentials be given to specific news outlets instead of specific people, in order to allow more flexibility in covering the event, but the request was rejected and referred to the individual tournaments’ discretion.

Therefore, Ubitennis was refused access for lack of space (virtual space, that is), despite the site can boast over 40 million page views a year, it’s comfortably the most important tennis website in Italy (or possibly Europe) and on a “normal” year approximately 35% of spectators for the tournament would come from Italy, to the extent that a launch press conference for the tournament dedicated to Italian media is held each October in Milan. What I am trying to say is that if access is being so constrained, you can’t really complain too much if there aren’t enough people to ask questions at all press conferences, especially during a very busy Tuesday when, due to the rain cancellations on Monday, there were many matches taking place at the same time.

That goes to say that there have certainly been responsibilities on both sides for the mishap at Hurkacz’ (and I’m guessing also Lajovic’s) interview, but maybe there was no need to give so much visibility to a fairly innocuous incident. We are all working in a new environment, we are all adjusting and we can all make mistakes. What is important is that we evaluate those mistakes with the right attitude.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Trending