The era of the Big Three for men tennis is almost finished.
But will the domination of three be replaced by the domination of one?
Novak Djokovic, after all, is only 34 years old. It was old in tennis, but doesn’t seem to be anymore. Superior training, nutrition and technology have combined to make the 30 the new 20 in the sport and Djokovic the elastic man seems built to run smoothly and efficiently for some time to come.
With fellow Big Three compatriots Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal seemingly in the final stages of their greatness, Djokovic still has a long way to go and seems almost certain to overtake them both as the greatest of all time as measured by the grand slam wins.
He’s now 19 after Sunday’s remarkable triumph over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the shadow of Roland Garros, a spectacular performance that came 48 hours after he rallied to defeat the Clay King Nadal, ending his streak of 35 consecutive wins at the French Open.
Nadal and Federer both have 20 grand slam singles championships. Federer, unable to stay healthy enough to compete at the highest level now at the age of 39, looks likely to make his final charge in a major title next month at Wimbledon. Nadal has just turned 35, but the way he withered as he ceded his Roland Garros crown to Djokovic on Friday strongly suggested that his unbeaten clay court was finally over. Nadal’s 13 victories at Roland Garros represent the heart of his heritage.
The Serbian superstar now has a chance – with fans filling tennis stadiums again after the sport was partially shut down by the pandemic – not only to overtake Federer and Nadal, but to do so this year and record two historic achievements.
If he can win Wimbledon, which he has done five times, and the US Open, which he has done three times, he will have 21 major titles and be the first man since Rod Laver 52 years ago to win. the elusive Grand Slam. That’s all big four – the Australian, US and French opens, and Wimbledon – in a calendar year. The last player of both sexes to do so was Steffi Graf in 1988.
That sets a pretty dramatic tone for the rest of the year in men’s tennis, doesn’t it?
By beating Tsitsipas in Paris, Djokovic became the first man of the “open” era to win each of the four majors at least twice. It was not easy. He yielded the first two sets to his 22-year-old opponent, who was trying to become the first Greek player to win a Grand Slam tournament.
Tsitsipas was a semi-finalist at this year’s Aussie Open, won by Djokovic, and looked like he was set to make history himself. But he couldn’t keep his head against the Serbian, who started to gain control in the third set, dominated the fourth and hung on to keep serve and win 6-7 (6), 2- 6, 6-3, 6- 2, 6-4.
Djokovic had to overcome the lingering fatigue of his fight with Nadal in the semifinals, a younger opponent, a straight-set deficit and an audience that weren’t exactly against him, but were clearly more enthusiastic on Tsitsipas’s side. There have been very few new developments in men’s tennis for a long time and Tsitsipas, had he held on, would have joined Austria’s Dominic Thiem as the second non-Big Three player to win in the last three Grand tournaments. Slam.
But Tsitsipas let it slip away, or had it pulled up. In the end, it was less about strategy and technical superiority and more about courage and endurance, as tennis matches that last longer than four hours usually are. Tsitsipas played very well and was a threat until the final ball was touched. But when it was, and when the two men met wearily at the net, it was Tsitsipas who conceded the defeat and Djokovic who prepared his clash with history.
He will never, it seems, be as popular as Federer or Nadal. He is Roger Maris and they are Babe Ruth. Why? Well, tennis fans have their loyalty, and the personalities of these players make them considered two of the greatest sportsmen of all time, in all sports.
Djokovic has had more controversial times, such as last year at the US Open when he was sent off for slamming a ball in frustration and inadvertently hitting an official in the throat. In Melbourne this year, he was summoned for issuing a list of demands to local health authorities on behalf of tennis players forced into a difficult quarantine situation. Australian player Nick Kyrgios called Djokovic a “tool”.
But none of this slowed down the Djokovic locomotive for very long. If he can win in London and New York this year, he will surpass Nadal and Federer and duplicate Laver’s feat, and they are three of the most beloved figures in tennis history.
Many fans won’t want to see any of this happen. But Djokovic, world No. 1 during the terrible days of COVID-19, now seems truly unstoppable, with his ascension to the throne of the greatest male tennis player of all time inevitable.
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