When Dominic Thiem defeated Alexander Zverev in last year’s US Open final, it was seen by some as a pivotal moment for men’s tennis and a sign that the dominance by the legendary “Big Three” of Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic could be coming to an end.
Based on all the evidence since, normal service has very much been resumed and hopes of further new names being added to the list of grand slam winners are once again on hold, with Rafa Nadal earning a 13th title at last Autumn’s delayed staging of the 2020 French Open and Novak Djokovic claiming both major titles handed out during the first half of 2021.
Djokovic made most of the headlines after yesterday’s win over Stefanos Tsitsipas edged him to within one major title of equalling the record of 20 grand slams – held jointly by Nadal and Federer. It seems unthinkable that Djokovic won’t match that tally sooner rather than later, but the other two members of the thrree-way rivalry still look every bit as capable of also adding to their impressive collection of majors.
Federer, who will turn 40 in August, withdrew from the tournament ahead of a 4th round match against Matteo Berrettini in order to protect a knee on which he has spent much of the past year in rehabilitation following surgery. The decision followed a gruelling three-and-a-half-hour match against Dominik Koepfer, with Marin Cilic also among the players beaten by Federer in only his second entry to Roland Garros since 2015.
The Swiss star was taking no risks ahead of Wimbledon, where he’ll be looking to win a 9th title – a feat which is not unrealistic as long as injury concerns don’t arise.
Nadal might have missed out on a 14th French Open win, but it wouldn’t have taken more than a few key points to have gone the other way for him to have been the victor in his epic semi final against Djokovic. And although Nadal’s success is predominantly associated with clay, it’s worth highlighting the fact that he has played in 15 grand slam finals on other surfaces – winning seven, which is one more than Boris Becker achieved in total.
16 of the last 17 grand slams have been won by the big three, and even the one exception – Thiem’s US Open victory – couldn’t have been used to herald the start of a new generation of champions. Due to the risks associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, both Federer and Nadal opted not to compete. Djokovic, meanwhile, was disqualified before the end of the first set of his 4th round match, which was heading towards a tie break at the time the decision was made. So none of the big three lost, which means that the last time all three players were beaten at the same grand slam event was June 2015.
The pendulum has certainly not shifted yet, but in Stefanos Tsitsipas, there appears to be a man who could play a big part in ending the dominance of the older stars.
Tsitsipas made history in becoming the first Greek to reach a mens grand slam final, and at the age of 22, there is time on the side of a player who has already lifted the ATP Finals title. With wins over Federer and Nadal already in best-of-5-set matches, Tsitsipas would have achieved a rare treble of major scalps at grand slam events had he been able to get over the line in the final after building up a two-set lead.
But the short term will continue to see Djokovic et al set the standard that others must aim for. And for as long as the level of tennis served up at Roland Garros is still being produced, there ought to be no complaints.