There they were again at Roland Garros, claiming three of the four semifinal slots, making their presence known once more to the delight of their loyal followers, turning the French Open into another showcase for their longstanding excellence. The Big 3—Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer—were all front and center, with the redoubtable Spaniard taking the title for the 12th time, while the Serbian and the Swiss bowed out in the penultimate round. And so this prodigious trio has now collectively won the last ten majors. Moreover, since Federer first ruled on the lawns at the All England Club sixteen years ago, they have secured 53 of the 64 Grand Slam tournaments played. Only seven other players in that span have been victorious on a “Big Four” stage, with Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka establishing themselves as the lone multiple victors in that group with three majors apiece.
The utter domination of the Big 3 is the reason so many of us are eagerly anticipating the upcoming fortnight at Wimbledon. Federer remains in the lead for most career men’s majors with 20 titles, Nadal is only two behind the Swiss at 18, and Djokovic trails the Spaniard by three with his 15 crowns. All three members of this illustrious trio will be in the thick of things on the British grass, and it will be fascinating to watch them as they fight not simply for another prestigious title but also a larger slice of history.
Clearly, Nadal gave himself a substantial boost with his latest triumphant run at Roland Garros. After he had beaten Dominic Thiem in the final, he was asked the inevitable questions about his plans and preparation for Wimbledon. He spoke about the last couple of years at the shrine of the sport when he was beaten 15-13 in the fifth set by Gilles Muller in the 2017 round of 16, and ousted 10-8 in the fifth by Djokovic in the semifinals a year ago. Nadal believed correctly that he was only an eyelash away from the quarters two years ago, and a whisker shy of the final in 2018.
The Spaniard is certain he could have gone very far in 2017, and confident he would have won the tournament the last time around when he had Djokovic on the ropes a few times in the final set, most notably when the Serbian precariously served at 7-7, 15-40. Undoubtedly, if Nadal had carved out a narrow triumph in that penultimate round duel with Djokovic, he would have toppled Kevin Anderson in the final. Anderson, of course, had toiled for six hours and 36 minutes before overcoming John Isner in his semifinal. Djokovic handled Anderson comfortably in straight sets, and Nadal would almost certainly have won just as easily.
There is good reason for Nadal to be very encouraged about his recent performances at Wimbledon, where he took an even more aggressive posture than he does on the clay in Paris. He stayed up on the baseline, adjusted his return of serve positioning, and flattened out his forehand often. Coming off French Open triumphs in both 2017 and 2018, his transition to the grass was highly impressive. He realizes now that, unlike the old days, he does not need any tournament preparation on that surface. But the fact remains that Nadal has not won Wimbledon since 2010, when he garnered his second title.
As for Djokovic, I am not subscribing to the notion that he will be deflated by his 26-match winning streak at the majors coming to an end against Thiem in Paris. That was a setback to be sure. Djokovic was deeply aggravated by playing his semifinal with the Austrian in such abysmal conditions. The wind was blowing so ferociously that no one could have performed even close to peak efficiency, especially over the first two sets (and slightly beyond) on Friday, where wind remained a large burden on the second day of that five set semifinal.
Through it all, Djokovic was out of sorts and sometimes unlucky. Had he been as mentally tough as he could be when he is at his best, Djokovic would have found a way to move past Thiem. He thus deprived himself of a chance to meet history head-on against Nadal. And yet, he will surely be highly motivated to defend his title in London. Djokovic has won three of the past five Wimbledon’s, and losing a heartbreaker at Roland Garros will only make him more determined to shine again at a major he has come to cherish perhaps more than any other.
That is surely the way Federer feels. His reverence for the history of the game, his undeniable sense of tradition, and his appreciation for everything that Wimbledon represents are things that always drive the Swiss to bring out his best on the London lawns. Moreover, his game is a perfect fit for grass-court tennis. He loves the low bounces, enjoys attacking to his heart’s content whenever he can, and his serve—among the five best in the history of the sport—is even harder to break on grass.
Federer is the quintessential grass-court player of the current generation, able to transition to the net with ease and acumen, capable of serving his way through long contests with no hesitation, ready to stamp his authority over most of the field in decisive fashion. He has won a men’s record of eight titles on the fabled Centre Court, most recently two years ago. Last year, he let a commendable Anderson off the hook in the quarterfinals after leading two sets to love, and holding a match point in the third set. Federer improbably lost that match 13-11 in the fifth.
With the memory of that disappointment in the forefront of his mind, Federer will be awfully eager this time around to put himself in a position to win the title again. There are not that many players in the field who resemble Anderson or Isner, a pair of stupendous servers with the potential to explosively upend the favorites on given afternoons. They are few and far between, and the surface these days is not as advantageous to the big servers as it once was. The grass at Wimbledon is similar to a hard court in some ways, especially during the second week. That only enhances the chances of the Big 3 to be around for the last couple of rounds.
What makes this year so enticing at Wimbledon is that an excellent case can be made for each of these three standouts to succeed. Let’s start with Nadal. The view here is that he is long overdue to win the tournament again. It is too easily forgotten that from 2006-2011– when he played all but one year (2009)—Nadal was nothing less than a finalist all five times he appeared. He lost to Federer in 2006 and 2007, surpassed the Swiss in a titanic five set clash in 2008, was victorious again in 2010, and was runner-up to Djokovic in 2011.
To be sure, he suffered some setbacks against big hitters and big servers thereafter. From 2012-2015, he did not make it past the fourth round, and thrice fell in the first two rounds.
Yet there were extenuating circumstances, issues with his knees, periods when he was not physically capable of displaying his finest tennis. This year should be different, and his sparkling showing in that gripping semifinal with Djokovic a year ago will only fuel him this year.
As for Djokovic, he loves the setting in S.W. 19. He has a wide range of attributes on the grass—speed, precision, a highly underrated first serve, and the game’s standout return of serve. All of those attributes make him an extraordinary grass-court player. He has grown immeasurably as a competitor in these surroundings, and his surface to surface adaptability is second to none in his profession. Djokovic should have plenty of time to hone his skills over the next few weeks, and thus approach Wimbledon with a quiet sense of conviction and unwavering pride.
That is true as well with Federer. The intriguing part of the equation this year for him is whether or not competing in three clay-court tournaments and reaching the semifinals at Roland Garros will shape what he does on the grass. It was surely wise for him to stay off of the clay entirely in 2017 and 2018. But was it a smart decision to alter that pattern and return to the dirt this year?
Apparently it was. There is every indication that Federer knew exactly what he was doing. He did not want to risk back or knee injuries when he stayed away from the clay, but he approached it all very carefully this season. Defaulting his quarterfinal in Rome against Stefanos Tsitsipas after playing two matches the previous day was a good move. At Roland Garros, his schedule was favorable. It looks entirely possible that he will be in peak physical condition for Wimbledon this year.
So there you have it. Nadal is driven by the inner belief that he is ready to play his best brand of tennis and give everything he has to come away with a third title. Good fortune was not on his side last year, but he knows it could be different in 2019.
Djokovic is still the man to beat on the grass as he strives for a fifth title in London. He fully expects to take his game back to its heights across those first two weeks of July, and believes that his best will beat anyone in the field. His priorities have changed significantly, and now it is fundamentally about the majors for the world No. 1.
Federer will be primed for Wimbledon, the major where he has always done his best work on a surface that is tailor made for his game. His chief concern must be to avoid strenuous five-set confrontations, but is well aware of that.
I fully believe that one of these icons will be smiling widely on July 14 when the final has concluded and the trophy is about to be presented. This is not to underestimate players of immense capabilities like Tsitsipas or Alexander Zverev, the two top candidates to take the title outside the Big 3. But the way I envision it, Djokovic, Federer or Nadal will be the last man standing on the Centre Court. If I had to pick one member of that towering trio who will ultimately prevail, it would be Novak Djokovic.