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Life after the Big 3: Plenty of styles in the mix
With Roger Federer retired and Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic both having injury concerns, the Australian Open has offered a look at life after the Big 3.
Published Jan 22, 2023
WATCH: Rafael Nadal's second-round defeat to Mackenzie McDonald was marred by a hip injury.
We all know that the last 20 years have been a captivating time in the history of men’s tennis. Starting with Roger Federer’s first Slam singles run at Wimbledon in 2003, onto the ascent of Rafael Nadal two years later, then the emergence of Novak Djokovic in 2008, it’s been incredibly engaging to repeatedly witness these three champions.
Confession: I’ve never been a fan of the term “Golden Era” to describe the years of Big 3 dominance. The implication of that term irks me in two directions – past and future. There’s no need here to rattle off the names of so many great players that thrilled tennis fans prior to 2003. As far as the future goes, no doubt we all know at least one person who can’t imagine if it will be possible to enjoy watching tennis once each member of the Big 3 is gone.
Which is exactly the point: We can’t imagine. Of course. We can’t. Why even try? When I first started watching tennis in the early ‘70s, the era of Australian dominance – often called “The Golden Era” Down Under – was nearing its end. What would life be like once Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, and John Newcombe were gone? A decade later, when I began to cover tennis, the same question surfaced around Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe. As the 21st century began, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi neared the end. Handwringing ensued. Imagine? Was someone going to concoct laboratories based in Switzerland, Spain and Serbia and create three geniuses?
Now it’s 2023. Federer has retired. Nadal is once again struggling with an injury, triggering all sorts of speculation about when he’ll end his career (or win Roland Garros another six times to earn a tidy 20 titles there). Djokovic remains healthy and will likely contend for several more years.
Certainly, it’s been great to watch Djokovic return to Australia, in hopes of winning the title there for an incredible tenth time. Despite being hindered by a hamstring injury, he’s been as effective as ever.
But recent times have also offered an appetizing glimpse at life without the Big 3. The gap of Djokovic’s absence from the US Open was filled easily and swiftly, a pleasing emergence of charisma and variety. At the head of the class, Carlos Alcaraz, a stylist with the wide range of shots, savvy and poise rarely seen in a teenager, much less one who went on to win a major. There was also Frances Tiafoe, taking his versatile mix of power, speed and touch to new heights.
Many others too are playing in ways bold, exciting and contrasting. Taylor Fritz has an engaging mix of power and movement. Ditto for the dashing Holger Rune, as well as the increasingly improving Felix Auger-Aliassime and his compatriot, left-handed Denis Shapovalov. Despite some hiccups in 2022, Stefanos Tsitsipas is unquestionably an electric stylist. Daniil Medvedev remains an intriguing tactician, as does another southpaw, Cameron Norrie. Hubert Hurkacz shows how it’s possible to charge the net frequently. Casper Ruud, Andrey Rublev, Jannik Sinner, Matteo Berrettini and Alexander Zverev personify contemporary power baseline tennis, albeit each does this in his own distinct way. And then toss into the mix Top 20-newcomer Lorenzo Musetti, armed with one of the slickest backhands of recent times.
For those who follow tennis with an American flag in hand, you should be pleased to see several rising stars, none older than 25, all in the Top 100, each with his own set of superpowers. Besides Fritz, there is the silky-smooth Sebastian Korda, versatile Tommy Paul, court-savvy Jenson Brooksby, volley-based Maxime Cressy, airtight Brandon Nakashima, aggressive J.J. Wolf, lefty net-rusher Ben Shelton. Reilly Opelka, the self-proclaimed “servebot” with plenty of feel, has been injured but should soon enough also be in the thick of things.
Yes, a great deal of the credit for this goes to the Big 3 and their ability to redefine the length and scope of a playing career. Besides their own tremendous set of skills, several factors also played a role in this happening. Increases in prize money gave players the chance to afford deeper and bigger support teams. The homogenization of playing surfaces made it easier to dominate more thoroughly from one major to another, and the 2001 introduction of 32 seeds at the majors reduced the possibility of early-round difficulties.
But the Big 3's continual pursuit of greatness also compelled each of them to enhance their already considerable arsenals – that is, to make greatness not just greater, but broader. Federer embraced the drop shot and altered his backhand, technically and tactically. Nadal refined his serve and grew comfortable in the front part of the court. Djokovic has continually upgraded his forehand, serve, and volley game. These three were already fantastic at posing questions for their opponents. Amid the natural demands of competition, as the years went on, they asked even more.
As the players of today witnessed such epic brilliance in their own development stages, they naturally had to generate answers to those many questions. What kind of backhand was it going to take to hang with Nadal’s crosscourt forehand? How did you learn to serve effectively with a returner like Djokovic at the top of the game? How could you handle Federer’s nasty slice? Hence, the flourishing of many shots, tactics, and styles.
Will any of the current flock of contenders win five, 10, or even 20 majors? My counter: Why do some fans wish to see dominance? Have the Big 3 enhanced, altered, or even poisoned our expectations of what constitutes a satisfying tennis-viewing experience? Does an appetite to witness such greatness have more to do with box office allure or an appreciation of tennis excellence? Who knows what’s to come? But this is becoming quite clear: We are headed into a rich era of stylistic diversity. Of course, I’ll miss the Big 3. But not always. Tennis will always have plenty of gold.