It was a rare moment of tennis kumbaya.

“I have to pay a tribute to Rafa and Roger, they are legends of our sport,” Novak Djokovic told the Centre Court crowd after beating Matteo Berrettini in the Wimbledon final on Sunday, and tying those two legends, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, with 20 Grand Slam titles.

“They are the reason I am where I am today,” Djokovic continued. “They’ve helped me realize what I need to do in order to get stronger mentally and physically.”

“Where Djokovic is today” is a place few other male tennis players have been. With his win over Berrettini, he became the first man to win the opening three legs of the calendar-year Grand Slam since that other GOAT, Rod Laver, did it in 1969. And even at 34, Djokovic is still putting more distance between himself and the rest of the ATP pack. This year he has faced three younger, next-generation opponents in the finals of the three Slams—Daniil Medvedev at the Australian Open, Stefanos Tsitsipas at Roland Garros, and Berrettini at Wimbledon—and has turned them all back.

Maybe most impressive is the way Djokovic beat his younger opponent today. Weapons-wise, he showed that he’s still refining his game after 16 years on tour. Speed-wise, he showed that he hasn’t lost even half a step during that time.


Djokovic won this match in large part at the net, a place where he hasn’t historically been comfortable. He was 34 of 48 there, and when it came to saving two crucial break points at 3-2 in the third set, he did it by charging forward and forcing passing-shot errors from Berrettini. When it came time to close out the match in the fourth set, Djokovic began by sprinting across the court to track down a Berrettini drop shot, flicking a winning forehand pass, and cupping his hand to his ear. It’s hard to imagine that a 22-year-old Djokovic could have run any faster for that ball.

Djokovic may not have been the favorite of most fans in Centre Court today, but he was in his element—“I can’t hear you,” he told a group of his fans after one winner. After so many of years of dealing with less-than-supportive crowds, he knows how to find inspiration anyway and anywhere he can.

“The more you play the big matches, the more experience you have,” Djokovic said. “The more experience you have, the more you believe in yourself. The more you win, the more confident you are. It’s all connected.

“Obviously it’s all coming together. I feel like in the last couple of years for me age is just a number. I don’t feel that I’m old or anything like that…I feel like I’m probably the most complete that I’ve been as a player right now in my entire career.”

This moment belongs to Djokovic. He’s only tied with Federer and Nadal in the major-title race right now, but he seems to be on the verge of taking the lead for good. It’s highly unlikely Federer will win any more majors; he may not even play any more. Nadal will always be a favorite at Roland Garros, and will always be in the running at the US Open, but he hasn’t won at the Australian Open or Wimbledon in a decade. If Djokovic were to complete the calendar-year Grand Slam, he would not only do something neither Federer nor Nadal have done, but he would make Laver’s 1969 Slam less of a one-of-a-kind achievement.


Before we get to the future, though, let me take this chance to join the kumbaya and pay tribute to the Big 3, at a moment when they’re all members of the 20/20/20 club, and all on equal terms for the first time in their careers. The three have been dominating for so long, some perspective on their uniqueness may be in order.

It wasn’t long ago that the thought of a male player getting to 20 Slams sounded like science fiction. When Federer won his 14th and tied Pete Sampras, Brad Gilbert half-jokingly speculated that he could get to 20, but I don’t think even he took the idea seriously. Now we have three men, who have all played in the same era, with 20. Closest among active players are Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka with three. Among players under 30, only Dominic Thiem has any Slams at all. The Big 3’s records are going to stand for at least a generation, if not for 50 years.


Beyond the numbers, though, Federer, Djojovic, and Nadal have changed our expectations of what’s possible in tennis. The great male players before them—Sampras, Agassi, Edberg, Becker, Lendl, McEnroe—all took bad losses, all went out early at majors sometimes, and all struggled to adjust to different surfaces.

When the Big 3 came up, I noticed that their fans essentially expected them to win all the time. They were stunned and devastated by any defeat, as if something had to be physically wrong for them to lose, or something had to be wrong with the universe that day. I would try to tell them that even great players lose all the time, that there isn’t much that separates the No. 1 player in the world from the No. 50 player in the world, and that anyone can beat anyone else on a given day. That was the nature of tennis.

Eventually I had to admit that I was wrong about Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, and their fans were right. Those old, you-can’t-win-‘em-all rules didn’t apply to them. The Big 3 really could win them all. They could win all of the majors. They could win on every surface without changing their games that much. They could, in Federer's case, reach 23 straight Grand Slam semifinals, more than doubling the previous record. They could, in Nadal’s case, win 13 titles at Roland Garros, more than doubling the previous record. They could, in Djokovic’s case, win all of the Slams and all of the Masters 1000s twice, something no one else has come close to doing. They could, in all three of their cases, continue to win majors and reach No. 1 well into their 30s.


Obviously it’s all coming together. I feel like in the last couple of years for me age is just a number. I don’t feel that I’m old or anything like that…I feel like I’m probably the most complete that I’ve been as a player right now in my entire career. Novak Djokovic

Were they able to accomplish these things because tennis had changed somehow? Looking at the trials and travails of the Next Gen, the answer seems to be no. Medvedev, Tsitsipas, Berrettini, Thiem, Alexander Zverev and others in their cohort struggle with the same ups and downs, the same surprising losses, the same off days, the same difficulties going from one surface to another that the players before the Big 3 did. Federer, Djokovic and Nadal were better than the guys before them, and so far they’re better than the players who have followed them.

“The last 10 years has been an incredible journey that is not stopping here,” Djokovic said, referring to all of the Big 3.

One reason Djokovic at 34 can confidently say it’s not stopping for him is that Roger and Rafa have proven that you can keep competing at the highest level well past that age. Djokovic says they’re the reason he is where he is today—that is, among the greatest players of all time. When he finally retires, he may say they’re the reason he ended up standing alone.


WATCH—Djokovic makes history at Wimbledon: