When you are facing the Big Three—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer—you aren’t just playing them but also fighting against their experience and the crowd, all the time trying to find that invisible chink in their armour. Meanwhile, they always find ways to exploit weaknesses.
This is what happened on Sunday when Djokovic faced Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open final. Medvedev, one of the closest challengers to the Big Three oligopoly, has a complete game, almost. He has a big serve and passing shots, moves quickly, and possesses the physical and mental stamina to go deep. But what he doesn’t have is his forehand wing, which Djokovic exploited. This, in a nutshell, explains why the Big Three are still ruling in men’s tennis well into their thirties. They constantly keep evolving their game.
Consider this: In the women’s game, there have been 12 Major winners born after September 1988. In the men’s? Just one, Dominic Thiem. Even if the next generation—led by Thiem and Medvedev—have made some inroads, the Big Three, in essence, have further solidified their hold at the Majors. They have 15 of the last 16 Slams (Thiem won last year’s US Open after Djokovic was disqualified because he hit a lineswoman with a ball by accident, while Nadal and Federer didn’t play).
It’s fair to say that men’s tennis has seen a slight shifting of the sands—eight of the finals from 2017 have seen at least one outside the Big Three play, but that’s where their ascendancy has stopped. And it’s likely that 2021 could skew this further because Federer, almost a year out, is back. Fresh and with a new incentive—defending the men’s record of 20 Slams.
Likewise with both Nadal, who is on 20, and Djokovic, on 18. When the geniuses have the chance to make history, the mere mortals of the sport stand no chance. Djokovic is now going to prioritise the Slams to catch up with Nadal and Federer. Those two will also focus on the Majors to try and set a new benchmark. The challenge for the next generation, then, is simple. If they are good enough, they will stand and be counted. But if history is anything to go by, they will be reduced to the role of cheerleaders.