The Sunday morning sports appointment with must-see TV did not disappoint, a marathon Wimbledon tennis final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic delivering with drama, emotion, skill, and will.
When Djokovic dropped to his knees to munch on a few blades of victory grass (his own personal champion’s dinner), his triumph in the stirring five-set, nearly five-hour marathon match was already being dissected for its place in the history of the sport. From musings on each man’s standing in tennis’ all-time rankings (a conversation that also includes vanquished semifinalist Rafael Nadal) to conversations about where this Big Three belongs among generations of contemporary greats, the details of the actual match can often be overlooked.
And what a shame that would be. Because a tennis final like the one we saw Sunday is arguably our truest, best example of a one-on-one athletic confrontation. It’s boxing but without the violence. It’s match play golf but with defense. There’s no subjective umpiring as with a pitcher-batter contest in baseball. The lines are the lines. There’s no need for teammates as with a cornerback-wide receiver battle on the football field. It’s pure mano-a-mano, testing everything from physical skills to mental toughness to fitness to strategy. No coach to call the plays, no huddle to run ideas by. Just you and the opponent, firing away.
And the opinion here? No trio of players has ever fired as much greatness, competitiveness, and dominance as Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are doing right now, and have been doing for more than 15 years. We are in the midst of the best the sport has ever been, reminiscent of my own youthful delight in making appointments to watch John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, and Bjorn Borg (with a little Ivan Lendl), but even better for the absolute sustained excellence of each player as their careers have been so closely intertwined.
The 37-year-old Federer got the career jump on his younger counterparts (Nadal is 33, Djokovic 32), breaking the all-time Grand Slam record with a win at Wimbledon in 2009, the 15th major of his career. He has won five more slams since, but Nadal and Djokovic have been gaining on him all the while, with Nadal at 18 and Djokovic, with Sunday’s win, at 16. That’s 54 total, putting them so far ahead of the field that even the accepted notion we actually had a Big Four (including Andy Murray and his three career Slams from 2012-16) was fleeting.
Their case for the combined dominance of the Big Three is overwhelming, burnished by their current run of three consecutive slams, coming at a time we thought they would be past their prime. Yet a three-win streak is nothing for these guys. Remember when Juan Martin del Potro upset Federer in the 2009 US Open final? That ended a string of 18 straight slams from the Big Three.
It preceded a run of 11 more, broken by Murray’s US Open win in 2012.
Those results prompted Pete Sampras, previous owner of the Slam record with 14, to tell USA Today at the time, “This generation is incredible. We’re going to probably have three players winning double-digit majors.”
His prediction obviously came true, but there are so many numbers to prove his point. Consider the three have been Grand Slam runner-up another 28 times, losing 20 times to one of the other two. Consider their singular brilliance in at least one of the four majors — Federer has won Wimbledon eight times, Djokovic the Australian Open seven times, and Nadal the French Open an astounding 12.
Each of those numbers ties or bests the all-time Grand Slam total of past greats such as Borg (11), Connors (8), Lendl (8), and McEnroe (7). Sampras and his contemporaries Andre Agassi (8) and Jim Courier (4) combined to herald the last great era of American men’s tennis, but can’t match what we are seeing now.
Federer, classy as always in defeat, put his game since breaking the all-time record in perspective this way: “It’s been different since, naturally because the chase is in a different place. I take motivation from different places, not so much from trying to stay ahead because I broke the record, and if somebody else does, well, that’s great for them. You can’t protect everything anyway.
“I didn’t become a tennis player for that. I really didn’t. It’s about trying to win Wimbledon, trying to have good runs here, playing in front of such an amazing crowd in this Centre Court against players like Novak. That’s what I play for.”
The love for their craft is apparent when they play, seen in Federer’s peerless serves or artful drop shots, seen in Djokovic’s unrivaled service returns or clarity of purpose in a game’s biggest points, seen in Nadal’s unmatched athleticism and graceful movement. Their inevitable intersections are as hotly anticipated as any in the history of the game, compelling in a different but just as deeply-felt way as any of Serena Williams’s runs to a final. Her dominance stands out for its duration and peerlessness, theirs for its duration and togetherness.
Which brings us back to Djokovic, and his ability to beat one of those longtime nemeses Sunday despite being largely outplayed and being clearly cast as villain by the pro-Federer crowd. Part of the beauty in tennis is not just winning points (Federer won 218 to Djokovic’s 204, had 25 aces to Novak’s 10) but winning the most important ones. Djokovic won all three tiebreakers, including the newly installed decisive one at 12-12 in the fifth set. He fought off two match points in the fifth and broke Federer’s majestic serve when it mattered most. He was asked afterward where that courage comes from.
“I always try to imagine myself as a winner. I think there is a power to that,” he said. “Also there has to be, next to the willpower, strength that comes not just from your physical self, but from your mental and emotional self. For me, at least, it’s a constant battle within, more than what happens outside. It’s really not the situations that you experience that are affecting you, but how you internally experience those situations, how you accept them, how you live through them.
“I just told myself before the match, you know, I’m going to try to switch off as much as I can from what is happening around us, and just be there, be present. One thing that probably allowed me to come back and save match points and win this match was the mental stability in those moments.”
He did it on his own. Alone out there on the court, no coach, no teammates, just an opponent and a game plan. The best one-on-one battle in sports.
Tara Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.