07 September, 2014

38 Special


Sporting dominance, though acknowledged as it happens, is usually only truly appreciated through the lens of history. Once fans are freed from the throes of week-in, week-out competition; once the hysterical tweets have long faded from the timeline; once the cries of “Not him again!” have long since drifted on the wind.

For the last decade, since February 2005 to be exact, every single final played at a major tennis tournament featured either Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal. Let me put this in perspective, for 38 consecutive majors 128 men were in the draw, the best tennis players on the planet right now. Every single time, either Federer, Djokovic or Nadal's name was on the scoreboard during the final. There are third graders who have never in their lives witnessed a major where one of these men didn't at least play in the final. Moreover, of the 38 consecutive times the sport's ruling triumvirate took a place in the final, 34 times flashbulbs popped as one of the those three men kissed (or bit) the champion's trophy. Often there wasn't even an alternative, on a solid number of those occasions, 16 to be exact, two of them faced each other for the most coveted prizes on offer.

That unprecedented run ends Monday.



To some it's been a boring stretch with almost every event culminating the same winners for just shy of a complete decade—so little variety. For others, it's been purely maddening, as their favorites, no matter how big their hearts or games, with guys like David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych or Robin Soderling to name a few, continually coming up just short in their bids to burnish their own resumes. Andy Roddick snuck in just under the wire, claiming his US Open title just before Nadal and Djokovic would set up shop alongside Federer as the world's greatest. What those fans may be hard pressed to acknowledge today though, is that it's truly been a special time.


In Roger Federer, tennis found its Baryishnikov. The Swiss legend, by dint of his record, is obviously a brute of a competitor, but you'd never know it from a mere observer's view point. For Federer won, and won often, all but gliding above the court and the afflictions of mere mortals. At his best, Federer appeared superhuman,with so little blood or sweat to accompany his tears. While the Swiss has won everywhere, it's his dominance on the storied lawns of Wimbledon that will most strongly endure. His serve may not be as fearsome as those of John Isner or Milos Raonic, but it's miles better at enduring in pressure moments. He may not have the track star speed of Gael Monfils, but his deft movement on the grass put him in the right place at the right time so often you wonder if he drank four-leaf clover smoothies for breakfast. Federer is such a force on grass, that no player, could have be considered anything approaching his equal without vainquishing him there, thus, the ascendance of Rafa Nadal.

Nadal is the Hephaestus to Federer's Poseidon, Gods with equal and opposing realms. As much as the eternally cool Federer built his throne on the lush lawns; the fiery Nadal has done the same with the earthen red clay. Nadal's work is all too obvious, perspiring like a smelter in his workshop, bandanna be damned. Grunting effortfully as he powers his backhand, then cracking his lasso whip of a forehand. It's no surprise that Nadal's brutal, but no less talent-soaked game would find its muse at Roland Garros. At the French Open, Nadal has been all but God-like, once suffering a heretical attack from Robin Soderling, but otherwise hurling thunderbolts to pulverize those who would truly challenge him and to make most others cower in awe. To gain his rightful throne on Olympus though, the clay would not be enough; he'd have to storm the gates on the hardcourts and yes, on Federer's beloved grass. Truth be told, it was a counterattack. You'll recall Federer struck first on the Roman clay, in 2006. That titanic battle that ensued was ultimately won by Nadal, 6-7 (0), 7-6 (5), 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (5) in a five hour, five minute war that would leave both men unable to reach even the starting line the following week in Hamburg. That match, perhaps the best clay court match ever played, preceded that Wimbledon final. In perhaps the greatest grass court match ever, Nadal triumphed 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8) 9-7. The two pushed each other to ever greater heights, raising the bar to levels never before seen, until it was raised again.


The word epic is often taken too lightly, but Djokovic capped his rise with just that, a nearly six hour 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 epic victory over Nadal post-midnight, on the far flung hardcourt battlefield in Melbourne. Yes, Djokovic had captured three majors in 2011, and still another three years prior to that, but it was arguably in that 2012 final when Novak truly arrived. Djokovic had spent the prior year subduing perhaps the greatest fighter tennis had ever known in Nadal, and disrupting the flow of the artist, Federer. That night the final ball struck, the trophy awaiting him, Djokovic launched into a full-bodied roar that Michael Bay would've been proud of, shredding his shirt and pounding his chest in an adrenaline-filled victory celebration. In that match, Djokovic warned all comers that he would not be denied. The best the world could throw at him was free to step up and at worst he'd hold his own. To wit, while he has a winning record versus every member of the ATP Top 100 that he's played, Nadal's record versus Djokovic is a relatively even 22-19. Federer may be the title leader in terms of majors, but pitted toe-to-toe, Djokovic edges him 18-17.

Sampras and Agassi had battles; Evert and Navratilova did too, but the long-reigning triumvirate of men's tennis trumped them all. They've combined for 109 matches against each other, and yes, there have been a couple of blowouts, but they were few and far. They've been great from the beginning, (Federer and Nadal played a five-setter in the Miami final in their second meeting way back in 2005) all the way to now (Djokovic and Federer were the top two seeds at this US Open and one match away from their second consecutive major final this year.)

A quick aside, while many speak of the “Big Four,” the reality is that Andy Murray is, at best, a junior member of tennis' most elite fraternity. Don't take that as a knock on Murray. If he quit today to follow his muse and became a professional PlayStation player, the Great Scot would've had a Hall of Fame tennis career, winning two titles (of the four that the Big Three didn't claim since 2005) and reaching seven finals at the majors. It's just that Djokovic (at almost exactly the same age) has seven major titles to Murray's two he's featured in twice as many finals while clearly being (today at least) the third of the big three.

Granted Nadal didn't make the starting line at this year's US Open, but this was the fifth time in the Big Three era that he missed a major and in every prior case, Djokovic or Federer at least played the final. Yesterday, the spell was broken. Tomorrow, almost unbelievably, we'll see a major final with neither Federer, nor Nadal, nor Djokovic. Instead Croatian big man Marin Cilic will take on the Japanese shotmaker Kei Nishikori for the US Open title. Whether you considered the unfettered dominance of the Big Three a blessing or a curse, one of the most remarkable streaks in tennis history is over. That's not to say the Big Three won't be favored for, or that they won't win, the titles in Australia or France or England or back here in New York in 2015, but it's time to begin to look back. Time to begin to appreciate. We've never seen anything like these guys before and it's unlikely we ever will again.

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