As Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic make final preparations for the Australian Open, their three-way race to be crowned the Greatest of All Time has never been closer. Where does each man’s résumé stand, and what are their prospects for 2020?
Is it an epic? A saga? An adventure? All of those words fit the three-man race that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have been running since the mid-2000s. Their prolonged contest to see who can win the most Grand Slam singles titles and be crowned the mythical GOAT of men’s tennis has only grown tighter over time. And there’s still no finish line in sight.
Their starts were staggered. Federer began in 2003, with his first major title, at Wimbledon. Like a born front-runner, he sprinted out to what appeared to be an insurmountable lead. Nadal came off the block two years later, with his first title at Roland Garros, and slowly pulled to within striking distance of Federer. Just when it looked as if the two would leave the ATP pack in the dust, Djokovic came tearing up behind them on the outside. He won his first major at the Australian Open in 2008; by 2011, the rivalry was a trivalry, and the Big Three was born.
In the decade since, each man has stumbled and been counted out of the race at least once. But rather than succumb to the aging process in their 30s, the way tennis champions of the past have, all three found second winds. Between them, they’ve won the last 12 Slams to bring their collective total to 55—20 for Federer; 19 for Nadal; 16 for Djokovic. No ATP player under 30 has won even one. It’s safe to say they’ve lapped the competition.
“It’s a special moment in tennis,” says former No. 1 Mark Knowles. “I remember when Pete Sampras won his 14th major and broke Roy Emerson’s record. Now you have three guys who are blowing that out of the water. That’s a testament to their professionalism, which has been unmatched by any other generation.”
The Big Three show no signs of slacking off. By now, every Slam final they play comes with added weight.
“They know what these finals mean,” says former No. 1 Jim Courier. “They know that every one they get, they’re taking one away from the other guys.”
“It’s probably not a coincidence,” adds Knowles, “that they’re becoming even more dominant as their competition gets closer.”
As 2020 begins, the Big Three are in a virtual dead heat. Each has finished five seasons at No. 1, and if you add up Grand Slams, Masters 1000s and ATP Finals titles, Djokovic has 55, and Federer and Nadal have 54 each. While Federer still leads in match wins, tournament wins and weeks at No. 1, Nadal and Djokovic are closing the gap.
“When we talk about who the greatest is, Grand Slams will be the easiest number to point to,” Courier says. “But that’s not the only metric. I think you have to look at everything.”
Can the Big Three sweep the Slams for yet another year? Can any of them gain significant ground on the others? Whoever finishes first in this race will likely be considered the Greatest of All Time for decades to come.