COMMENT: It’s time to accept that the ‘Big Three’ no longer dominate tennis – Novak Djokovic does

Another day, another ‘Next Gen’ claiming they are closer to the ‘Big Three’. The problem for them, though, is they are no closer to Novak Djokovic than they ever were.

Death, taxes, and young men’s tennis players claiming they are ‘getting closer’ to overhauling the ‘Big Three’…

On the one hand, what else are they going to say? If they came out and said ‘winning Slams is too hard, so what’s the point’ we’d be calling them out on a lack of ambition and belief.

“They are definitely knocking on those doors and beating these top guys [Federer, Nadal and Djokovic] in these tournaments,” world number 18 Alex De Minaur said this week.

“When it comes to winning the Grand Slams, obviously we have had Novak win the past couple. I think we’re getting closer and closer.

“I know everyone out there is gunning to be the next Grand Slam champ, and to try to make that big step. All the players are out there, they are doing everything they can to make that step, and take over.

“I think a lot of it is experience, as well. Every time we get to play those matches, we get to learn a lot and improve and lose respect for these type of players.

“Time is obviously on our side, and every match, every day that goes by, we have a bit more of a chance. But saying that, it’s definitely not done yet.

“They are bringing up some incredible tennis to this day, so it’s going to be completely tough. But, I think we’re all ready for the challenge.”

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal at French Open

This comment piece is not a slight on De Minaur. It seems the younger players, the much talked about ‘Next Gen’ just take it in turns to say the same thing. This week, it’s just his turn.

On the face of it, there is merit on what he says, too. After all, in the last year Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev have played in their first Grand Slam finals, and Daniil Medvedev his second. They all lost, but reaching the final is closer than going out of the tournament earlier.

The truth is though that they are only actually getting closer to winning Grand Slams in the same way a shore gets closer to the ocean at high-tide – and even then only two thirds of the time.

In many ways, the ‘Big Three’ has become a lazy term in tennis and within the tennis media. We are as guilty as anyone else for using it, and we hold our hands up to that, but maybe we are just clinging onto the past more than we should be.

It’s almost certainly not a popular view, but it’s getting harder to deny that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are on the decline as forces in men’s tennis.

Roger Federer, brilliant as he has been, has not won a Grand Slam since the 2018 Australian Open and has barely played for half of that time, never mind just not won.

Roger Federer disappointed at French Open

Rafael Nadal, meanwhile, brilliant as he has been, is showing signs that he is not quite what he was. The Spaniard lost a Grand Slam match from two sets up in Australia this year, and last week pulled out of a Grand Slam – voluntarily – for the second time in a year because he doesn’t feel able to get himself in a condition to compete.

Whether we like it or not, that’s a decline, and while it may be an unpleasant truth to face, facing it is not a slight on either.

Both are all-time greats, both are loved perhaps more than any other players in history, and both have created a legacy that will have been beyond either of their dreams when they first picked up a racquet.

So, yes, without a doubt, right now the younger players are closer to the ‘Big Three,’ but only because the ‘Big Three’ have moved closer to them.

And that is where the ‘Big Three’ term begins to fall away a little, because in all honesty, there is only one player of those three who have remained at ‘Big Three’ level, Novak Djokovic, and right now the younger players are as far away from beating him as they have ever been.

Let’s examine the recent evidence: Alexander Zverev couldn’t beat Djokovic even when the Serbian had a freshly torn abdomen in Australia, and Daniil Medvedev couldn’t even touch him in the final a few days later.

Then there is Stefanos Tsitsipas. The Greek has been one of the stars of 2021 and has without a doubt elevated his level. He has won his first Masters this year, reached his first Grand Slam final, and beaten Nadal from two sets down.

Stefanos Tsitsipas French Open final sad

However, even with a two-set head-start against Djokovic in the French Open final, and on his strongest surface, Tsitsipas couldn’t beat him.

Zverev, Tsitsipas, and Medvedev are the very best of the rest, and their hopes of winning a Grand Slam right now rely entirely upon not having to play Novak Djokovic at some point along the way.

Nostalgia and legacy are important in sport. Vitally important in fact. But it is probably time that we started to recognise what the ‘Big Three’ is – it’s a legacy term, an honorary title to recognise a remarkable time in tennis, a mark of incredibly well-deserved respect.

But let’s leave ourselves in no question: The ‘Big Three’ are not the dominant force in men’s tennis anymore – Novak Djokovic is.

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