Just when you think, they are done and dusted, one of the Big 3 pulls a rabbit out of his hat, wins a Slam against all odds, awakens the others two and the race begins all over again. Just when the NextGen, the GenNextNext, the adolescents or the toddlers think that their time has finally come, they get crushed in this quest for excellence, and hunger for glory of the three most outstanding tennis players ever to take the courts.
Roger was supposed to have finished at 17. The seventeenth had arrived at the Wimbledon 2012. Four and a half years of a long drought had ensued. He had lost two finals at SW-19 and one at New York in these years. He had also reached five semis in these years, losing to Rafa, Andy, Cilic, Raonic and Novak. Three more than Pete Sampras’ record of 14 seemed quite enough. The eighteenth did not look likely for the Master.
Rafael Nadal stood tantalizingly close at 14, but was having big trouble with knees and wrist. A couple of French Opens could not be denied, but with Djokovic and Andy Murray in prime form, Stan and Cilic looking good, Del Potro finally becoming fit again and Thiem knocking on the doors, surpassing Roger Federer very difficult, if not impossible. A tie at 17, possibly, but surely not gonna win18. Australia had never been his forte, winning Wimbledon again was ruled out even if he reached later stages, and USO has always been a jambooree, especially with so many hard-courters all around. Besides, Rafa usually gets tired by the end of the year.
At the end of 2016, the equation stood at 17-14-12. Roger was 35 and a half, Rafa 30 and a half and Novak a year younger. Novak Djokovic lost steam and ended 2016 poorly, and was knocked out from the Australian Open 2017 in early rounds. Meanwhile World Number One, Andy Murray also got ejected in R4. Tennis fans across the world began to dream of one more Fedal finale at the Melbourne Park. All the Dimitrovs, Nishikoris, Monfils and Wawrinkas of the world could not prevent the battle that the whole world wanted to witness from happening. And what a match it turned out to be! Roger captured his 18th Slam in a nailbiter of a fail, but seeing Rafa all primed up, must have known that French Open was again headed to Mallorca. By now, Djoker had fallen by the wayside and the world saw Nadal capture the La Decima. Suddenly the world of tennis records seemed like an inflating balloon.
Federer won his eight Wimbledon title beating Berdych and Cilic. Surely this was the insurance Slam! 19-15 gonna be enough! Djokovic was out nursing his elbow, and didn’t know if he wanted to get it operated upon or not. Andy’s hip was acting out. Wawrinka, the defending champ also withdrew from the Open because of his knee troubles. Only Roger could have stopped Rafa in that imperious form! But Juan Martin Del Potro checkmated Roger in the QF, doing Rafa a huge favour. The old warhorses had clashed three times on hard court that year already, with Roger coming out victorious each time. They did meet at Shanghai after the US Open as well, where Roger triumphed again making it 4-0. Delpo had vanquished both of them during his US Open run in 2009, but lost to Rafa in four sets in the SF in 2017. Kevin Anderson faltered badly at the final stage in US Open 2017, as well as in Wimbledon 2018 versus Novak. Rafa has his sixteenth in the bag, the Fedal had won all four of the Slams in 2017 and would the next two as well.
Roger picked up the gauntlet, and responded by winning his sixth AO, beating Cilic in a five set final. That was his 20th trophy. Surely, this was now it. 16 and 12 were left too far behind! The danger to his record of maximum Slams had been averted, despite some more Roland Garros success remaining within Rafa’s reach.
Rafa duly clinched FO 2018, and Novak Djokovic came back from injury to clinch W-USO-AO at breakneck speed. Djoker and Rafael played a phenomenal match of tennis in the last four of the Wimbledon 2018, but Nole won the AO-2019 final in a straight sets anti-climax. Rafa repeated his success at Roland Garros in 2019, and the BIG 3 stood now at 20-18-15. With at least a couple of The Musketeers’ Trophies still remaining within Rafa’s reach (there always shall a couple of them within his grasp), Roger was reachable, and yet Nole remained far too adrift! Did Roger have one last hurrah remaining? Was he capable of one more title run?
And then was played the Great Wimbledon final of 2019, where Novak came back from 15-40,
7-8 in the fifth set to deny Roger his 21st. Oh, what a heart-break! Just when the cat was in Federer’s bag, Nole drew out a rabbit out of his! Rafa played quite strongly and narrowed the gap to just one by lifting the US Open in 2019. Novak won again by somehow edging past Thiem at Melbourne, after which COVID struck. Wimbledon was not held in 2020- a possible loss for Nole or Roger !
Novak looked a sure bet in USO 2020 with Rafa abstaining, but got defaulted out of it. Nadal and Djoker played a high-stake but one-sided final at the Roland Garros in the winter of 2020, by winning which Rafa equalled Roger’s tally of 20. Djokovic remained stuck at 17!
But Novak thrashed Medvedev at Melbourne, came back from two sets down against Tsitsipas at Paris and tamed Matteo Berretinni at London to skyrocket to 20 Grand Slam wins, equalling both Rafa and Roger. Novak was on the cusp to be the first man to win 21 Slams at New York, but ran out of gas in the final at Medvedev.
Meanwhile Rafa was on crutches till November, had Covid in late-December but recovered phenomenally to take advantage of Nole’s unfortunate deportation from the Australian Open. Rafa’s superhuman success against Medvedev has ensured that he now leads the race with 21 Slams, one clear of his rivals. Full of confidence, he shall be the favourite to lift his fourteenth French Open title at Paris, thereby extending his tally to 22. Roger Federer seems out of reckoning with age and injuries catching up, only extending his career for perhaps a Wimbledon swansong, or maybe because of a Uniqlo contract. Novak Djokovic might not play another Slam, with Vaccine Mandates and Passes becoming the order of the day. If he indeed gets to play, a Novak-Rafa Battle Royale, maybe a couple of them, might still happen in the later stages of Slams, and satiate the lust of tennis lovers. But if they don’t square up in the future, they have played enough of classics, which are available on YouTube, to provide a lifetime of viewing!
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