For the seasoned tennis fan, it must seem like déjà vu.
Rafael Nadal, winning the Roland Garros final… Again.
Believe it or not, it happened earlier this week. Rafael Nadal put together his most dominant performance of the fortnight, dismantling Casper Ruud 6-3,6-3, 6-0 to win a 14th Roland Garros title.
The win takes him two Grand Slam titles clear of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, in the race to see who collects the most of tennis’s greatest victories before retirement.
Nadal’s progress this year begs the question: How will history remember each of the Big Three? Who is the greatest of all time?
An unprecedented era of dominance
Never before has tennis seen such a prolonged period of dominance by three players.
Since the start of 2003, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have had a stranglehold on Grand Slam titles. So much so, that they have won 62 out of the last 77 tournaments—81% in total. To put this in context, if you take every other Grand Slam winner over the last two decades and combine all of their titles, they still haven’t won as many Grand Slams as any of the Big Three individually.
Their position at the top of the sport has also been unrivaled. With the exception of Andy Murray (44 weeks) and Daniil Medvedev (three weeks), one of the Big Three has consistently held the No. 1 ranking in men’s tennis since 2004, when Roger Federer first ascended to those heights.
Great in different ways
The beauty of the Big Three, is they’ve all expressed their greatness in different ways.
Roger went first—he set the pace, he broke new ground in tennis domination, and he was the one they all chased. The crowd favorite, Federer holds the record for winning the most ATP titles (103), as well as the most Nitto ATP Final titles (6).
Rafael Nadal came next, and asserted himself as the King of Clay, dominating Roland Garros for the past 17 years and gaining 14 French Open titles. Nadal is the only one of the Big Three to win an Olympic gold medal, and currently holds the most Grand Slam titles (22).
Novak Djokovic spent years overshadowed by Nadal and Federer, before finally breaking through to stand as a great in his own right. Now, he has the most weeks at No. 1 in the world (373), the most year-end No. 1 finishes (7), and the most ATP Masters 1000 titles (38). He also holds a winning record against both Federer and Nadal.
Who will be remembered as the greatest?
Should Grand Slams be valued over year-end No. 1 rankings?
Does character and grace come into the conversation at all?
What about head-to-head records?
With each of the Big Three demonstrating their greatness uniquely, deciding which is the greatest of all time can be a contentious subject. The race isn’t over yet though, and by the time each of these incredible players retire, we should have more clarity.
Here’s the thing: Tennis’s greatest challenge is winning a Grand Slam. Anyone can have a good day and pull off an upset—but stringing together seven matches, and best of five sets—that’s the true test of greatness. This has to be the measure of greatness applied to the Big Three.
Whoever retires with the most Grand Slam titles, is unequivocally the greatest of all time. Year end rankings, Olympics, other titles, likeability—at the end of the day, these are all nice to have, but not as valuable as a Grand Slam. If two of the Big Three were to retire with an equal amount of Grand Slams—a very real possibility, should Nadal grab another 1-2, and Djokovic play on for a few years longer than the rest—then the tie-breaker should be weeks at No. 1.
With this in mind, the next few years of men’s tennis will be historic.