Men’s tennis has been on the wildest ride the last decade or so. Roger Federer dominated the game. Rafael Nadal dominated the game. Novak Djokovic dominated the game. One after another.
The only comparison that comes to mind is heavyweight boxing from roughly 1962-75. That time period really began with Sonny Liston as heavyweight champ. He was the most fearsome boxer to come along since, perhaps, Jack Johnson. He knocked out 11 straight fighters, none of them lasting more than seven rounds. He knocked out former champ Floyd Patterson in the first round in consecutive fights.
Soon after, Liston matched up against a mouthy young kid still named Cassius Clay. People worried that Liston would literally kill Clay in the ring.
In time, Clay became Muhammad Ali, of course, and he was impossibly fast, threw these slicing, cutting punches, and he was all but unhittable. He beat Liston in two fights, the second of which was certainly thrown by Liston.
When Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, he was stripped of his title. Most boxing experts believe that much of his incomparable skill and speed rusted out during his exile. Meanwhile a tough streetfighter with a massive left hook named Joe Frazier emerged. Ali and Frazier fought in 1971 in what was immediately called the Fight of the Century. Frazier knocked Ali down in the 15th and won the fight. He was the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world.
Then another fearsome fighter with frightening power began knocking everybody out. George Foreman fought Frazier less than two years after the Fight of the Century and knocked Frazier down six times in the first two rounds before the fight was mercifully stopped.
A year later, Ali fought Foreman and people again worried for Ali’s life. Again, he had them all fooled. Ali leaned back in the ropes and let Foreman punch himself out. He knocked out a thoroughly exhausted Foreman out in the eighth round.
Then Ali and Frazier fought in Manilla, the Thrilla, probably the greatest boxing match in the known history of the sport. Ali won that one and fully revealed himself as the greatest fighter of his remarkable time.
It was a blur of extraordinary boxers – too many all at once.
And that is what men’s tennis has been for the last 10 years or so. Roger Federer was first to the top. He played a beautiful tennis that was unlike anything we’d ever seen before. He moved with a dancer’s grace – how often was he compared to a dancer? – and he hit the ball absurdly hard and at angles that bent the light of our imagination. The writer David Foster Wallace talked about “Federer Moments” when, “the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re OK.”
He reached the semifinal of every grand slam event from the Australian Open in 2004 through the Australian Open in 2010. That’s 25 consecutive grand slams, if you are counting, of which he reached the final in 22 and won 15 of them.* There is simply nothing in the history of tennis to compare this with,
* The stretch included six Wimbledon championships, five U.S. Opens, three Australian Opens and one French Open. Federer has also won two more Wimbledons – one before this amazing stretch of tennis, one afterward.
The only place where Federer’s game did not quite flow was at the French Open, on the red clay of Roland Garros Stadium. That clay slows the ball, it neutralizes the power of a serve. It turns tennis matches into battles of attrition with long exchanges of body blows. Players who like to go to the net are often sitting ducks on the clay. The French Open has long been the antithesis to the fast and unpredictable grass at Wimbledon, where Federer reigned.
Federer took his clay court game to a high level, but in 2005 he ran into a 19-year-old with huge arms (that he would emphasize by wearing sleeveless shirts), ridiculous speed and a ferocious will – a 19-year-old who would always be better on that clay. The kid, Rafael Nadal, dispatched the great Federer in four sets. Nadal won the French Open the first time he played in it.
At the time, people viewed Nadal as a clay court specialist, a breed of dogged player who hits the ball with extreme topspin, a style that does not play as well on the grass or hard courts. Tennis has no shortage of specialists – Gustavo Kuerten, Sergi Brugera, Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa – who won French Opens but never even reached a semifinal at any other grand slam event. Nadal seemed the type.
Only, he was not. The very next year, he again beat Federer at the French Open, but shortly afterward, against all logic, reached the final at Wimbledon. Federer beat him there in four sets, but there was something about Nadal that said he would be back. If Federer was the Ali of his sport (fluid and nimble and intoxicating to watch), Nadal was more like Joe Frazier, all power and work and tenacity. He pounded shot after shot, ran down every ball that moved, never seemed to rest for even a point. Sweat poured off him like he was melting.
The next year he again beat Federer at the French Open, and then pushed the great Roger to five grueling sets in the Wimbledon final. The year after that, Nadal beat Federer in the French Open, then beat him at Wimbledon in what many consider the greatest tennis match ever played.
The last remaining question for Nadal involved hard courts – he admitted disliking the hard courts. They were hard on his knees. He could not slide and dive and push himself to the limits like he could on clay or grass. In 2009, though, he won the Australian Open on hard courts – once again beating Federer in the final. Then, somehow, he lost to Robin Soderling at Roland Garros – his first loss on the red clay – clearing the way for Federer to win his only French Open championship.
The next year, Nadal won three of the four Grand Slam events.
This was when Novak Djokovic surfaced. Djokovic was not quite as powerful as Nadal, not quite as agile and imaginative as Federer. But he was pretty close, and he had his own spectacular weapon, what John McEnroe has called the greatest return of serve in tennis history. He also had a fierce will, and in 2011 he had one of the most dominant years in tennis history. He won 70 of his 76 matches, won three Grand Slams and beat Nadal in six tournament finals. “It’s probably the highest level of tennis that I ever saw,” Nadal told Reuters.
It has been extraordinary. A fourth player, Andy Murray, has worked his way into the stratosphere lately, having won two grand slams and an Olympic gold medal in the two years. But mostly it has been the Big Three – the spellbinding genius of Federer, the irrepressible force of Nadal, the glorious counterpunching of Djokovic.
And so you are left with the big question: Who will own the era?
Many think it is Federer. The numbers are with him. His 17 total grand slam championships is the record. His 25 consecutive grand slams of reaching at least the semifinal boggles the mind. The indelible way he has played the game -- mixing drop shots with scorching crosscourt forehands, touch volleys with a devastating serve, through-the-leg trick shots with on-the-line slice backhands -- is unique in tennis history. No tennis player has ever done so many things so well.
Then, over time, there might be a case for Djokovic, who is on a Federer-like run of 14 consecutive grand slams reaching at least the semifinal. Djokovic’s return of serve is so good that – like Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors – he can beat any player on any surface at any time. Also he has consistently found ways of taking his game to the next level – he almost seems to transform himself every year.
But, I think, in the end, the player of this amazing time will be Rafa Nadal. I think he confirmed that Monday night with his extraordinary four-set victory over Djokovic in the final. At times the tennis in the match seemed transcendent – it’s hard to recall any match where two players hit tennis balls so hard. “A kind of tennis we’ve never seen before,” Mary Carillo called it. In the end, Nadal’s irresistible greatness withered Djokovic in the fourth set.
And I think it eventually will make him the best of his time. People will talk about the numbers. Nadal is 27 years old and now has 13 grand slam titles – Federer had 14 the year he turned 27. Nadal if he stays healthy has a good shot at catching Federer in total majors.
But I think it goes beyond those numbers. Nadal is already the greatest clay court tennis player who ever lived, that’s in the bank. His record at Roland Garros is 59-1. He has won eight French Opens already, and nobody seems to see any reason why he won’t keep winning them for years to come. His five-set victory over Novak Djokovic this year might be the greatest clay court match ever played. Clay courts are his.
On grass, he might not quite rise to the level of Federer or Pete Sampras. But he has won two Wimbledons – including the win over Federer - and has reached five finals. He has a case as one of the greatest grass court players ever, and he’s still young enough to do more.
And on hardcourts, his acknowledged weak surface, he has now won two U.S. Opens and an Australian, and it’s clear that he’s still ascending. He has figured out how to adjust his power game and pounding style and become almost unbeatable. He lost just two sets in the entire U.S. Open, had a long stretch where nobody broke his serve and broke the spirit of the seemingly unbreakable Novak Djokovic on Djokovic’s best surface.
His record against Federer is an overwhelming 21-10 … and he has won eight of the ten times they have played in Grand Slams.
His record against Djokovic is 22-15 … and he has won eight of the 11 times they have played in Grand Slams.
There’s a great term tennis players use when their opponent hits a shot that cannot be reached. “Too good,” they will say. Federer’s awesomeness is unquestionable. Djokovic – as Nadal said after Monday’s match - will go down in tennis history as one of the greatest to ever play the game. And Nadal? Too good.