In the normal world, tennis fans would’ve been preparing for the start of the 2020 French Open this week.
Novak Djokovic defeated Roger Federer in a blockbuster semi-final at the Paris Masters, 7:6, 5:7 7:6, in what was one of the matches of the season for both players. It was their 47th career meeting and Djokovic now leads their head-to-head 25-22.
The tournament marks another change in the rankings, with Djokovic now overtaking the injured Rafael Nadal as world number 1 heading into next week’s ATP World Tour Finals in London. Federer remains world number three after another strong season which saw him defend his Australian Open after a remarkable win over Nadal in 2017.
Ten years ago, Novak Djokovic won the first of his 14 grand slam singles titles in a year that saw him cement himself as a genuine threat to the Federer-Nadal duopoly. 2008 also produced what many believe is the greatest match of all-time; a five-set Wimbledon final epic that saw Nadal dethrone Federer and stop the Swiss from winning a sixth consecutive title on the English lawn.
Fast forward ten years and little has changed, the rankings read Djokovic – Nadal – Federer – daylight. The rhythm of their dominance is as predictable as the seasons – Nadal closes every European spring with a brutal display on the Parisian clay, Federer rings in the summer with cavalier backhands at SW19.
Andy Murray deserves an honourable mention, as does Stan Wawrinka. Together they snared six slams in an era where slams have been practically unattainable. But unlike their conquerors, they haven’t been able to sustain the inhuman level, they have fallen in expectedly mortal fashion; they flew too close to the sun.
The poster boy for the ‘nextgen’ of tennis is the 21-year-old German sensation, Alexander Zverev. He is 6’6’’, with a prototypical baseline game. He crushes the ball on every shot, he moves well, he fights hard. Zverev was two years old when Federer made his grand slam debut at the 1999 French Open.
Nick Kyrgios is another young gun with the potential to overthrow the establishment, but his lack of desire leaves his talent etching himself on highlight reels rather than trophies. He has the serve, and—more importantly– that rare ability to rise on the biggest occasions, but like so many other young stars he is lacking the complete package; every box must be ticked.
And that’s the difference, still, for the three GOATs of tennis right now. They tick every box and then some.
Djokovic is considered a baseliner, and so is Nadal, but their differences are stark in how they cover it. Djokovic is machine-like, the closest thing in tennis to an android, right down to his pixel-perfect jet black hair.
His defence is akin to a wall of rubber entrenched firmly on the baseline, absorbing — and more importantly — redirecting all manner of attacks until an opponent drowns in a sweaty pool of their own errors. He is an on-court panic attack; a thick fog. Where do you hit? Where is he hitting it? He won’t get to that bal—…oh, it’s already on your shoelaces, poor fella.
Nadal is less flexible, nor is he as pinpoint on the return, but don’t think he is any less of a challenge, especially on clay. Where Djokovic smoothly blocks everything back, Rafa takes guard deep in the court—closer to the front row seats rather than the baseline—and with a crab-like left arm, bulging with muscles, he slashes at every ball with an intensity reserved for desperation.
He marches between points, eyes darting under his furrowed brow, like a nervous prison inmate waiting to be jumped, ever ready to brutally respond.The result is pure and utter bullying. His combination of speed, power, and endurance is simply special – a gift. Such an endless source of raging intensity breaks the strongest of wills.
The greatest threat to his legacy is his own failing body, a by-product of his superhuman bouts.
So, there’s the difference: Djokovic constricts, Nadal bludgeons.
Federer is not so easy to define, yes he primarily plays from the baseline, but his M.O. is flexible. He doesn’t have the awe-inspiring pure speed and power of Rafa, nor does he have Djokovic’s pong-like coverage and inevitable consistency. He is simultaneously the most and least-human of the three.
He shanks forehands one minute, then threads an impossibly acute one the next, dipping over the net and sharply off screen. Like a spectre of bygone legends, he haunts opponents with a deftness that is both retro and avant-garde.
An observer and opponent are at once soothed and stung respectively. And then there’s the forehand, that forehand. Blink and you miss it. It is the golden gun of men’s tennis. This shot has done more damage than any other in the history of the sport.
Whilst Djokovic and Nadal have exploited Federer’s comparatively weaker backhand, the Swiss has other means to victory that display man’s most remarkable trait; his ability to adapt. Clay, grass, hard, or carpet. Indoors or outdoors. Fast or slow. Young or old. Baseline or net. Not one facet of tennis is safe.
He has left his mark on every surface, every tournament, every categorical record, every square-inch of playing surface, across three generations and counting.
Together, they have dominated the sport for close to fifteen years, and dare I say to a degree not witnessed in any other sport, not to this totalitarian degree.
They will start 2019 as the perennial champions, again, just as summer approaches the blue courts of Melbourne. Nothing so predictable has ever been this exciting.