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As Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic vie for their name to be etched in history as the greatest tennis player of all time, there can be no doubt that these three are the leading pioneers of the sport and possibly may end their careers as the three greatest players ever.
All that is left to be decided is which order they will be considered as the best players in tennis history.
The careers of all three men will inevitably be remembered for their outstanding achievements and the historic records they break, but all three have also endured pivotal moments in their careers that could have easily impacted their place in tennis history. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have each faced challenging times, and each has come through it to be where they are.
This article will examine the most career-defining moments of each player in their careers thus far.
Novak Djokovic: 2018 Wimbledon Championships
After winning the 2016 French Open and finally completing his grand slam dream by joining current stalwarts Nadal and Federer as current-day grand slam winners, the Serbian champion’s career went through an uncharacteristic and surprising slump. Many had expected him to dominate the men’s game for years to come and overtake his rivals’ grand slam tallies, especially as both Federer and Nadal were experiencing career form slumps at the time.
Instead Djokovic failed to win a major again for almost two years while making it past the fourth round on only two occasions, at the 2018 French Open and 2016 Wimbledon championships. During this period, from post-2016 Wimbledon to the 2018 Wimbledon Championships, Djokovic also lost both his encounters to Nadal without winning a set and surrendered his world No. 1 ranking to consistent rival Andy Murray by losing to the Scot at the 2016 ATP World Tour Finals, a player he had beaten five out of the last six times they had played.
Coming into the 2018 Wimbledon tournament Djokovic found himself in the position of not being one of the favourites, which was justified by his losses in his previous two majors, the Australian and French tournaments, to Hyeon Chung and Marco Cecchinato respectively. However, the Serb rediscovered his form once again and progressed to the semi-finals to face old foe Rafael Nadal. In an epic match spanning five hours and 15 minutes, one of the longest semi-finals at Wimbledon of all time, Djokovic prevailed.
Afterwards Djokovic admitted the match was a career-defining moment for him and was pivotal in his career upturn, which saw him win the US Open later that year and reclaim his No. 1 title soon after.
Beating a fellow big-three rival, not only in a five-set match but in a semi-final, proved a huge moment in Djokovic’s career at that point, evidently restoring his confidence and self-belief. If Djokovic had lost this match, it is unclear where his career would be now. At the time it was a win he badly needed and the Serb delivered on that day.
Roger Federer: 2017 Australian Open
Coming into the 2017 Australian Open tournament Federer found himself ranked well outside the top ten for the first time in over 15 years, and question marks were being raised over how much longer the Swiss could compete on tour and whether retirement beckoned. Federer had not won a major since his 2012 Wimbledon triumph and also found himself regularly beaten by the other members of the big four.
His 2016 season was cut well short, with the Australian Open and Wimbledon being the sole majors he was able to participate in that year due to an ongoing knee injury that required him to take the season off after Wimbledon. Many questioned whether Federer would even play again, let alone compete for majors.
Federer had a brutal draw coming into the 2017 Australian Open, in which he was projected to meet Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka all before the final. The Swiss maestro would go on to beat Berdych, Nishikori and Wawrinka en route to the final – Murray was defeated by Mischa Zverev, who Federer beat in straight sets – where he would face long-time rival Rafael Nadal.
In a seesawing contest between the two greatest names to grace the sport, Federer prevailed in five sets to take his first major in five years since the 2012 Wimbledon title. Noticeably Federer played a more aggressive brand of tennis, looking to end points quickly with his precision serving and hitting clean winners of both his backhand and forehand. It was a tactic he had rarely used before against Nadal, which perhaps signals a turning point in Federer’s mindset signalling that he now understands he needs to play a different style to be competitive at this point in his career. The Swiss also found himself down a break in the deciding set but fought back to claim the lead and ultimately the match.
The win extended his grand slam tally to 18 over Nadal and Djokovic, but the long-term impact of this match and what Federer took away from it is far more meaningful in the context of his career, proven by Federer going on to win the 2017 Wimbledon Championships and 2018 Australian Open. Beating four top-ten players on the way to capturing a grand slam, with three of those matches going the distance, proved not only to everybody but also to Federer that he still had the engine and that his time on tour was not as close to its finish yet as many had thought.
Rafael Nadal: 2017 Australian Open
Perhaps compared to Federer and Djokovic’s slump, Nadal’s career low during the 2015-16 season was even more drastic. The Spaniard made only one grand slam quarter-final – at the 2015 Australian Open – and suffered his second career loss at the French Open to Novak Djokovic. Losing early in majors became an alarming reoccurrence for Nadal, as were losses in matches you would expect him to win, such as losing a match from two sets to love up against Fabio Fognini at the 2015 US Open and losing in five sets to Lucas Pouille the year after.
Nadal was seeded ninth at the 2017 Australian Open and many felt the once invincible aura around the Spaniard had faded. Nadal would go on to make his first semi-final appearance in a major since 2015 with hard fought wins over the upcoming Alexander Zverev and top-ten players Gael Monfils and Milos Raonic. The Spaniard celebrated each win with more and more passion, knowing full well how special it was to be deeper and deeper into a grand slam.
In the semi-final Nadal faced Grigor Dimitrov in a high quality match, and the Spaniard prevailed to make his first grand slam final since the 2014 French Open more than three years earlier. At the conclusion of the match Nadal laid flat on his back with his arms spread out across the court, the kind of celebration he usually reserves for winning majors, not making a final. Obvious was the relief and happiness in Nadal’s face not only that was he finally able to string together the most consistent performance over 14 days for over two years but also that he beat high-quality players along way and can now feel that he is heading back to his best tennis.
Nadal knew this victory was as significant to him as winning any other trophy, and that the match was a five-setter only reinforced how Nadal felt, that he must have climbed back to being among the pantheon of the top players in the world.
Despite losing the final in five sets to a rejuvenated Federer, who played almost flawless tennis, Nadal would later go onto dominate the clay season once again and claim five more majors after laying the foundation for his rebirth at the 2017 Australian Open. Some could argue Nadal’s resurgence was complete at the 2017 French Open, but few could doubt that his Australian summer that year restored the fire and belief in Nadal to lay the foundation for his career going forward.