From die hard sports fans to casual sports observers, it can truly be said that we live in the best time in history to be watching tennis. I myself was a casual fan who has sort of been forced into a more serious enthusiasm for the sport, based on the sheer historic greatness on display in the last decade. On the women’s side we have witnessed the greatest of all time in Serena Williams (though arguing for a Steffi Graf is certainly a respectable position or I guess Margaret Court, who appears to have won 24 grand slam titles sometime before women’s suffrage I think. But as great as Serena has been, the men’s game has been absurdly historic. We have the three greatest players of all time at the same time. The collective greatness of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokavic has basically snuffed out a later generation of tennis players. There is a generation of tennis players from age 28 to 40 who basically have no idea what winning a grand slam feels like unless they have a hook-up at Dennys. It started with Federer who basically took over men’s tennis from the United States and then repeatedly snuffed out its heir apparent, Andy Roddick, who won the last U.S. men’s title in 2003. Federer won several titles from 2003-2007 basically unimpeded as the clear best player in the world. But then he got company.
Rafael Nadal showed up and has basically called dibs on the French Open since 2006. The only reason Federer ever won in France is because Nadal was eliminated before they could meet (Nadal is currently 40,999,987-2 at Roland Garros). He has been a Spanish brick wall. Some try to pigeonhole him as a one surface star, but he still has 6 non-French Open titles on his record. And that includes the 2008 legendary Wimbledon match that turned me from a casual tennis fan into a more serious tennis fan. Dubbed until yesterday as “The Greatest Match Ever Played” it was an epic that basically took the entirety of my hungover Sunday 11 years ago. It represented Nadal beating the older Federer on his best surface and proving he was not just a clay specialist. It looked like it might have been a passing of the torch, but it turned out to be more of a sharing of the torch. From that day I became a huge Nadal fan. I had wondered why he was always sneering and picking his butt, but that day I watched him exhibit such will and athletic talent that his grimacing and wedgies just seemed like eccentricities of a genius. And I simply took for granted Federer’s talent and effortless excellence.
As the years went by I made sure not to miss any majors and continued to root hard for Nadal in a race to be the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT). As he continued to pile up French Opens and the occasional other major, and Federer looked to be aging, I felt confident that Nadal might take the title. He has a winning record against Federer (but to be fair a lot of that is on his clay kingdom – but they do count!). But then Novak Djokavic showed up and the Magic and Larry of tennis may have met their Michael Jordan.
I don’t know when I became aware of Djokavic. To me and many fans he just felt like the dude who kept messing up Nadal and Federer’s title chase. But I know when I became a big fan. The 2015 U.S. Open. The rowdy crowd was, like every crowd in tennis, rooting hard for Federer in the Finals. Djokavic was the world #1 and seemed to take it as disrespect. He dropped the 2nd set, but then proceeded to beat Federer’s ass in the remaining two sets to take the title. I have always liked athletes with bad tempers. Perhaps because I was one. But Djokavic seemed to take the title of “J-L’s favorite angry athlete” from Paul O’Neill (who is now MAGA so fu*k him – how do you win championships with Puerto Ricans and immigrants and then vote and support a racist xenophobe?). I was so impressed with Djokavic’s performance that day and realized that he might be able to run roughshod over men’s tennis for the next decade with Nadal’s physicality taking a toll and Federer getting old.
Except it hasn’t been like that. Djokavic’s entire career has been a fight against immortal Federer and unmovable Nadal. And yet he was won 16 grand slams and counting, without a 4 year solo head start like Federer or a single dominant surface like Nadal. So I think it is safe to say that Djokavic is the best player in the history of tennis. He has at least 3 years of dominance left in him (at least physically) and has a winning record against both Federer and Nadal in his career. And his performance yesterday, while not dominating, was as gutty a performance as I have ever seen. Down two match points to Roger Federer with the whole crowd about to climax for Federer he pushed the game to deuce, won the game, forced a tiebreaker and turned Federer into Swiss Miss en route to another Wimbledon trophy. But then I realized something. Federer is the GOAT.
For background I liked Federer early on, but the grit and range of Nadal made me more awestruck. And later, the “fu*k you, pay me!” attitude of Djokavic seeking his own respect in a sport married to Federer was relatable and enjoyable to me. But the common thread throughout this is the greatness of Federer. He innovates, adapts, augments and enhances his game at every turn. He has no weaknesses and makes the brilliant look routine. No great moment in tennis seems to be able to occur without his presence or shadow. (Full disclosure, for blogger integrity, years ago I dated a woman who was a huge Federer fan. In terms of my life she ranks somewhere between Trump and 9/11 so needless to say I used to take glee in Federer losses. But yesterday I felt like Federer’s performance AT ALMOST 38 YEARS OLD forced me to surrender any resentments (towards Federer)). He is the standard to which every player must measure themselves – numerically and stylistically.
This may be the unfortunate fate that awaits Djokavic. If I had to pick any player in history to win one match (not on clay) I would pick Djokavic. He has incredible, well-rounded talent, has been dubbed by John McEnroe the greatest returned in the history of the sport and has Federer’s 20 titles in his sights. And yet, seeing Federer, even in defeat, I felt like I was watching the man who invented tennis. It’s a weird distinction, to say that the best player ever may not be the greatest, but the most important thing is that we all get to watch the three greatest tennis players of all time play.