If you follow men’s tennis, you know that we are witnessing the most incredible era there has ever been, a real golden age. The three best players of all time have dominated the game for almost two decades, showing very little sign of relenting at any point.
These three players are Roger Federer of Switzerland, Rafael Nadal of Spain and Novak Djokovic of Serbia. How dominant have they been? In tennis there are four tournaments every year (called Grand Slams) where the world’s top players compete. These tournaments are the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open. They carry the most prestige in the sport due to the competition they attract and the best-of-five-set format that is exclusive to the slams. Grand Slams also serve as the chief criteria by which various players are judged, and these three players have absolutely owned them.
Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic currently have 20, 19 and 17 titles respectively. These are the three highest totals in history. They have the three most match wins at Grand Slams, despite Nadal and Djokovic not even ranking in the top-10 of Grand Slam matches played. They have completely shut down almost two generations of players, with the next most slams won since 2000 by one player is three. You heard that correctly.
And they haven’t played with a bunch of pushover players. Advances in the game, especially racquet technology, has led to a brand of tennis that is far more physically demanding. The level of play is higher. In the women’s game, this has led to parity in the game, with one dominant figure in Serena Williams. But this parity, as well as the parity throughout the history of men’s tennis prior to 2003, shows how extraordinary it is that three players have won 56 of the last 67 Majors.
But which of these three is worthy of standing alone as the greatest? When deciding on the greatest tennis player of all time, it will need to be the person with the greatest combination of big tournament success, a career of statistical dominance and a strong narrative defining his greatness.
The Statistical Case
When comparing the statistics of these three players, it is important to look at a few key measures. As I mentioned, Grand Slams are the biggest tournaments and the most important statistical factor. Past these, the Masters events are the next biggest tournaments. Most top players in the world play in all these events, so the competition level is as high as the Grand Slams, but they have a two-out-of-three set format that makes upsets more likely. There are nine of these tournaments, three on clay and six on hard courts. It is also important to count overall titles, weeks ranked number one and records against each other. Table 1 shows the comparison of these statistics, with the bolded number indicating that player had the highest of the three.
Table 1: Cumulative Statistics
|Grand Slam Titles||20||19||17|
|Grand Slam Win %||86.0%||87.6%||87.0%|
|Masters Win %||77.9%||82.9%||81.8%|
|Total Win %||82.1%||83.2%||83.0%|
|Weeks at Number 1||310||205||275|
In terms of these statistics, you can see Federer has the most Grand Slam titles, as well as overall titles and weeks at number one. Nadal has the highest winning percentage across all events and the most Masters titles. Djokovic does not lead any of these categories, though he has many close second-place marks. Where the argument favors Djokovic is in the head-to-head records, where he leads both Nadal and Federer. It is also worth noting that all three have a higher winning percentage in Grand Slam events than any other events, showing the ability of the best players to dominate these tournaments.
Because of the importance of the Majors, we can look more closely at how the Big Three have done in these tournaments. Table 2 is a deeper breakdown of the players’ performance at the Grand Slam events.
Table 2: Grand Slam Breakdown
|Record in Finals||20-11||19-8||17-9|
|Finals vs Federer||6-3||4-1|
|Finals vs Nadal||3-6||4-4|
|Finals vs Djokovic||1-4||4-4|
This table shows that each player has a favorite event. Djokovic has had the most success at the Australian Open, while Nadal has obliterated the other two at the French Open. Federer, meanwhile, has the most Wimbledon’s and US Opens, but the US Open is a tight race between all three.
In terms of head-to-head comparisons, Nadal has a winning record against both Federer and Djokovic. He has a 66% winning percentage against them, but only a 59% winning percentage against them in the finals. Djokovic has a 62% winning percentage against the others in the finals, but has a losing record to Nadal overall in these tournaments.
Looking at the times these players faced others in the finals, Federer is 16-1, Nadal is 9-1 and Djokovic is 9-4. Federer’s loss came to Juan Martin Del Potro in the 2009 US Open, Nadal lost to Stan Wawrinka at the Australian Open, and Djokovic has lost to Wawrinka and Andy Murray twice each. Federer and Nadal have been absolutely dominant when facing challengers in finals of these events, while Djokovic has faltered on several occasions. These are ultimately wasted opportunities for Djokovic, as facing a player not in the Big Three in a Grand Slam final should be practically a guaranteed victory, as both Nadal and Federer have exemplified. So, does it help Djokovic that he has the best record against the others in finals, or does it hurt him that he has lost so many more matches than the others against lesser competitors? This is debatable, and will come up later when I make the case for and against each player.
Because of Nadal’s absolute dominance at the French Open and on clay in general, it is interesting to look at the same statistics, but with clay courts excluded. Table 3 is the original statistics, but with all clay court results removed.
Table 3: Excluding Clay
|Grand Slam Titles||19||7||16|
|Grand Slam Win %||87.4%||83.1%||88.3%|
|Masters Win %||79.3%||77.4%||82.7%|
|Total Win %||83.5%||77.5%||84.1%|
The removal of Nadal’s favorite surface leads to him falling to third in winning percentage across all events, and deep deficits in terms of titles and head-to-head records. It is Djokovic who leads across all events in winning percentage, though Federer has more Grand Slams and total titles. Djokovic still leads Federer in head-to-head by a slim margin, and he absolutely dominates Nadal, winning 71% of their matchups.
By looking at the converse, this table reveals Federer and Djokovic’s real struggles on clay. It is their worst surface in terms of winning percentage by seven and four percentage points respectively, and the French Open is the only major they have won only once. Some of this is due to running into Nadal at these events or because their games are more suitable for other surfaces.
While looking at the non-clay events, it is also important to keep perspective and understand the other side. Nadal’s dominance of clay courts is incredible, and not even close to being matched by any other player on one surface. He has 12 French Open titles, 25 Masters titles, a 92% winning percentage, and an incredible 98% winning percentage at the French Open, losing only two matches ever at the event. Both of these losses were suspected to be due to injury; it is the only instance in the history of the sport where one player, given good health and form, is unbeatable at an event with a sample size near 100 matches.
Unfortunately for Nadal, the clay court season is relatively short. Of the 11 months of play during the season, only about two of them are really dominated by clay events. One of the four Majors and three of the nine Masters event are played on clay. This means only 31% of the events drawing the world’s best competition are played on Nadal’s favorite surface. He is the King of Clay, and has this title by the widest margin of any other player on his favorite surface. However, because of the brevity of the clay season, the fact that Nadal has amassed most of his accolades on clay works against him in the larger conversation.
Another big crossroads in the sport occurred in 2011, when Djokovic really broke onto the scene. Table 4 looks at the statistics of the players since the beginning of 2011.
Table 4: Since January 2011
|Grand Slam Titles||4||10||16|
|Grand Slam Win %||84.2%||87.6%||91.0%|
|Masters Win %||79.7%||82.8%||86.2%|
|Total Win %||83.7%||84.0%||87.7%|
The first important thing to note is that heading into this year, Djokovic was 23 years old, Nadal was 24, and Federer was 29. Up to this point in tennis history, most players began to decline when they hit 30. Greats had retired before they were 29, such as Bjorn Borg. Pete Sampras, considered the greatest of all time prior to Federer, retired at 31. All of this is to say that Federer’s success from ages 29 to 38 has been unprecedented and truly incredible. This table captures a Federer that was not in his physical prime, but ultimately, his play did not fall off much. His winning percentage across all events is actually higher than the average of his career, though his winning percentage in Grand Slams is slightly lower. This is actually evidence that Federer has been as good as he ever was since 2011, but he hasn’t seen the same success in terms of title count.
A large reason for this is the dominance of Djokovic over this period lasting close to a decade. Djokovic has a spectacular winning percentage across all events, at least about four points higher than the other two. He has by far the most of each kind of title, and over a 66% winning percentage against both Nadal and Federer. Now, while Federer has not been in his physical prime due to age, it could be argued that Nadal has not been in his prime because of injuries and his body breaking down at various times throughout the decade. This is true, but all three have had their injury problems, and Djokovic plays a brand of tennis that is just as physically taxing as Nadal’s. Both Nadal and Djokovic came into 2011 entering their prime years of tennis, with only a year separating their ages. However, it is Djokovic who owned the 2010s. All three have been better than the rest, but Djokovic has been better than all others.
The last thing I wanted to control for was the prime of the players’ careers. For this, I looked at the best five-year stretch of each of the players careers, the time when each of them was most dominant. Table 5 looks at the statistics from each of the players’ prime stretches.
Table 5: Best Five-Year Stretches
|Grand Slam Titles||12||8||9|
|Grand Slam Win %||93.9%||91.0%||91.7%|
|Masters Win %||85.4%||89.7%||89.5%|
|Total Win %||90.7%||85.5%||89.8%|
Federer’s run is statistically the most impressive, with by far the most Majors, as well as the highest winning percentage in all events but Masters. He was dominant over Djokovic, though Djokovic was just a teenager for most of this time period. Surprisingly, Nadal still dominated Federer while Federer was at his peak, despite turning 22 in the last year of this stretch. This is a huge point against Federer, as even while he was in his prime, he consistently lost to Nadal. Another point against Federer is the lower level of competition. Djokovic was barely around, Nadal was only a real threat on clay courts at this time, and no other great players were really present. Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, and Marat Safin had a few great moments, but they are lesser competition than even Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray, Marin Cilic, and Juan Martin Del Potro, the tier below the Big Three. Federer dominated during the weakest time period, but he was undoubtedly the most dominant of the three.
Nadal’s stretch has a year of overlap with Federer’s and two years of overlap with Djokovic’s. The overlap shows that Nadal had probably the hardest competition during his stretch, which is a point in his favor. However, he had the fewest titles of the three, as well as the lowest winning percentage in Majors and overall. He continued his dominance of Federer, but was only 13-12 against Djokovic. This is not as tragic as in Federer’s case, but it is still disappointing that at Nadal’s peak of his career he was not completely dominant over the other two.
Djokovic is in the middle in terms of titles and winning percentage, but he was able to dominate both Nadal and Federer. He won two-thirds of all meetings with them, despite the overlap with Nadal’s prime and Federer still being at a very high level at the time. Overall, Federer was the most dominant, but he had the least competition in his prime. Djokovic was the only one to be able to dominate both of the others for a long stretch of his career.
The statistics are very impressive for all three; you can make arguments for each by controlling for certain factors. These arguments are important to the conversation, but the narrative and story of their careers is just as important. To establish this narrative, I will look back at some of the most influential Grand Slam events of these players careers.
Final: Federer def. Philippoussis 7-6 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (3)
This was Federer’s first Grand Slam title. He was 21 years old at the time, and was the four seed in the tournament. He dropped only one set the whole tournament, in the third round to Mardy Fish. This would begin Federer’s quick ascension to the greatest in the game.
2005 French Open
Final: Nadal def. Puerta 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-1, 7-5
In his first appearance in this event, Nadal would win in dominant fashion. Like Federer, Nadal was also the four seed in his first major win, but he was only two days removed from his 19th birthday. Nadal beat first-seeded Federer in the semifinals before beating unseeded Puerta in the finals, dropping a set to each. This was the beginning of Nadal’s reign at this tournament.
2007 Australian Open
Final: Federer def. Gonzalez 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-4
Just three-and-a-half years after his first major, Federer’s victory at the Australian brought him to 10 major titles. This was one of his most dominant performances, winning the whole tournament without dropping a single set. Federer was quickly rising and building his resume as the best to ever play the game. Despite his inability to breakthrough at the French Open, he had won almost every other major tournament since 2004. The record number of Grand Slam titles at the time was 14 by Pete Sampras, and Federer was closing the gap in short order.
In the fourth round, Federer beat the 14-seed in convincing fashion, and was just another notch in his dominant two-week run. This match was against 19-year old Novak Djokovic, considered an up-and-coming player at the time. Prior to the match, Djokovic said that he believed he could beat Federer, and that he could one day be just as great. The year prior, after a match in which Djokovic beat Federer’s countryman Stan Wawrinka in a Davis Cup match, Federer said of Djokovic, “I think he’s a joke, you know, when it comes down to his injuries.” This lit a fire under Djokovic and inspired him to be better than Federer. He couldn’t get past him this year because he was simply inferior to the prime-form Federer. However, in this their first meeting in a Grand Slam event, Djokovic still demonstrated his confidence and belief that he could one day catch Federer.
2007 US Open
Final: Federer def. Djokovic 7-6 (4), 7-6 (2), 6-4
After Djokovic reached the semifinals of the French Open and Wimbledon, he had worked himself up to the third seed. Despite the great season of improvement, Djokovic still fell short to Federer in straight-sets. The match was closer than their meeting at the Australian Open, but Djokovic seemed far from giving Federer a real run for his money.
For Djokovic, this was his first Grand Slam final, but for Federer, this was his 12th title at age 26. He had been ranked number one in the world for almost three years consecutively at this point, and was showing no signs of letting up. He had won 12 of the last 18 Majors, an unprecedented run of consistent success. If his career had ended at this point, he probably would have been considered the greatest of all time, even though he was two slams short of Sampras. After this match, I believe Federer was at the very highest point in his career.
2008 Australian Open
Final: Djokovic def. Tsonga 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (2)
To follow up his breakout 2007, Djokovic took an even bigger step forward by claiming his first Major title in Australia. Djokovic had firmly established himself as the number three player in the world behind Federer and Nadal. He dropped one set in the final to Tsonga, the only set he lost all tournament. This is an impressive feat, but it becomes even more notable when you look at his semifinal opponent: Roger Federer. He beat Federer in straight-sets, finally overcoming him at a major. What is so interesting about these results is how quickly it flipped. Federer had not looked vulnerable at all in 2007 against Djokovic, and then Djokovic beat him easily. Djokovic had arrived, but Federer was still the undisputed man in the sport; everyone suffers losses eventually, especially after such a long streak of winning Majors. It is also worth noting is that Nadal lost to Tsonga in the semifinals, his best result at a hard court Grand Slam event. Nadal was beginning to see better results on other surfaces, establishing himself as a threat at all the Majors, not just the French.
Final: Nadal def. Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7
This final is widely considered one of the greatest matches of all time. Federer and Nadal entered the final having little struggles up to that point in the tournament. Nadal was looking to win his first Grand Slam other than the French, while Federer was looking to continue his reign on grass. This had been the final match the previous two years, with Federer winning two tight affairs. In this match, Nadal got out to a two-set lead, but Federer fought back, winning tiebreak sets in the third and fourth. Federer faced two match points in the fourth set tiebreak, but he battled back to win. Heading into the fifth, Federer had the momentum, but Nadal would not go away. After neither player dropped serve, Nadal finally broke Federer at 7-7 and served it out to win his first Wimbledon.
For Federer, this was his third straight major without a victory, and it appeared that his vice grip on the sport was beginning to slip. Nadal was entering the prime of his career, despite being only 22 years old. Not long after this tournament, Nadal would surpass Federer and earn the number one ranking for the first time in his career.
2009 French Open
Final: Federer def. Soderling 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4
This year marked Nadal’s first ever loss at the French Open, when he lost to Robin Soderling. He lost in the fourth round in four sets. This match truly shocked the tennis world. Nadal was coming off his first Australian Open title, a match that drove Federer to tears during the trophy ceremony. Many people believe that Nadal was not 100% healthy and in form for this match, however; Soderling played fantastic and made it all the way to the final. His hard-hitting, flat style of play is not usually successful on the clay, but in this match, it was exactly what he needed to beat Nadal. Soderling was a very disliked player on tour, and he was certainly getting into Nadal’s head on this occasion. Despite the great tournament, he was unable to beat Federer in the final. He couldn’t summon the form he had on the day he beat Nadal, and Federer claimed his first French Open title. This meant Federer had won each of the four Majors at least once, something that no one had accomplished since Rod Laver in the 1960’s. This title was also Federer’s 14th, tying him for the record. He would go on to break this record at Wimbledon, establishing himself as the undisputed greatest of all time.
2010 US Open
Final: Nadal def. Djokovic 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2
2010 was the best year of Nadal’s career. It is the only year Nadal won three of the four Majors, and this final match against Djokovic locked that up. He went on to have seasons with higher overall winning percentage, but he never won three slams in a year again. Federer won in Australia in 2010, his 16th major title. This US Open for Nadal was his ninth major title, and also completed his own career slam because he had already won each of the other three tournaments. Nadal capped this season with the year-end number one ranking, the second time in his career he finished the year as the best player in tennis. There was beginning to be real talk that Nadal could someday also surpass Pete Sampras’s 14 Majors, and that Federer and Nadal might be the two best players of all time.
For Djokovic, this was a demoralizing loss. He had failed to win another Grand Slam since his first in 2008, this was in fact his only final since then. He had been ranked third behind Federer and Nadal for years, and it was looking like he would be relegated to their shadows for his whole career. However, Djokovic remained optimistic after this result. In the summer of 2010, he discovered that he had a gluten allergy that had been affecting his breathing and overall fitness. After consulting with a doctor, Djokovic changed his diet and began his incredible dedication to fitness. At the time he was known as someone who retired from a lot of matches, not a real threat in a long match. As Federer said, he was a “joke”, but this was all about to change. Before losing to Nadal in the final, Djokovic beat Federer in a five-set match. Djokovic saved two match points and showed a level of poise that was very encouraging.
The end of 2010 is a very interesting crossroads in this whole narrative. Federer was 29 with 16 Majors, Nadal was 24 with nine Majors, and Djokovic was 23 with only one major. Federer had established himself as the greatest of all time, Nadal was on top and looking like he could rack up more titles, and Djokovic was firmly in their shadow. He had changed racquet brands in 2009 with little change in result; he had just changed his diet with results to be determined. There is no question that at this time, the conversation was a two-man race to be the greatest. He was 6-13 head-to-head against Federer, 7-15 against Nadal, and Nadal led Federer 14-8.
2011 French Open
Final: Nadal def. Federer 7-5, 7-6 (3), 5-7, 6-1
After Djokovic got his second title in Australia, he was heading into the French Open without a loss on the season. He went up against Federer in the semifinals, and lost to Federer in four tight sets. Federer was heading into the finals looking to win his second French Open, but he also really wanted to beat Nadal. His first title was definitely legitimate, but he didn’t have to go through Nadal. Everyone knows that this is Nadal’s tournament, and unless you go through him, there will always be somewhat of an asterisk.
As it turned out, this would be the best match Federer would ever play against Nadal at this event. He kept the first two sets really close, but dropped both and seemed to have no shot at winning. He stayed strong by winning the third, but then got in a hole in the fourth and lost it 6-1. This was another match that left Federer in tears, and Nadal claimed his sixth French Open title. Federer was fully aware of the impact of this moment, and despite this and his best possible performance, Nadal was just too dominant on the clay.
2011 US Open
Final: Djokovic def. Nadal 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1
2011 was Djokovic’s breakout year. He had won the Australian Open and Wimbledon heading into this tournament, and had become the world number one for the first time in this summer. In the semifinal, he beat Federer in a five-set match for the second year in a row. Once again, he saved two match points. Djokovic was not just showing his consistency as a threat in the Majors, but seemed to be developing a real mental edge over Federer. Unlike the previous year, it was Djokovic winning in the final, with a fairly convincing win over Nadal.
After this tournament, Djokovic went on to finish with the year-end number one ranking for the first time, and had brought his major count to four, with Nadal at 10 and Federer still at 16. The GOAT race was still between two people, but Djokovic had a dominant year that he would try to sustain moving forward.
2012 Australian Open
Final: Djokovic def. Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5
The 2008 Wimbledon final may be the greatest match of all time, but this final was the highest quality tennis ever played. Nadal and Djokovic were meeting in the final of the third consecutive major final, and they were both at their peaks. This was one of the years where their primes overlapped, and it produced the highest quality match of all time in the longest major final ever to date. Nadal took out Federer in a four-set semifinal, while Djokovic had to battle back from two-sets-to-one down against Andy Murray.
Nadal won the first set in comeback fashion, then Djokovic controlled the next two sets. The fourth went to a tiebreak, where Djokovic got a 5-3 lead before dropping four straight points along with the set. Nadal was up a break in the fifth at 4-2, but Djokovic turned it around, claiming his fifth major and third in Australia. After the match, Nadal called it “the toughest loss of my career, but the best match I ever played.” Djokovic had now won four of five Majors, and the dominance of Nadal and Federer seemed to be allowing in a third member. Nadal would go on to win the French, and Federer would go on to win Wimbledon, and the US Open went to Andy Murray in one of the few Majors that the Big Three didn’t take home.
2013 US Open
Final: Nadal def. Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1
After the 2012 Wimbledon tournament, Nadal missed many tournaments due to injury. He had lost in that Wimbledon in the second round to Lucas Rosol in a match that can only be described as incredible. Nadal left this tournament with an injury, but it did not show in this match. Rosol just played one of the best matches, and fifth sets in particular, of all time. After the roof closed before the fifth set, Rosol caught absolute fire and started firing 100+ MPH shots routinely. I don’t think there was a player in the world that could’ve beaten Rosol on that day, but regardless, it was chalked up to Nadal being injured. Nadal had returned to form by winning the 2013 French Open, but this tournament was Nadal’s chance to show that he was fully back, and he did just that.
Nadal dominated the whole tournament, including a great performance against Djokovic in the finals. He was now only four behind Federer’s record 17 Majors, and Federer was looking done. He was only the seven seed in this tournament, and was looking as though his body would not cooperate with a long career. He had his worst record in Major’s matches since 2002, and it looked like the greatest of all time had run out of steam. He was 32 at this time, which was well beyond the prime age of the average tennis player. He had dropped eight of his last 11 meetings with Djokovic, and seven of his last nine with Nadal. At this moment in time, if you told someone that Federer would win three more Majors, they would call you crazy. That makes Federer’s resilience and longevity all the more impressive.
Final: Djokovic def. Federer 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4), 5-7, 6-4
In 2014, Federer finally reached his first Major final since Wimbledon 2012, and he ran into Djokovic, looking for his seventh major. This match was very close, all the way through. In the end, it was Djokovic who took home the title, once again leaving Federer demoralized and questioning his career. Grass was supposed to be his surface, and this was a match where he could have really asserted himself against Djokovic. But once again, when the match got tight, it was Djokovic who was able to raise his level of play and overcome Federer in the fifth set.
In the US Open, after Cilic clinched a berth in the finals by beating Federer in straight-sets, Djokovic blew a match against Nishikori, with Cilic going on to win the title. This goes down as a tournament that none of the three won, but coming off of a good summer, this was an inexplicable blown chance for Djokovic. He was still far behind Nadal and Federer, but he was the best player in the world at this time.
Nadal was injured once again, as he actually missed this tournament altogether. He wouldn’t win another Major until 2017, as 2015 and 2016 would be injury riddled for Nadal. He was also getting up in age, and due to the physical toll his play took on his body, it was looking as though Nadal may be retiring at an earlier age than people had hoped.
2015 French Open
Final: Wawrinka def. Djokovic 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4
This is the only narrative match that doesn’t have one of the Big Three members winning, and that is because it is probably the biggest blown opportunity. In 2014, Wawrinka beat Nadal in the Australian Open final. This was a surprising result, but ultimately, Wawrinka played a great match and Nadal wasn’t in great form. This was the only final Nadal lost to a non-Big Three member, but this match that Djokovic lost to Wawrinka was an even bigger disappointment. It would have been Djokovic’s third major in the last four, and would have given him at least one of each major, joining Nadal and Federer in this accomplishment. Djokovic had beaten Nadal in straight-sets in the quarterfinals, Nadal’s second loss at the tournament in his career. After this match, Nadal was injured, but again, watching the match, Nadal was just beaten by a better player. Unfortunately for Djokovic, he was pushed so hard by Andy Murray in his semifinal that he had nothing left in the final. His match with Murray lasted two days because of rain, and ultimately, it led to his defeat to Wawrinka in the finals.
Djokovic took the first set, but Wawrinka was too much. On a surface that wouldn’t traditionally favor his hard-hitting style, Wawrinka out-powered Djokovic and shut down his comeback attempts in the fourth set to clinch his second Major title.
2015 US Open
Final: Djokovic def. Federer 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4
Federer entered the final without dropping a set. He had lost to Djokovic in the Wimbledon final, unable to win his first major in three years. Unfortunately, in this match he would fall short again. Though Federer was playing great and kept getting close to a Major, 2015 and 2016 were extremely dominant for Djokovic. His loss to Wawrinka at the French would be his only loss at the Majors in 2015, and though his final with Federer was four tight sets, it seemed obvious throughout who would win the match. Djokovic was beginning to look as good as he ever had, proving to be a real threat to enter the conversation with Nadal and Federer. Following this match, the Major count was 17 for Federer, 14 for Nadal, and now 10 for Djokovic.
It is worth noting that though these two years were arguably Djokovic’s best stretch of dominance, Nadal was basically absent during this time. He was struggling with injury and had exited the last two Majors extremely early, and this would continue into 2016, where a fourth-round finish at the US Open was his best result at a major.
2016 French Open
Final: Djokovic def. Murray 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4
With this title, Djokovic now had at least one title at all three Majors, joining Nadal and Federer. He breezed through the tournament, dropping a set to Murray in the finals and one other set along the way. It was his 12th Major title, bringing him within two of Nadal. He had won five of the last six, and became the first to win four in a row since Rod Laver in 1969. Djokovic was capitalizing on Nadal’s absence from the top of the game. At this time, it became plausible that Djokovic may actually be the best of all time, and with a few more dominant years, he could surpass Nadal and Federer. It was uncertain that Nadal would ever return to the top of the game, turning 30 and having a history of injury troubles. Federer had not won since 2012, and despite remaining at the top of the game, he seemed to be past the point of winning Grand Slams. For those ascribing to this common thought, the next two years would come as a big surprise.
2017 Australian Open
Final: Federer def. Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3
This matchup in the finals was genuinely incredible. Federer and Nadal were the 17 and nine seed respectively, and they both had huge struggles in reaching the finals. After splitting the first two sets, 35-year-old Federer was certainly not the favorite. Despite this, he broke Nadal and held on to win his first title in five years. He became the oldest player ever to win a Major. Nadal was sad to lose, but this was his first Major final in three years, and he had proven that he was able to return to the highest level of the game following his injury. Genuinely, this title for Federer was one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of the sport.
This tournament also started a year-and-a-half period of injury for Djokovic, who lost in the second round to a qualifier. He would only miss the 2017 US Open, but at the other tournaments, it was clear that he was not really a contender to win. After two years of domination, he fell back, opening the door for Nadal and Federer to regain some dominance.
Where is the next generation at this time? They were rising in the rankings, the likes of Milos Raonic, Dominic Thiem, David Goffin, but they weren’t threats in the Majors. Wawrinka, Murray, and Cilic were the other real contenders at Majors, but they were around Djokovic and Nadal’s age. This 2017 season would show just how dominant the Big Three are. Djokovic was practically out with an injury the whole year, and Nadal and Federer would win every major this year. A 36-year-old Federer was better than every challenger, except maybe Nadal, who was 31 coming off of major injuries.
2018 Australian Open
Final: Federer def. Cilic 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-3, 3-6, 6-1
This was Federer’s 20th Major, a number that would have sounded unbelievable heading into 2017. He beat Cilic in a surgical five sets, his third Major in the last five. Nadal had won the other two, and was the number one player in the world, but withdrew against Cilic in the quarterfinals. It was looking as though 2018 would be a repeat of 2017 in terms of Nadal and Federer winning all the Majors. Nadal would also go on to claim his 17th Major at the French Open of this year.
All three have suffered early losses at Majors, but Djokovic’s loss at this tournament was probably the most disheartening. He came into the tournament finally feeling relatively healthy, but lost in the fourth round to unseeded Hyeon Chung in straight-sets. The reason this was so bad was Chung’s style of play. He was a baseline player, didn’t have great power, but was a consistent stroker from the back of the court. This was the type of player Djokovic feasted on in his career, yet on this day, it seemed like he was somewhat healthy but couldn’t approach the form he had exhibited in the past. Following this tournament Djokovic would undergo surgery and rack up more disappointing losses at Masters events. At one point, he actually told his family that he was retiring from tennis. This was during his recovery from surgery, but he ended up rediscovering his love of the game, and would work to rehabilitate his elbow and try to return to dominance.
Final: Djokovic def. Anderson 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (3)
After looking close to retirement earlier in the year, Djokovic incredibly came back to win Wimbledon with an easy final win over Kevin Anderson, who had beaten John Isner in a marathon semifinal match. In Djokovic’s semifinal, he beat Nadal in an incredible five set match that spanned two days. Djokovic led two sets to one at the break, following a 13-11 tiebreak in the third set. In the fourth set, Djokovic employed a strategy that had really never been seen before, but he has pulled out in big matches ever since: not trying at all. He came out with no intensity, getting down 3-0 quickly. He would show some fight later in the set, but he didn’t exert himself much at all this set. The idea is that by coasting for a set that you don’t need to win, you can be feeling physically strong going into an important set. Nadal and Federer would never do something like this, but in the end, it worked. Djokovic saved tons of break points in the fifth set before finally breaking Nadal at love to win the match. In my opinion, this was the highest quality tennis played since the 2012 Australian Open final.
For Djokovic, this brought his Major count to 13, only one short of Sampras. It had looked as though he may never reach Sampras, and thus the Big Three would not be the three greatest of all time. With this 13th Major and signs of really good form, Djokovic showed life in the race to catch Federer, or at least Nadal.
2019 Australian Open
Final: Djokovic def. Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3
Djokovic turned his magical Wimbledon run into three straight Major titles, but this was his most dominant showing. Heading into this final, Nadal and Djokovic were both in incredible form. Nadal hadn’t dropped a set, and Djokovic had lost six total games in the last two rounds. Before the match, the expectation was that this was going to be a mirror of their 2012 final, and that the ceiling of how well tennis could be played may be pushed higher than ever. In a sense, that proved to be true, but not in the way everyone expected. Djokovic turned in the most dominant performance of all time against an in-form Nadal. No injury complaints after the match; no excuses. They went into the match equally dominant over all the rest, but Djokovic destroyed Nadal. Nadal looked like himself during the match, but he was about two tiers below Djokovic on this day. Watching the match, the tennis that Djokovic displayed in this final and throughout the latter half of the tournament was the most impressive tennis I have ever seen.
Of all the finals the Big Three played against each other, only three were straight-set matches. One was Djokovic’s first ever final, where he lost to Federer; the other was a French Open final where Nadal beat Federer. Whenever two went into the finals in good form, the match was almost always close and intense. This was neither, just an absolute slaughter from start to finish. With this title, Djokovic surpassed Sampras, and pulled to within two of Nadal.
Final: Djokovic def. Federer 7-6 (5), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3)
This match was wild. As I mentioned earlier, Djokovic had begun using a strategy that involved throwing away an entire set. In this match, he did it twice. The first set was very tight, with Djokovic winning in a close tiebreak. Would he build on this? No, he would play one of the least engaged sets I’ve ever seen in a Major final, handing Federer a 6-1 second. In the third, he pulled out another tiebreak, then went right back to coasting. Federer served at 5-2, and was broken for the first time in the match, but he would still win the set 6-4. Heading into the fifth set, Federer had outplayed Djokovic for about 90 percent of the match, but it still felt like Djokovic would win. He got out to a 4-2 lead, but Federer would break back, and the fifth set looked to be going the distance. At 7-7, Djokovic was broken, and Federer had a chance to serve for the championship. He had two match points serving at 40-15, but for the third time in his career, he lost a game in which he had two match points in the fifth set against Djokovic. This was the first year that Wimbledon implemented a rule forcing a tiebreak at 12-12. This was due to the previous year’s semifinals, in which Anderson won his semifinal match 26-24 in the fifth, and was completely spent in the final. Djokovic won his third tiebreak of the match to clinch his 16th Major, and Federer was left feeling as though he had blown a huge opportunity, potentially his last chance at a Major title.
This match was the difference between a six-slam lead and a four-slam lead over Djokovic, and at the end of their careers, if Djokovic does surpass Federer, this will be the first match Federer will point to and say it should have gone the other way. Djokovic was not at his best, and was outplayed by Federer for almost the entire match. Despite this, he made a massive bet on himself by throwing away two sets. In all the matches Djokovic has thrown away sets, it has yet to backfire on him, despite how frustrating it is for fans of his to watch. For Djokovic, this was his fourth Major title in the last five, the third time in his career he achieved this. Federer and Nadal both did this just once.
After the match, Djokovic said, “Roger said that he gives some other people a chance to believe they can do it at 37, I’m one of them.” The disgust was palpable in Federer’s expression, as he realized that Djokovic was planning on playing at least five more years, and would almost certainly pass him. Djokovic has said many times he wants to go down as the greatest ever, and this match was Federer’s best chance to make his lead as close to insurmountable as he could.
As we stand right now, the count is 20 to 19 to 17. Due to COVID-19, only the French Open and US Open will be played this year, while normality is hopefully restored in 2021. It is important to recognize that all three players have not finished their careers. Thus, we cannot fully close the debate at this time, but we can analyze who has the best career right now, as well as who is likely to have the most success when all is said and done. At the present time, here is the case for and against each of the Big Three as the greatest player of all time.
The Case for Each Player
For Federer, the case is simple: he has the most Major titles, the most time with the number one ranking and virtually everyone considers him the greatest. He has been the face of tennis for almost two decades, and he has handled this with as much grace as is humanly possible. He has the most Majors, and he has by far the best five-year stretch of any of the Big Three. In his prime, he reached 23 straight Major semifinals, an all-time record. Longevity is another feather in Federer’s cap. He has maintained his incredibly high level of play deeper into his career than any other player ever. To this point, his victories in 2017 are amazing narrative moments, coming back at age 35 to win a Major for the first time in five years.
The arguments against Federer revolve around the biggest flaw in his resume: his head-to-head record against Nadal and Djokovic. He has losing records against both, and even when he was at his very best, he lost to Nadal twice as often as he beat him, despite Nadal being under 23 this whole time. Since the beginning of 2007, he is 1-8 against Nadal and Djokovic in Major finals. Since 2011, despite having a winning percentage consistent with the rest of his career, he has continued his losing ways against Nadal, while getting dominated by Djokovic. Most of his success occurred before Nadal and Djokovic became threats, and his late career success took place while Djokovic was injured.
These arguments regarding Federer paint him as the following: a player that played at an extremely high level more consistently than anyone else in history. His 16-1 record in Major finals against players not named Djokovic and Nadal shows this. However, when two players came along that were better than Federer, he was unable to raise his level of play. He was the most consistently dominant over inferior competition, but was unable to rise to the occasion when his opponent was outplaying him, especially in big moments.
Nadal also has a lot of points in his favor. His domination on clay is unlike anything in history. No player has ever dominated a surface like Nadal has. He was also sandwiched between Federer and Djokovic, so theoretically he had the most competition of the three. He also had the most injury problems, limiting his career achievements in some ways. He was a non-threat for stretches in 2012-2013 and 2015-2016 due to injury. Nadal also has about as much respect as Federer. He is beloved by fans and players alike, considered one of the greatest competitors in the sport. He is known for playing each point as though it is his last, and this mentality has brought him success on the court and respect off it. Nadal also has the highest winning percentage across all events, proving he is statistically the hardest of the three to beat.
Like Federer, there are also many points that work against Nadal. Though he is dominant on clay, this makes up only about 30 percent of the year, and he is definitely behind Federer and Djokovic for the other 70 percent. Taking away his clay achievements, he becomes a distant third. Even when Nadal was at his most dominant, he was only slightly above 50 percent against Djokovic. He has the fewest stretches of dominance in his career, usually winning the French each year and maybe another in a good year. He has won three Majors in a year only once; Federer and Djokovic have both done this twice. Nadal has always felt like number two. He was number two to Federer early in his career, and has been number two to Djokovic later in his career. He has the most year-end number two rankings of any of the three.
As a whole, Nadal is a player that dominated a surface like no one ever has, but for 70 percent of the year, he is a distant third. He has some great narrative moments, such as the 2008 Wimbledon final, and coming back in 2017 to win two Majors following injury. He doesn’t have the absolute statistics that Federer has, and he doesn’t have the head-to-head advantage Djokovic has. Nadal has by far the fewest weeks ranked number one, and I think ultimately that matters a lot if you want to claim he is the greatest of all time.
The case for Djokovic is that he has winning records against the other two. He has the best record in Major finals against other members of the Big Three, coming through in the most important moments. He has the longest stretch of dominance, as he has been the best player in the world since 2011, barring the time he missed with injury. His injury history is almost as severe as Nadal’s, taking away a few prime years that could’ve further bolstered his resume. For Djokovic, I think the biggest point in his favor is the narrative. He has overcome the most obstacles, period. Federer overcame a title drought, albeit while Djokovic was out, Nadal overcame the stigma that he could only play on one surface, as well as injuries, but these accomplishments don’t compare to Djokovic’s. He overcame a dietary ailment that held him back early in his career, he overcame the narrative of being in the shadow of the other two, he overcame injuries that almost drove him to retirement, and he overcomes the crowd every time he steps on the court. It is commonly known that tennis fans have three favorite players: Federer, Nadal, and whoever is playing Djokovic. All of these obstacles were overcome by Djokovic, and I believe he has the best narrative case for being the greatest because of this.
This lack of respect also works against Djokovic. It is hard to call someone the greatest ever when they don’t have the respect of the fans and players. He also doesn’t have the statistics of the other two, as he is still in third in terms of Major titles. He was unable to dominate the rest of the sport like Nadal and Federer did. His record of 9-4 in Major finals against non-Big Three members is by far the worst of the three. This is a testament to the level of competition in the 2010’s compared to the 2000’s, but it still hurts Djokovic that he hasn’t dominated the field like the others.
Overall, Djokovic has winning records against the others. If all three are at their best, I think Djokovic has the highest level of tennis ever. He has the most stretches of dominance over the best level of competition, and the narrative driving his career is the most impactful. However, he doesn’t have the respect of the other two, and he hasn’t beaten the rest of the field down like the other two.
The Greatest of All Time
So which of the three is the greatest of all time? Across all sports, the greatest of all time is the player who was the most dominant in their prime, overcame all opponents of their era, and had a narrative of greatness that included obstacles and big moment success. It’s why Jordan is greater than Lebron, why Brady is greater than Montana, and why Ali is greater than all others.
Though Federer has more impressive statistics in his prime, Djokovic’s prime numbers are probably more impressive considering the level of competition each faced at the time. Djokovic is the one who truly overcame all opponents, winning the head-to-head battles against each of the other two. Djokovic has overcome the most obstacles in his career, and has the most special moments. He has three times come back from two match points down against Federer in Majors, he prevailed in a 2012 Australian Open final that featured the highest level of tennis ever achieved, and he returned from a career-threatening injury to win three straight Grand Slams, with each final being a straight-set affair.
For many people, the Grand Slam count will always be the indicator of the best player ever, so for now, Federer retains his title in the eyes of most. When you account for the future, it has become increasingly likely that he will be surpassed by both Nadal and Djokovic, with Djokovic probably being the favorite to finish with the most. Whoever ends up with the most Grand Slam titles will likely be seen as the greatest, but I believe that a deeper look reveals that Novak Djokovic is the greatest player of all time. I would feel that way if the three retired today, and the future seems to be shaping up to solidify this claim. Roger Federer has maintained a very high level of play for longer than anyone, Rafael Nadal is the King of Clay and has dominated a surface like no other, but Djokovic has been the best of the three for almost a decade while the others were still at a really high level. That is why I believe that Novak Djokovic is the greatest tennis player of all time.