There is a nice symmetry that when Rafael Nadal faces Daniil Medvedev in the final of the Australian Open on Sunday, it will be the Spaniard’s turn to try to win a record 21st grand slam title. Roger Federer had his chance at Wimbledon in 2019, when he had two match points in the final against Novak Djokovic but lost in a deciding tiebreak. Djokovic had his chance at the US Open last year when, having won all three of the year’s previous majors, he reached the final in New York but was beaten by Medvedev, denying him the calendar year grand slam.
Now it is Nadal’s time, a fitting moment for the trio who have dominated men’s tennis for more than a decade and whose lives and successes have been inspired by and, in terms of numbers at least, adversely affected by the presence of the other two.
The three men have been tied on 20 grand slams since Djokovic triumphed at Wimbledon for the sixth time last year. Nadal reached 20 when he won his 13th Roland Garros title in 2020 and Federer hit 20 when he won the Australian Open for the sixth time in 2018. Between them, they have claimed 60 of the past 73 grand slam titles, dating back to Federer’s first Wimbledon win in 2003. There will surely never be another era like this one.
Though Federer’s future, at 40 and recovering from another knee operation, is uncertain, Nadal, who turns 36 in June, and Djokovic, who will be 35 in May, have time to add to their tallies. By the time they are finished, the men’s record may be out of sight.
That is what most people thought in 2000, though, when Pete Sampras passed Roy Emerson’s record of 12, which had stood since 1967. At the time, Emerson predicted Sampras would win four or five more, but the American was more circumspect. “Time will tell if it will be broken,” Sampras said. “In the modern game, it could be difficult. I mean the next person might be eight years old, hitting at a park somewhere around the world. You never know. There are great players who could do it, but it’s not easy.”
Sampras got a glimpse of the future the following year when he was sensationally knocked out at Wimbledon by Federer in the fourth round. Though Pistol Pete extended the slam record to 14 when he won the US Open in 2002 – in what turned out to be his last event – maybe he had seen the writing on the wall. Nadal was 16 and about to burst on the scene and Djokovic was a leading junior, with great things expected by those around him.
The following year, Federer beat Mark Philippoussis to win Wimbledon for his first grand slam title. Few would have predicted what was to follow but the speed at which Federer began to dominate meant that by the time Djokovic reached his first grand slam final, at the US Open in 2007, Federer had won 11 grand slam titles. His win over the Serb in New York made it 12.
At that time, Federer was more worried about Nadal than the emergence of Djokovic. Nadal had won three straight French Open titles and was proving he was far more than just a mudlark; he had reached back-to-back Wimbledon finals and once he won Wimbledon in 2008, in that epic final against Federer, he was away.
Federer equalled Sampras on 14 when he secured his only French Open title in 2009 and passed him when he won Wimbledon for No 15 the following month. At that stage, Nadal had six slams to his name and Djokovic one. Sampras, who was there to see his record fall, said he believed Federer “could get to 18 or 19”.
Sampras was not far off but the rise of Nadal meant his progress slowed. The Spaniard’s utter domination of Roland-Garros – 13 titles is a record that surely will never be equalled and he may win more – meant he thrust himself into the equation, that blistering forehand and never-say-die attitude piercing him into Federer’s psyche.
Though Nadal undoubtedly stopped Federer from winning a few more French Open titles – for years he was the world’s second-best player on clay – the Spaniard’s brilliance also forced him to improve. Federer worked on his backhand, switched to a bigger racquet-head, played more aggressively.
Likewise, Nadal stood closer to the baseline, beefed up his serve. And when Djokovic moved up a level in 2011 and started to dominate the game, Nadal and Federer added things to their games. As Nadal said this month, in an interview with Bild: “I’m sure Roger and Novak made me a better player. And I made them better. We had and still have great moments and the fans enjoy our rivalry.”