What the Big Three have achieved is absolutely inexplicable

With Novak Djokovic’s Wimbledon victory Sunday, he joins Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer with 20 Grand Slam victories apiece. The next closest male player, Pete Sampras, has 14

Let’s pause a moment to appreciate the absolutely inexplicable, crazy, never-will-happen-again phenomenon that is occurring in men’s professional tennis.

Let’s marvel at the mastery and the dominance of the Big Three — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic (and pardon the gushing.)

In July 2003, Federer, 22 at the time, won Wimbledon in three sets, the first Grand Slam win of his career; two years later, Nadal, 19 at the time, won his first major, claiming the French Open; three years after that, Djokovic, then 23, won his first Slam, the Australian Open.

The race was on.

In the 18 years since Federer’s first Slam win, they have, against all odds, found themselves tied for the most career Grand Slam victories in history.

Federer 20. Nadal 20. Djokovic 20.

Through all the variables of the last 18 years — injuries, weather, the onset of middle age, new rival players, illness, slumps, whatever — they somehow all wound up with the same number of Slam wins. No one else is close. The retired Pete Sampras is the closest, with 14. 

If any one of the Big Three had come along alone, without the other two, this would be phenomenal. But three of them? It’s like three Babe Ruths playing in the same era.

They’re all Europeans, all born during the ’80s — Federer in 1981 in Switzerland, Nadal in 1986 in Spain, Djokovic in 1987 in Serbia.

In this June 5, 2011, file photo, Spain’s Rafael Nadal, right, and Switzerland’s Roger Federer pose with their trophies after the men’s final match for the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros Stadium in Paris. | Lionel Cironneau, Associated Press

Think about it: They have won 60 of the last 73 Slams (two were canceled by COVID). 

They have finished second 29 times.

That means at least one of them has appeared in the finals of a Grand Slam event 89 times since 2003. More specifically, at least one of them has appeared in 17 of the last 18 Australian Opens; 17 of the last 17 French Open; 17 of the last 18 Wimbledons; 15 of the last 17 U.S. Opens.

As long as we’re geeking out over these guys, here’s another way to look at it: Beginning in 2005, at least one member of the Big Three has appeared in every Grand Slam final except four.

Two members of the Big Three have faced each other in a Grand Slam final 23 times, with Nadal winning 11 of them, Djokovic eight of them and Federer four.

Federer, who will turn 40 next month and hasn’t won a Slam since 2018, is slowing down, but Nadal, 35, and Djokovic, 34, are still going strong. Until this year, Nadal had won at least one Slam event in each of the previous four years. Djokovic has won eight Slam events in the last four years, including all three this year with his Wimbledon victory on Sunday.

When he plays the U.S. Open later this summer, he will attempt to win a calendar Grand Slam, something only five players have ever achieved — Don Budge in 1938, Maureen Connolly in 1953, Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969, Margaret Court in 1970 and Steffi Graf in 1988. Djokovic is the first to win the first three slam events of a calendar year since Laver in 1969.

The Grand Slam tournaments present different court surfaces and are spread out from January to September, making it all the more challenging for players to win all of them. There are the hard courts of the Australian and U.S. Opens, the clay of the French Open and the grass of Wimbledon.

Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have all completed career Grand Slams — won each event — but the Big Three have their favorite surfaces. Federer has won a record eight Wimbledon titles, but only one French title; Nadal has won a record 13 French Opens, but only one Australian title; Djokovic has won a record nine Australian Opens, but only two French Opens.

Djokovic has a 27-23 win-loss record against Federer in all tournaments, but they were tied at 22 wins apiece through 2015, another indication of the age difference. Djokovic and Nadal have faced each other 58 times, with Djokovic holding a 30-28 edge. Nadal holds a 24-16 record against Federer.  

Nadal and Djokovic were 34 when they won their 20th slam tournament, Federer 36. Their win-loss records in Slam tournaments reflect their dominance: Djokovic 87.6, Nadal 87.9, Federer 86.5. Djokovic has 317 Slam wins, Nadal 291, Federer 369.

What is baffling is that for nearly two decades no other player has risen up to challenge the Big Three, even as they pass through middle age.

The only thing that can slow these guys is time.