The Big 3 paradox and the emptiness of injuries

“No asterisks.”

Andrew Burton, who provides analysis for Tennis With An Accent on our live Twitter Spaces shows and our podcasts, made that point clear eight years ago (before TWAA existed; Saqib founded the site a few years later) after the 2014 Australian Open final between Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka. Nadal suffered a back injury which clearly hampered him. Wawrinka won his first major title, and it was easy to think that had Rafa been healthy, Stan — who had not yet won that first title — might have faced a much bigger mountain to climb had his opponent played at full strength.

It was suggested that Wawrinka’s title will always have an asterisk placed next to it:

* = only because of injury

Andrew firmly said no.

No asterisks.

That was a profound moment in tennis history because the big stage created by a major final focused the debate about injuries and luck. Eight years later, Alexander Zverev’s awful and brutal injury against Nadal in the 2022 Roland Garros semifinals will focus the debate again.

First things first: Injuries, as awful and ugly as they are, are part of sports. NBA basketball often is an injury lottery: The team which avoids injuries wins. American football, a very violent sport, often turns based on injuries. Women’s tennis has been significantly affected by injuries or illnesses at Roland Garros: Leylah Fernandez got hurt. Simona Halep was unwell. Qinwen Zheng was unwell against Iga Swiatek. Paula Badosa got injured. The list goes on.

The larger point about injuries is that they happen regularly. What’s rare is that they happen in major semifinals or finals. Ultimately, when the human body forcefully moves to compete at the highest level of sport, bones can break, ankles roll, shoulders — Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s — snap. It’s a part of life, albeit a supremely cruel one.

When referring to “no asterisks,” Andrew is making the specific point that championships and achievements are not tainted by an opponent’s untimely injury. Yes, victory isn’t a complete conquest under such circumstances, but it’s not unfair in the sense that a decision or ruling by an authority figure affected an outcome.

I therefore don’t assign asterisks to injury-affected championships. I did, however, assign an asterisk to Dominic Thiem’s 2020 U.S. Open title — not because Thiem didn’t earn it. He did, and he should always think of himself as a champion who deserved to win. I assigned the asterisk because Djokovic was taken out of the tournament due to an executive, administrative decision, as opposed to an organic and natural part of sports.

I should add that since tennis authorities won’t default players who engage in far worse behavior than what Djokovic exhibited on that day in New York two years ago, all because the linesperson or ballboy avoids direct contact with a racquet or ball, it is even more conspicuous that Djokovic was removed from the tournament for non-tennis, non-competitive reasons.

Injuries are part of competition. Defaults — getting disqualified — are not. That’s where I draw the line in the asterisk conversation. Your mileage might vary.

Having established that, there’s one more central point I wish to convey here: A defining Big 3 paradox is connected to this larger discussion of injuries in tennis.

Nadal was unlucky in Australia in 2014 and in other Australian Opens when he suffered injuries. On Friday in Paris, Nadal was very lucky. If you’re a Nadal fan, you’re obviously not happy the match ended this way, but you are mindful of how often Rafa has been on the wrong side of an injury situation.

If you’re a Djokovic or Federer fan, you’re muttering about how lucky Rafa has been. Medvedev choked in the Australian Open final. Nadal faced Kevin Anderson in the 2017 U.S. Open final. The 2008 Wimbledon final was decided in very dark playing conditions.

One can find situations on both sides of the coin, moments in which Nadal and the other members of the Big 3 have been lucky and unlucky.

The paradox of the Big 3 is that for all the major titles they have each won — Rafa is now one win from 22, but they have all won at least 20 — several majors have agonizingly slipped through their fingers.

The Big 3 are the clutchest, toughest, most accomplished, proven, sustainably great male tennis players of all time. Yet, even they had moments when they faltered so close to a number of meaningful achievements.

This obviously isn’t meant to convey the idea that they have underachieved. None of them could possibly be labeled as such. The point is that in a sport where someone has to win, someone else has to lose. When the margins are small, one or two errant shots will often make the difference.

If you think Rafael Nadal is lucky today, of course you’re right … but this doesn’t mean luck has favored Rafa every single time or even 90 percent of the time. Each Big 3 player has suffered cruel gut-punch disappointments.

What truly separates the Big 3 from the rest is this: Almost always being there in the semifinal or final of a major, almost always being in position to benefit from something, even something as awful as an injury.

Consider: Rafa did not earn this semifinal win; the match was incomplete. We never got to see him score the decisive blow and shake hands after the last point was played. However: If Rafa had not beaten Djokovic in the quarterfinals, he never would have had a chance to benefit from this awful and unfortunate occurrence against Zverev.

We might be talking about how lucky Djokovic was instead.

Even when injuries create what are — to a degree — unearned achievements, those achievements are still earned because the opponent put himself in a position to benefit, much as Dominic Thiem earned the U.S. Open title by tending to the things he could control.

One can apply an asterisk to that 2020 U.S. Open because of the decision to default Djokovic, yet acknowledge that Thiem still worked for an achievement no one else can rightly claim.

One could make a similar point about Rafa: If he had lost the first set in 40 minutes, this match might have lasted only 2.5 hours, and Nadal would have lost to Zverev. He was able to stay on court for over three hours.

Did he comprehensively defeat Zverev? No. Did he put himself in position to benefit from a lucky break, as terrible and unwanted as that lucky break was? Yes he did.

A Big 3 player received luck. That might seem like the most unfair thing in the world, a “Jeff Bezos wins the lottery” type story.

Yet, the Big 3 paradox reminds us that for all the winning and success, these champions have endured their considerable share of losing and rotten luck over the years.

Their careers have not been linear one-way processions of uninterrupted joy. Heartbreak and suffering have been part of the story too, just on a different level compared to anyone else who has played this sport.

The Big 3 have not been immune to losing or adversity; they merely respond to those realities of life better than the rest.

Zverev’s injury is something no one, including Nadal himself, wanted to see. The important myth to dispel is the idea that luck, whether injury-based or in other forms, has always sided with each Big 3 player. One shouldn’t think their outrageous success automatically means that the finger of fate has always pointed in their direction.

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