Never say never with Novak Djokovic and the rest of the Big 3.
That is one obvious lesson to take from Madrid, where Djokovic returned to elite form and sent a powerful statement ahead of Roland Garros. If there were legitimate questions about Djokovic’s form and preparedness for the year’s most important major tournament — the one which could give him a second Novak Slam — those questions have been fundamentally put to bed. Djokovic is still Djokovic. He can become his best self (or close to it) when he needs to. All is well.
Beyond the story of Djokovic in particular, it is worth noting what Djokovic’s win in Madrid represents on a larger level. Many angles exist and can be chosen as subjects to explore. I will choose this specific angle: Djokovic demonstrates the resilience not only of his own inner self, but of the Big 3.
This is not a new theme, but it is taking on new dimensions as all three of these players get older. Djokovic will turn 32 just after Rome ends, and Rafael Nadal will turn 33 during Roland Garros. Both men have had injury problems over the past 24 months. Roger Federer had injury problems three years ago, and some occasional back problems in 2017. The realities of aging have taken a toll — not a severe one, but a toll nonetheless — on the Big 3, to the extent that they either haven’t played in several Masters 1000 tournaments over the past few years or have not been close to top form.
Obviously, inevitably, the total dominance of the Masters 1000s demonstrated by the Big 3 (and when he played, Andy Murray) from 2005 through 2016 was not going to last forever. It was eventually going to recede if only because of attrition.
From 2005 through 2016 — 12 tennis seasons, with nine Masters 1000 tournaments per year, creating a total of 108 Masters events in that span — the Big 3 (and Murray) won 92 Masters titles, the rest of the tour 16.
Among those “other” 16 titles, only one player captured as many as three Masters titles in that 12-season span: Nikolay Davydenko. Only three other players won two Masters in those 12 seasons: Andy Roddick, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and David Nalbandian. Seven other players won one Masters apiece.
On balance, the Big 3 plus Murray won 8 of every 9 Masters event played in those 12 seasons from 2005-2016.
Yet, as mentioned above, Djokovic ran into health problems. Nadal hasn’t been able to play hardcourt Masters as well or as often as he would like, due to concerns about health. (Obviously, Murray, though not part of the Big 3, has been sidelined for a long time and is not there to contest Masters tournaments.)
Given the adjusted landscape facing the Big 3 (and Murray), winning eight Masters in a season is no longer the normal expectation. Big 3 players would often win Masters because two of them would meet in the semifinals or final, guaranteeing that one would either play FOR the championship or win the championship itself.
In Madrid, that didn’t happen. There was almost a Federer-Djokovic semifinal, but not quite. There was almost a Djokovic-Nadal final, but not quite. It is getting harder for the Big 3 to win Masters — that much is clear.
Yet, one thing the rest of the tour has not done in more recent years is win a majority of Masters tournaments in a single season.
It has come close, but not quite finished the job.
In 2017 and 2018, the Big 3 has won a majority of the nine Masters tournaments in a season, winning five. The Big 3 established a 5-3 lead heading into Bercy, the one Masters tournament where the field is almost as successful as the Big 3.
In Bercy this decade, the Big 3 and Murray have won five times while the field has won four times: Robin Soderling in 2010, David Ferrer in 2012, Jack Sock in 2017, Karen Khachanov in 2018. At the other eight Masters tournaments this decade, a non-Big 3, non-Murray player has won no more than two times.
Last year after Madrid, the Big 3 seemed to be in trouble in terms of winning a majority of the Masters tournaments for the season. The Big 3 was 1-3 (Nadal in Monte Carlo). Juan Martin del Potro won Indian Wells, John Isner won Miami, and Alexander Zverev won in Madrid. However, Rafa won in Rome and Canada to even the score. Djokovic won Cincinnati and Shanghai to finish the job.
Djokovic’s 2019 victory in Madrid evens the scoreboard in Masters titles won this year: 2 for the field, 2 for the Big 3.
This is part of what makes Rome so intriguing: If a Big 3 player does NOT win, the field will have a 3-2 edge heading to Canada in the summer. The Big 3 would, under this scenario, have to win three of the last four Masters — Canada, Cincinnati, Shanghai, and Bercy — to retain a majority of the season’s M-1000 trophies.
If, however, a Big 3 player wins in Rome, the field would have to win three of the last four Masters to overtake the power center.
Novak Djokovic won principally for himself in Madrid. He also put the Big 3 in position to win this unofficial “best of nine” competition yet again.
2004 was the last year in which Big 3 (and Murray) players didn’t win a majority of the nine Masters tournaments in a season. Rome is a very big tournament in relationship to this 14-season tennis streak.