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Big 3 in perspective: Think about the 39 years before them

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

After a weekend of Big 3 tennis at Wimbledon, the ever-evolving story of these three iconic tennis players demands a lot more thought and reflection, instead of the stale talking points and familiar statistics fans and writers unavoidably repeat when the Big 3 lock horns at majors.

I hasten to say that not everything can be said about Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal in one fell swoop. There is too much to say, too much to process and absorb, after the weekend we just witnessed. If any sportswriter did a great job of TRYING to say everything all at once, Joe Posnanski hit a home run in this piece. He did as well as anyone possibly could have in tackling the Big 3 in one medium-length column. Read it, if you haven’t already.

I will try to continue to discuss the Big 3 in stages, in smaller doses spread out over this week. This story has so many compartments, and it would be information overload to dump them all into one column. I can’t. I have to take this in steps.

Here, then, is one specific part of the Big 3 story which is worth contemplating. Start with these two basic facts:

1) The Open Era of professional tennis began in 1968.

2) The last Big 3 matchup to finally begin at the major tournaments was Fedole.

If you define the start of the Big 3 era as the point in time when all of the Big 3 matchups had finally been played at the majors, you would identify the beginning of this era as January of 2007.

Federer and Nadal played their first major match at Roland Garros in the 2005 semifinals. Djokovic and Nadal played their first major match in the 2006 Roland Garros quarterfinals. Djokovic and Federer played their first major match at the 2007 Australian Open in the fourth round.

Fedal was at its height (a height it would maintain through the 2009 Australian Open final) when Federer and Djokovic completed the Big 3 circle in January of 2007. One can reasonably say that 2007 was the year in which Djokovic truly and substantially gained traction as a tennis player, battling Nadal and Federer late in majors on a regular basis.

If one accepts the claim that the Big 3 era truly began in 2007, that means the Open Era had 39 years before the Big 3 era became reality.

In those 39 years, one can find some illustrations of how remarkable the Big 3 have been — and still are.

I invite you to consider the matches which never occurred, the matches which — by their absence — illustrate how extraordinary a time we inhabit today.

Do you remember the 1993 Wimbledon final between 37-year-old Bjorn Borg and 34-year-old John McEnroe?

Do you remember the 1989 Wimbledon semifinal between 36-year-old Jimmy Connors and 35-year-old Vitas Gerulaitis?

Do you remember the 2003 Wimbledon final between 37-year-old Stefan Edberg and 35-year-old Boris Becker?

Do you remember the 2008 Wimbledon final? It was a classic: 38-year-old Andre Agassi against 36-year-old Pete Sampras.

The Big 3 have so completely rewritten and distorted our understanding of how men’s tennis is supposed to work that it is hard to remember just how different the sport used to be.

Remember what it felt like when Sampras and Agassi met at the 2002 U.S. Open final: Sampras had just turned 31. Agassi was 32. Though Andre clearly had a lot left in the tank, a part of why he had so much left to give was that he went through seasons in the 1990s which were complete disasters. He didn’t play much in those “hibernation” seasons. Yes, he had coaches and Gil Reyes to lead him back, but let’s acknowledge that those wilderness seasons were part of why he came of age later in his career.

It felt like a profound achievement that two men 31 or older were contesting a major final… and it WAS a profound achievement. It was remarkably profound.

The Big 3 have turned over-31 major finals into routine, pedestrian, expected occurrences. Djokovic turned 31 in May of 2018. Three of the four major finals he has played in (and won) were over-31 finals. The one final against a player under 31 was Juan Martin del Potro at the 2018 U.S. Open.

Delpo was two weeks short of his 30th birthday. A young pup by relative measurements.

Rafael Nadal turned 31 in early June of 2017. His Roland Garros final against Stan Wawrinka was an over-31 major final. Wawrinka is one year older than Rafa. Nadal has played in two more over-31 major finals since then.

If Dominic Thiem or Stefanos Tsitsipas, the two under-31 players with the most realistic chances of making a run at the U.S. Open, cannot summon any magic in New York, we will have another over-31 major final in September. The same applies to the 2020 Australian Open. Thiem will then have to show at Roland Garros in 2020 that he can once again stop Novak Djokovic (unless he gets drawn into Nadal’s half, in which case, bad luck, Domi).

Get ready for a lot more over-31 (and to be more precise, over-32) major finals in the next few years.

Remember this, too, about the old-man major finals or semifinals which never happened in the 39 years before the Big 3 era at the majors began in full: The players in those rivalries not only didn’t meet in their mid-to-late 30s; they had mostly run their race by age 29, 30 or 31.

Borg burned out early. McEnroe also lost steam in his mid-20s.

Ivan Lendl’s last relevant season: age 31 in 1991.

Becker’s last big season: 1996, a year when he turned 29.

Edberg’s last big season: 1993, when he turned 27. He had a decent but not great 1994 season at 28.

We already discussed Sampras, who called it career shortly after turning 31, his tank empty.

Jimmy Connors displayed more — and better — longevity — than so many other men in the first 39 years of the Open Era, and yet even he, by the end of 1985 (age 33), had played his last major final. He played a strong 1987 season at the majors at age 35 (2 semis and 1 quarter). From then on, he was generally a fourth-round-level player at the majors, the 1991 U.S. Open semifinal run at 39 being his last hurrah which stood out from his last 10 appearances at majors, most of which ended in the first week.

So, wrap your mind around the reality that for most of the first 39 years of the Open Era — Ken Rosewall being the conspicuous exception from the 1970s (making two major finals at 39 in 1974) — the best tennis players we knew generally gave their very best by age 29, sometimes by 31. Rosewall, Connors, and Agassi transcended expectations, and even then, they didn’t win very many majors in the last four years of their careers:

Connors, in the last four years of his career, did not win a major. Neither did Rosewall (who, admittedly, played until he was 43; had he stopped playing at age 40 before the start of the 1975 season, he would have won two majors in his last four years, but they were both at the Australian Open, which had a smaller field and fewer elite opponents).

Agassi, in the last four years of his career, won one major.

The Big 3 have traveled so many roads, and yet, even now, the road — though journeying through autumn (which feels like an Indian summer) — is not yet at winter.

This is early October, not early December.

We still have this last part of the story to witness: When the Big 3 begin to fade — Federer almost surely first, Nadal probably second, Djokovic probably last — will they fade quickly, or will they just keep winning and making major finals until they reach the end?

The answer to that question is much less of a commentary than the notion that the question is so hard to answer.

Will we be sitting here in 2022 with Federer, at 40, still making Wimbledon finals against a 35-year-old Djokovic who will have 24 major titles?

Will be be sitting here in 2022 with Nadal owning 15 French Open titles, won over Djokovic the past few years?

So much of the story has been written. By tennis standards, these stories should have been finished several years ago for Federer, and they should be wrapping up for Nadal and Djokovic.

Yet, they continue. More precisely, they continue without slowing down.

The Big 3 have more stories to write. They might find that they still have thoughts to put down on paper or tap away at a keyboard.

Agassi, Connors and Rosewall made their own late-career statements, but the Big 3 are speaking more eloquently for a longer period of time than any other male tennis players in the Open Era.

You will know what the end of the story looks like… and therefore, you know that the end isn’t yet in sight.

This piece didn’t try to tell the whole story of the Big 3, but it tried to tell it through the prism of longevity… the longevity past great tennis players generally didn’t establish.

Let’s rewatch that 1993 Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon final… in our dreams.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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