Why is the Big 3 debate — which one is the greatest? — so hard to resolve?
Joe Posnanski wrote the definitive column on the subject. I will try to offer one last thought about how 2019 Wimbledon affected my thinking on the subject, and then it will be time to move on to other tennis topics as the summer moves along.
The Novak Djokovic-Roger Federer Wimbledon final did so many things to change the story of tennis.
50 years from now, any tennis fan still alive will be talking about Djokovic bravely saving two championship points and coming back to win, something which had not occurred in a Wimbledon men’s singles final since 1948.
The impact and enormity of Sunday’s events were so large that the Friday semifinal between Federer and Rafael Nadal, a high-quality match, very quickly receded into the background.
Improbable? Oui. True? Oui. It’s not what we expected, but it happened. Sunday’s events became the enduring conversation piece of this Wimbledon, not Friday’s events.
This brings up a basic question: Would Federer fans have preferred Roger lose to Rafa and not have to lose a Wimbledon final to Djokovic after having two championship points?
I think most Federer fans would value a win over Rafa to the extent that they are willing to live with the loss to Djokovic. However, I ALSO think that is not a unanimous feeling.
Why bring this up, you ask?
I bring this up because fans are interested in and concerned about the major title count, which Djokovic is now likely to win. I have made no secret of the point that major championships are a central aspect of tennis greatness and measuring quality. I do think there is more to a tennis player’s full all-time resume than the majors. This is not a one-category measurement. All-time greatness should demand a full evaluation of a player beyond “20 versus 18 versus 16,” which will probably become 24-25 for Djokovic and 21 for Nadal and Federer (yes, I think Roger gets one more before he’s finished).
In arriving at an understanding of the Big 3 era, and of major titles won, and of head-to-head records, one cannot avoid noting the times when two Big 3 opponents DIDN’T meet. If we are to tell the story of the 142 times (54 Rafole, 48 Fedole, 40 Fedal) these players met, especially all their meetings at majors, we also have to tell the story of the times they didn’t meet as well.
This Wimbledon is part of that story, because while Fedole DID play, Rafole did NOT play.
This invites a discussion of all the majors when the Big 3 played in the semifinals and at least one combination of players did not meet in the subsequent final.
Twice this year, we have seen the Big 3 make the semifinals of a major, with one or two men failing to make the final. Djokovic and Federer failed to make the Roland Garros final. Nadal failed to make the Wimbledon final.
In the case of Nadal on clay, Djokovic certainly would have offered an intriguing test. You might say he didn’t play well against Dominic Thiem in the semis, but we can acknowledge the role of the wind and rain in that outcome.
YES, before you get huffy and angry, of course Thiem had to deal with the awful weather conditions as well. No one is saying he didn’t earn his win. He did. Nevertheless, a Nadal-Djokovic final — had it happened — was hardly a lock for Rafa. YES, he would have been the favorite, but NO, it would not have been a foregone conclusion.
Similarly, at Wimbledon, Djokovic would have been the favorite in a Rafole final had it happened, but it is hardly a lock that he would have won, given how close the 2018 semifinal was — as close as the 2019 Fedole final we just saw on Sunday.
This discussion brings to mind the many other times we COULD have had a specific Big 3 matchup in a major final, but either didn’t get a Big 3 matchup of ANY kind or — at least — not the Big 3 matchup some hoped for or anticipated.
Two straight years — in 2010 and 2011 — Djokovic prevented Federer and Nadal from meeting in the U.S. Open final. The U.S. Open remains the one major where Federer and Nadal have never played.
Djokovic fans take great satisfaction in the fact that Fedal hasn’t occurred at all four majors. This isn’t a searing indictment of Roger or Rafa, but when considering that all-time greatness is based on lots of different realities, not just major titles won, a small but real unchecked box such as that is part of an accumulation of little facts which — as a collective — can and does influence the way we perceive these players’ overall bodies of work.
What do Federer fans think about all this? First, I hasten to say that fan bases are hardly monolithic in their thought processes. I do, however, have the benefit of seeing and studying fan reactions for 10 years on Tennis Twitter. I think I have a generally good — not perfect or infallible, but decent — awareness of how fans think today, and how they felt and thought nine eight years ago.
Nine years ago, the Federer loss to Djokovic from two match points up in the 2010 U.S. Open semifinals was a traumatic event for Federer fans. Djokovic was wandering and searching for the spark that would transform his career and catapult him to the next level. He found it then and there, on that Saturday afternoon in New York. Federer was used to prevailing in those situations. That match began the Decade of Novak. Moreover, Federer didn’t get a chance to play Nadal in the final on a non-clay surface, something Federer fans would have relished if it had happened.
Eight years ago, there was still trauma for a lot of Federer fans after a match-points-up loss to Djokovic, amplified by THE SHOT and Federer’s pissy reaction to it afterwards, something which gave Djokovic fans no end of delight. Yet, for all the ways in which that loss stung Federer and his fans, there was also the realization at the time that Djokovic could beat Nadal in the final and keep Rafa from getting closer to Federer in the all-time major title count.
Eight years later, in 2019, fans’ views of that reality might have changed. Plenty of Federer fans, with the benefit of hindsight, might now wish that Rafa had won the 2011 U.S. Open final, but in 2011? I can assure you that a lot of Fed fans were rooting for Djokovic, or if “rooting” is too strong a word, they certainly preferred that Djokovic win that final, which he did.
From 2007 through 2009, Nadal beat Djokovic in a major semifinal to face Federer in major finals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
In 2010 and 2011 at the U.S. Open — as already noted — Djokovic beat Federer in a major semifinal to face Nadal in a major final.
In 2011 at Roland Garros, Federer beat Djokovic in a major semifinal to face Nadal in a major final.
In 2012 at the Australian Open, Nadal beat Federer in a major semifinal to face Djokovic in a major final.
In 2012 at Roland Garros, Djokovic beat Federer in a major semifinal to face Nadal in a major final.
None of these instances touch on the other times in which one player (usually Federer) lost in the fourth round or quarterfinals to fail to reach a semifinal against the Big 3 (as shown this year in Australia, where Federer failed to face Nadal in the semis before playing Djokovic in the final). In the earlier days of the Big 3 era (through 2010 Wimbledon), Djokovic was usually this player.
At Wimbledon from 2012 through 2017, Nadal was usually this player. They have all taken turns in various roles, the Big 3, but it is certainly worth noting how the results of Big 3 major semifinals — going back more than a decade, and continuing even now, in 2019 — have influenced major finals, overall head-to-head records, and the overall major title count.
So many details, plot twists, sharp turns, and unexpected journeys form the larger story of the Big 3. When the full book of this yet-unfinished era of men’s tennis is written, the UNPLAYED Big 3 matches will need to be included as well as the matches we actually saw, such as this past Sunday.