Wiedmer: Who besides the Big Three ever will rule men's tennis?

Wiedmer: Who besides the Big Three ever will rule men's tennis?

June 9th, 2019 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

From left, photos show Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal after their Wimbledon victories in 2009, 2011 and 2008, respectively.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Mark Wiedmer

Mark Wiedmer

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press

Weather permitting, the long-running, sometimes contentious argument about which men's tennis player is the greatest of all time (GOAT) should receive a fresh talking point at the close of Sunday's French Open final.

That's when Rafael Nadal is likely to win his record 12th French crown atop the red clay of Roland Garros, which would be his 18th major singles crown overall and pull him within two of ageless rival Roger Federer's record 20 men's singles major titles.

Of course, Dominic Thiem might spoil all that by shockingly toppling Nadal for the second time this spring, the Austrian having already upset the Spaniard in a Madrid Open quarterfinal. But Madrid isn't Paris. The court, though clay, plays differently, and Nadal, for all his accomplishments on all surfaces, is simply a different player at the French Open.

Yet rather than focus on which player — Federer or Nadal — will wind up the GOAT of tennis if Nadal once more prevails at Roland Garros, the bigger, better question for the future of tennis is when the next generation of tennis talents, including Thiem, is finally going to knock the current superstars of the sport off their thrones.

Because it's not just the soon-to-be 38-year-old Roger and 33-year-old Rafa who are still holding the sport hostage after all these years. Novak Djokovic, 32, may wind up winning more majors than either Federer or Nadal given that he already has 15, though he did lose to Thiem in Saturday's rain-delayed semifinal. Nevertheless, he'd won the last three majors before the French and certainly will be somewhat a favorite to win those same three tourneys — Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and Australian Open — as they roll around again.

And then there are the guys next in line behind the Big Three. Stan Wawrinka, 34, has lived in fellow Switzerland native Federer's shadow for most of his career, but the fact that he's won each of his three majors at different locales — one French, one Aussie and one U.S. Open — speaks to the variety of his game.

There's also Andy Murray to consider, the Brit probably done adding to his three majors due to a hip replacement, but he's still just 32, and as Federer proved by winning three majors beyond the age of 34, anything seemingly is possible in tennis these days when you consider that the best women's player on Earth, Serena Williams, is 37.

Even the only other active men's player in the game owning a major at the moment, Juan Martin del Potro, is 30. In fact, not a single active player with a major singles title on his résumé is younger than 30, which probably never has previously happened in a sport where 30 used to be the age players began coaching instead of playing.

So what gives here? Why was it that Nadal could win his first major at the tender age of 19 — beating Federer in the 2005 French semis — that Federer could claim his first major at Wimbledon when he was 21, that Djokovic could grab his first major at the age of 20 in Australia, and all of these coming against some of the best in the business, yet the current younger generation can't win any?

Are Djokovic, Federer and Nadal just that good? Are all these young whippersnappers just a wee bit soft? Is men's tennis in particular close to suffering a big dip in quality, given that the Big Three surely can't go on forever?

The reality is, and all of us who are tennis fans need to enjoy this remarkable Big Three while they last, Djokovic, Federer and Nadal — in whatever order you wish to place them — are not just the best of their generation but the best of all time.

There never will be a greater artist on the court than Federer, who's never seen a shot he couldn't master. He's graceful, guileful, generous and gutsy. When the man upstairs wanted to create the perfect tennis player, he created Federer.

Then there is Djokovic, the purest ball striker of the three off either wing. Djokovic almost never appears rushed or panicked, though Thiem certainly got in his head a bit in the French semis.

Finally, there is Nadal, who may be the fiercest competitor in the history of the sport, which may also be why he's lost more time to injury than Fed or Djoker, since he never seems to take his foot off the pedal. If you wanted to rank which player was toughest to beat with both his A game and his C game, Nadal might win both categories, especially the C. All three have off-the-charts wills to win, but only Nadal seems next to impossible to beat at both his best and worst.

Still, as great as this group is, isn't it time for GenNext, that fluctuating group of Thiem, Alexander Zverev (22), Grigor Dimitrov (28, but once known as "Baby Fed"), 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas — who barely lost the best match of the French Open to Wawrinka in a 5-hour, 9-minute classic — the 23-year-old Russian Rifle Karen Khachanov, 22-year-old Borna Coric and the 21-year-old American Frances Tiafoe to begin to impose their will and talent on the top tier of their sport? If not now, when?

As he was lamenting his loss to Thiem on Saturday, Djokovic said of his defeat, "These kind of matches, one or two points decide a winner."

But should Nadal again win the French on Sunday, it seems as if it will continue to be tough to see more than one or two or three guys winning the majors until all three of the Big Three have retired to Monte Carlo to entertain the grandkids and dominate pickleball tournaments as they have long dominated men's tennis.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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