These days, professional athletes seem to be getting younger and younger. In Formula 1, Max Verstappen became the youngest ever competitor at a Grand Prix at just 17 years; football all over the world is painted with talented youngsters, such as Kylian Mbappe, Mason Greenwood, and Alphonso Davies; in the French Open just this year, 19-year-old Iga Swiatek beat world number four tennis professional, Sofia Kenin.
They say it is lonely at the top, and in men’s tennis, this line could not ring more true for Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. These three big names have dominated the tennis scene for many years, and their dominance is unlike any other seen in the wide realm of sports. With young individuals continuously challenging the veterans of other sports, and often, even dethroning them, it is curious to find that the young players in men’s tennis seem unable to match up to these three—players who, at very young ages themselves, were able to dethrone the veterans of their time. Ultimately, these many years of clear-cut dominance simply beg the question: what sets these three players so far apart from the rest of the pack?
The numbers of dominance
Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have dominated the men’s tennis scene for so many years now that it is actually difficult to think of a time where they were not winning nearly every major Grand Slam—because that is exactly what they have been doing for over a decade. The last 57 major Grand Slams have been won by either Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic, and in the last 10 years, only four other players have been able to take titles for themselves. Other than Dominic Thiem, who won the US Open earlier this year, the last time another contender took a Grand Slam title was Stanislas Wawrinka in the 2016 US Open—meaning that for three full years, only the top three stars in the game were able to win, adding titles to their ever-growing list of records.
Currently, Djokovic sits at the number one spot in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) world rankings, with Nadal in second place, and Federer in fourth. The other top five players in the current rankings, apart from the three, are Thiem in third place, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, and Andrey Rublev, who, among the five of them, have only one Grand Slam title to themselves, won earlier this year by Thiem.
With records like these, and with no one seemingly able to stop the excellence of Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic, it may be easy to chalk it up to the other players lacking in experience, so much so that they have not been able to prove themselves against these three dominant tennis forces. Case-in-point: Zverev, who is 23 years old, played in the finals of the US Open earlier this year, but was unable to walk away with his first Grand Slam title, as he was beaten by Thiem. Could this be because of his young age or his lack of experience? It is possible. But it is also important to highlight here that at 19, 21, and 22 years of age, Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer won their first ever Grand Slam titles, respectively—and what is more, at the young age of 24, Nadal had already won all four major titles, along with the Olympic title—the youngest player in the Open era to accomplish such a feat. These tennis greats are great for a reason, and it seems it has very little to do with their ages, present or past.
Understanding the dominance
So what could it be that makes Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic so dominant in the men’s tennis scene? One possible and highly likely reason for their unstoppable success is their dedication to the sport—and part of dedication is, of course, evolution. According to former tennis player Michael Berrer, the three have remained at the top of the sport for so many years because they are constantly trying to improve themselves and to evolve with the advancements in the sport.
Tennis, like many other sports, continues to change over the years. In retrospect, the sport is now much fast-paced than it used to be; and slowly, it has also become notably more power-centric. One thing that significantly changed this were the racquets. They became lighter, and thus, players were able to swing faster, which changed the movements of the ball upon contact, and with that a player’s power on the ball eventually grew more importance in the sport. This ultimately would force a dedicated tennis player to relearn certain aspects of the game, as though he were new to it, and only a truly dedicated athlete would be able to find success in doing so.
It is no secret that the top three players in tennis have dedicated their lives to this sport, as it is quite evident in their plays and in the results they take home, year after year, Grand Slam after Grand Slam. As tennis became an integral part of their lives, it is highly possible that Berrer was right: Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have evolved their styles of play through the many years in order to keep up with the times of the sport, as well as with the young ones, and this is all due to the hard work they continue to give into staying in the game—and in highly dominant fashion, I might add.
Djokovic himself, actually, has even offered his own explanation for the dominance of these three pack leaders. He explained that their experience has given them a unique advantage over the younger, up-and-coming players in the sport. While others may find these big stages rather intimidating, with their years of competing at the highest levels, the most prestigious tennis courts of the most distinguished Grand Slams around the world have become comfortable to them. In recognizing this, it is also likely that psychology could definitely come into play for these players—and at their advantage, at that, making them that much more indispensable.
The scope of dominance
While I personally enjoy seeing Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic continue to dominate the sport as an incredible showcase of sportsmanship and dedication that has shined through in one of the rarest of ways, I have also come to wonder what their dominance means for the sport as a whole.
Tennis is a very difficult sport to dive into professionally. As an individual sport, and with only four major Grand Slams each year, only the best of the best get to compete at the highest levels, and at even slimmer odds, get to be remembered. Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic will go down in history as some of, if not the greatest tennis players the world has ever seen—but what about the rest of the players who have dedicated their lives to tennis just the same?
It is sad to admit, but all the young players in the sport right now may continue to be outshined by these highly renowned veteran players, possibly throughout the primes of their careers. And for as long as these three continue to dominate the men’s tennis scene—and they give no indication of stopping very soon—it will be a challenge for any professional right now to achieve even a fraction of what these three have achieved so far in their careers. Andy Roddick, a former world number one professional tennis player, put it best: “I feel like those guys have taken away an entire generation of Grand Slam winners.”
While more competition and less predictability in tennis would be more exciting for fans, and would offer a better playing field for the many other impressive players in the sport, I still do think that it is a privilege to be alive at such an opportune time; to witness dominance like this. These three players have established an era in tennis that defies the laws of age, and their dedication comes across in the most blatant of ways—this in itself is a great spectacle to witness.
One day, we will get new Grand Slam winners, and perhaps even a new era of dominance, but right now, we truly are at a unique point in tennis history. This is not only because these three athletes continue to thrive in one of the most competitive sports, but also because this rare era has to come to an end at some point—a point that might just be one of the truest, most accurate measures of skill, that we are still yet to find in he who will be able to dethrone the three tennis greats.