As individuals, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic haven’t been immune from the ups and downs, and the setbacks and slumps, that plague the rest of their more-mortal colleagues. Each has undergone multiple surgeries. Each has been sidelined for months at a time, and even for the better part of entire seasons. Each has suffered Grand Slam droughts and seemingly inexplicable losses in confidence.
But each time one of them stumbles, the other two get to work picking up the slack. Only three times in the last 19 seasons—including this current, incomplete one—have they failed to win at least three of the four majors—2014, 2016 and 2020 (the last one doesn’t officially count because Wimbledon was cancelled due to the pandemic that year). In eight of those seasons, they’ve won all four.
Incredibly, at ages 36 and 35, respectively, Nadal and Djokovic have a chance to complete a ninth Slam sweep at this year’s US Open. This was supposed to be the season when a new player finally cracked their code. Two new players, actually: Daniil Medvedev and Carlos Alcaraz. Medvedev beat Djokovic in last year’s US Open final, and he had Nadal all but beaten in this year’s Australian Open final. Alcaraz knocked them off back-to-back in Madrid. Yet here were are at the end of July, and Rafa and Nole have divvied up Melbourne, Paris and SW19 between them again.
So would it be foolish of me to mention that the second half of 2022 is a time of unprecedented collective uncertainty for the Big Three? As of today, Djokovic won’t be able to play the North American circuit, including the US Open, because he isn’t vaccinated against Covid-19. Nadal had to withdraw from the Wimbledon semifinals with an abdominal tear, and is still testing out a new treatment on his foot. While Federer, who will turn 41 on August 8th, is planning to return in the fall, he sounded something less than certain about his long-term playing future during a ceremony in Centre Court last month.
The one undeniable bright spot for these guys and their fans is the Laver Cup, which will be played London in late September. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray—what we used to call the Big Four—are scheduled to join forces for Team Europe. This won’t be the last time we see these future Hall-of-Famers on a court, but the weekend should serve as a nostalgic summation of, and appreciation for, the era they’ve dominated together.
Djokovic can travel to London—and Madrid, Paris, Rome and other tour stops where he has played this season—but not New York. Last week the USTA stated that it would abide by the U.S. government’s ban on unvaccinated tourists. Do those restrictions still make sense, considering that they’ve been relaxed elsewhere, and that you can still get and spread Covid even if you’re vaccinated? I won’t pretend to know enough to say. What I will say is that there’s no reason for any country to grant any athlete an exemption from those rules. Djokovic seems, at least from the outside, to be at peace with his decision, and what it may mean for his place in tennis history if he’s banned from two of the four Slams.
Is it possible that Nadal was thinking about the Open, and Djokovic’s likely absence from it, when he decided to withdraw from Wimbledon? He did say that he wanted to be able to rejoin the tour this summer, and not have to go through another extended recovery period, the way he did in 2021. He knows that he hasn’t lost a completed match at the Open since his fourth-round defeat to Lucas Pouille there in 2016. And he knows that he hasn’t made it to Flushing Meadows, the site of some of his great late-career moments, since he won the title there in 2019.
If Nadal has any desire to finish ahead of Djokovic in the Slam chase, he’ll understand that this year’s Open is an essential opportunity for him. He probably won’t do it on French Open titles alone. Rafa may not go into New York as the favorite; right now, that honor probably belongs to Medvedev, the defending champion. But as we’ve been learning for the last 19 years, you should never bet against one of the Big Three finding a way to win a major title.
And how about the Big Three’s original Slam king, Federer? Whatever happens to him in 2023, his return this year will be an event, and a welcome jolt to the normally sleepy late months of the season. If we can’t bet against Nadal or Djokovic finding way to win another Slam, we can’t bet against Federer finding ways to remind us why we started watching tennis in the first place.