2005. Anybody remember? This was the last time a Grand Slam final was played without someone named Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic, when Marat Safin defeated Lleyton Hewitt in the Australian Open. Soon after, Nadal’s first win at Roland Garros began an unprecedented era when the “Big Three” of tennis put a chokehold on the apex of tennis, winning 29 of next 30 Grand Slams. The three traded the number 1 ranking between them, often meeting in tournament semifinals and finals, and usually watching each other hoist the different trophies. They gave us some of the sport’s greatest matches: long-rallies, close victories, and unbelievable talent. The dominance of the Big Three was something we hadn’t seen before in another sport, regardless of era. By comparison, the 40 major golf championships from 2005-2014 were won by 24 different golfers. These are three of the greatest tennis players in history, and we got to watch them all at the same time. But their dominance was not due to a lack of talent in the field. They regularly matched up against outstanding players and won anyway. In fact, they nearly always defeated each other in tournaments. It is remarkable that three players of their caliber were at their prime within a few years of each other, giving us one of the best decades in tennis history.
I’m still rooting for Federer to win Wimbledon at least one more time. He is playing his best tennis of the last few years, and his comeback against Monfils showed that he has not lost any of his toughness or resolve. Nadal is still as dominant as ever on clay, although his knees and health might not be as much a guarantee. Djokovic, the youngest of three and directly in his prime, will likely win a few more Grand Slams and remain a top ranked player for a few years.
Yet, now we are on the eve of the impossibly predicted US Open final between Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic. After Monday’s final, all four of this year’s Grand Slams titles will be held a different player, two of them by first time Grand Slam champions. Andy Murray is already a 5-time finalist, young players are rising in the rankings, and the class of competitors who flew just below the wings of the Big Three are ready to burst on to a bigger stage. Over the next few years, we will see more new faces in Grand Slam finals, and new champions hoisting the trophies for the first time. There are no signs of who is next poised to dominate the future of the tennis. The Big Three left all competition in the dust for so long and a now a rush of players have the chance to fill the void they will eventually leave behind. Perhaps a few from the next generation will soon ascend to the throne, but it is more likely that tennis oligarchy is an idea of the past. Instead, the next decade will gravitate toward parity in tennis, with new names rising in the rankings and younger players making deep runs at each tournament. There’s no question that there are exciting matches ahead in the future of tennis, but it will be a while before we see the sport dominated by the same excitement and thrill from 10 years of tennis’s Big Three. From Nadal’s dominance at the French Open, to Federer’s run to 17 Grand Slams, to Djokovic’s epic win in last year’s Wimbledon final, this decade gave us some of the best rivalries in tennis history. And if the Big Three era is indeed winding down, it certainly is one to appreciate. AN