Is it still a “Trivalry”? Is it still the “Big Three”? Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have dominated the last two seasons of Slams while Federer, nearing 31, is clinging to their coattails. So for now, yup. Still the Big Three.
As for the events yesterday, I finally watched the conclusion to the rain-interrupted French Open last night (thanks Tennis Channel!) and you have to tip your cap to Nadal. No matter how much you dislike him you have to respect seven French Open titles to go along with all those clay records and accolades he’s already amassed.
Three times the guy has prevented a “Four Slammer” against two different players. That’s quite an achievement when you really think about – stopping the best player in the world, a tennis legend, from reaching the ultimate height in the sport. Hats off.
But Nadal did get a little lucky with the match being halted when it did Sunday – Djokovic had similar luck with the rain as well, so it’s evens in my book. However, he came back following the overnight with one singular thing on his mind: Protecting his house. And he did.
Djokovic again started slow upon resumption allowing Nadal, with his mind and focus back on point, to get the quick break back. Then he hung on until Djokovic’s ill-timed double fault on match point. It was an unsatisfactory ending to what turned out to be an intriguing finish to the clay season. The winner, though, was the right one. Nadal’s the best ever on the clay; no dispute.
As for the ever-changing pro tennis landscape, the song remains the same. It’s still the Big Three but it’s head-shaking the way Nadal/Djokovic have dominated – four straight Slam finals between the same two players is absolutely astounding.
Rafa’s win also puts him back on solid footing. After losing three consecutive Slam finals to Novak, getting that victory in Paris by beating Djokovic should do wonders for what had to be some broken confidence. After losing seven straight, Nadal’s now won the last three over his main rival, surrendering just one of eight sets. He’s back on top, folks.
And I know it’s early, Nadal’s also in the driver’s seat to finish No. 1. However, we’ve seen Rafa fade toward the end of seasons before, and I expect it to be no different this time as the wear-and-tear of the schedule, especially compacted this year, takes that ritualistic toll on his body.
Still, Rafa should do well at Wimbledon and the Olympics, both on the lawns of the AELTC where Nadal’s excelled, and the US Open, before hitting the skids. If he can win both Slams he’ll finish No. 1. If he and Novak split the remaining two I give a slight edge to the Serb because of his stronger indoor game and fall freshness.
After a sub-par post-Australian, Novak finally found some of that 2011 mojo, if for only patches. Even though Nadal got him yesterday I think he has to be feeling better about where his game is at. Sure, he struggled against Andreas Seppi and even JW Tsonga – i really think the pressure of the Djoker Slam played a role in those matches – but there were moments against Federer and Nadal where you could see that lofty 2011 form.
He stunningly won eight straight games off an irate Rafa and he got a set, the only player to win a set off Nadal on red clay all year. Now that he knows the magic is still there can he summon it, even if it is only for longer patches? I think so.
So the French should put Novak back on track and I expect stronger, more consistent play from him going forward, especially now that the pressures of the Djoker Slam are behind him and the spotlight shines back on Nadal and Federer. He may be the defending champion but the story at Wimbledon is going to be on his two mates.
Roger’s now feeling the scrutiny because he hasn’t held a Slam since 2010 Australia. That’s nine majors in a row without a title and just one single final. But the Swiss is still making Final Fours and doing damage in the smaller ATP-level events. “Senior moments” aside, Federer can still pack a punch and at Wimbledon I really think he has an excellent chance of adding to his career Slam haul.
But returning to No. 1 is looking like a tougher and tougher proposition with each passing week for Fed. Not only does he have to deal with Nadal, now he’s got Djokovic and there’s still Murray and maybe Del Potro who’ll hopefully be a factor during the summer hardcourts. He’ll likely have to beat two of those four to win a Slam, maybe more.
And I won’t get into all these Federer injury excuses. If his hip, back, etc, are really that bad or hamper his play that much then why commit to Halle? Money? Loyalty? Why risk it with Wimbledon and the Olympics just around the corner? That is unless there’s really no concern at all, which is what I think (remember Nadal and his bad shouder and knee at the start of year?).
Luckily for all three (and for many of us fans), there doesn’t appear to be anyone rising through the ranks who’s going to break up this “trivalry” in the near term.
After so many opportunities, it just doesn’t look like Andy Murray has that necessary next gear, and under Lendl he might even be regressing. Still just 23, Juan Martin Del Potro is far too injury prone, for now. Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer? Um, I’ll pass.
Among the younger generation, the Next Big Thing Milos Raonic is still a year to 18 months from a Top 5 ranking, though he could have a Slam final on his resume by the end of this summer. Among Raonic’s peers, I simply don’t see Bernard Tomic, Ryan Harrison, Grigor Dimitrov or even David Goffin as serious, long-standing Top 5 type players anytime soon, if at all.
So until further notice, the Big Three it is… How lucky we are.
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