When we look back on tennis’ big three — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic — we’ll all have our own opinions on who we thought was best.
But opinions only matter so much.
In reality, as is the case in almost every sport, especially individual sport, the answer will be in the trophies. Tennis’ big three is as close as they’ve ever been in the great chase for slam supremacy: Federer is on 20, Nadal on 19, and Djokovic not too far behind on 17.
And yet, with another opportunity to add to their tallies at the end of August when New York City hosts the US Open, there’s a good chance that none of the above-mentioned tennis royalty will be there.
Federer has an excuse; he suffered a setback in dealing with his knee injury, and is plotting a final (please, no) assault in 2021. But Djokovic and Nadal — arguably the two most homicidally competitive players on the Tour — could very well pass up on the chance to close in on their Swiss foe.
They both have their reasons. But does it add up when you consider what we’ve seen from them throughout their respective careers? Probably not, considering every step that’s been made by both men to this point has seemingly been with winning, at all costs, in mind.
Djokovic has been one of the most vocal critics of the US Open, saying that safety measures and restrictions on the numbers of support staff allowed for each player were problematic.
“We would not have access to Manhattan, we would have to sleep in hotels at the airport, to be tested twice or three times per week,” Djokovic said. “Also, we could bring one person to the club, which is really impossible.
“I mean, you need your coach, then a fitness trainer, then a physiotherapist.”
Djokovic’s misgivings have been shared by defending men’s singles champion Nadal, who would be chasing a Federer-tying slam at Flushing Meadows.
Nadal, the world number two, said earlier this month he would not play in New York if the tournament was taking place now, adding that tennis should not resume until it is “completely safe” for competitors.
Again, no-one watching on is in any position to tell either Djokovic or Nadal that their excuses aren’t legitimate. They have all the money they could ever want, and the agency to make a call like this. But as a collective, the tennis world is simply surprised, looking at each other and asking, ‘Do they know this one will still count?’
This year, this horrible 2020, will be remembered for many reasons.
And in the context of sport, it will go down as the year of the asterisk. Champions will be champions, but not without controversy and people trying to explain why ‘this one doesn’t mean as much’ as those that came before it.
But it does.
And while everything that’s going on right now seems unforgettable, will we actually remember the context of this crazy few months in five, ten, twenty years when we’re discussing who was the best in tennis’ golden generation?
That’s not a bet Djokovic nor Nadal should feel comfortable making.
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