Updated: May 27, 2021
By Tennis in the Park
Follow on Twitter: @TennisInthePar1
Picture by Reuters
It was so simple, at first.
One great champion emerged, and then another arose to challenge him. A classical dialectic. The Grand Slam victories between the two were easy to evaluate for their relative quality. The third of the triumvirate was still off doing Roddick impressions.
Swiss Army tennis knife Roger Federer won his first four Grand Slams in 2003 and 2004 without so much as glancing at anyone we would now consider an equal on the par of the Big Three. Even once the 2005 season arrived, and one-man Spanish Armada Rafael Nadal sailed into Federer's empire, both players dominated their own domains, simply punishing the other for any incursions.
From 2005 to 2007, Federer won two consecutive Australian Opens, and three consecutive at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He dispatched Nadal in two of those Wimbledons. Nadal, meanwhile, took three consecutive Roland Garros titles, besting Federer at some stage in all three of those.
There was only just a tremor of a disturbance to this duality in this era: In 2007, Federer quite easily defeated a scrambling Serbian named Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open final. At the time, nobody batted an eye.
Federer total Grand Slams to this point: 12
Defeating a member of the Big Three: 3
Nadal total Grand Slams: 3
Defeating a member of the Big Three: 3
We all know these facts. This whole article is going to reek of the greed of taking these miraculous achievements completely for granted. But now to the point.
In 2008, things started to get messy. Like, so messy you needed to start a spreadsheet to keep track of it all.
Picture by Getty Images
2008: The Big Three Era Begins
Until 2008, the story of the Federer-Nadal rivalry remained a safe binary equation, represented as much by the gimmicky "Battle of the Surfaces" match these two played in 2007. Federer: Grassman. Nadal: Clayman.
In 2008, chaos began to take hold in three ways.
A certain scrambling Serbian named Djokovic won his first Australian Open, defeating 3-time champ Federer in the semifinal. Seemingly a blip at the time, a Djokovic title here would soon become an early year rite. (Appropriately, the Australian Open final always takes place on or around American holiday of Groundhog's Day.)
With the supernova event of the 2008 Wimbledon championship, Nadal took the mantle of grasscourt champion, and safe borders between the rivals' domains broke wide open. From this point on, these transcendent surface masters began to run roughshod over each others' terrain.
After 2008, Rafael Nadal, the player who in many ways was the lynchpin of the Big Three rivalry, owing to his median age and development arc overlapping the peaks of the other two players, began to experience injury problems and varying periods of poor results.
The combination of these chaotic factors gave way to the most complex and fascinating era in tennis history, rich in epic contests and outcomes to be analyzed for ages to come.
At the end of 2008, the rivalry looked thus:
Federer Grand Slams: 13
Defeating a member of the Big Three: 4
Nadal Grand Slams: 5
Defeating a member of the Big Three: 5
Djokovic Grand Slams: 1
Defeating a member of the Big Three: 1
2009 and Beyond: Enter the Ugly Spreadsheet Tables
Why am I doing this? Why am I putting you through all these data points? Are you even still reading? The rivalries between the fans of the Big Three members are more heated than the rivalries between the players themselves. You ask me, I'll find a reason for the dominance of one over the other, it's easy.
But I got curious and decided I just wanted to know how the years of the Big Three at the Grand Slams actually overlaid with each other. Where were the major collisions of these giants, and where did they manage to avoid each other for certain reasons and vulture what I'll term objectively as "soft" Grand Slams? And would this information be good for anything? So I started building a timeline.
2009 is the first year a timeline becomes especially helpful for looking at the three-way rivalry (trivalry).
Here's an ugly spreadsheet table of that year:
A key to the color coding:
F= Federer, D=Djokovic, N=Nadal
Dark Green: Championship win, with a win over a Big Three player.
Light Green: Championship win, with no win over a Big Three player - a "soft" Grand Slam.
Red: Defeated by a Big Three player.
Purple: Player withdrew or retired from the tournament.
Gray: I've grayed out Grand Slams that someone other than a Big Three player won. If a Big Three member played the final, I've highlighted the one who beat them in blue.
Notes: The 2009 Australian Open was the ending of the Fedal era, with Djokovic clearly stepping in to influence tournament outcomes. While Djokovic's Grand Slam results were minimal this year, his epic clay season bouts with Nadal resulted in injuries to Nadal that left him compromised to defend his Roland Garros and Wimbledon titles. Federer took advantage to win his only Roland Garros and have his last multi-Slam year until 2017 (an ultra-rare Roland Garros/Wimbledon double).
Notes: Nadal retires from Australia with injury but goes on to have his best year as a pro, winning 3 consecutive Grand Slams, including his second Roland Garros-Wimbledon double. Djokovic has his breakthrough in an epic semifinal defeating Federer at the U.S. Open.
Notes: Djokovic’s year of years, winning 3 Grand Slams. From 2011 to 2012, Djokovic and Nadal played 4 straight finals, Djokovic winning all until Nadal held Roland Garros in 2012.
Notes: Nadal loses his most massive final to Djokovic in Australia. He recovers in Roland Garros, then begins a long injury period afterward. This year stands out as the only where a Grand Slam apiece was won by each member of the Big Four (Andy Murray taking the U.S. Open).
Notes: Nadal out for Australia, then comes back and wins 2 Grand Slams, going through Djokovic in both. The Nadal-Djokovic Roland Garros semifinal is one of the finest matches the two ever played.
Notes: Nadal upset in Australia. He still defeats Djokovic in Roland Garros. Nadal begins his longest injury period afterward. Djokovic gets Wimbledon.
Notes: Djokovic wins 3 majors, but unlike 2011, he advances through these tournaments without facing Nadal, who deals with injures and poor play. Ironically, this is the single year Djokovic defeats Nadal at Roland Garros, one of only two defeats Nadal has ever faced in that tournament, but Djokovic fails to win the title. Federer is unable to compete with Djokovic in the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals.
Notes: Nadal is injured for a 3rd year, with Federer also injured. Djokovic collects 2 more Grand Slams, including his lone Roland Garros title (but failing to get the double with Wimbledon). After Roland Garros, Djokovic holds all four Grand Slam trophies at once. Stan Wawrinka takes 2 Grand Slams away from Djokovic in 2 years.
Notes: Djokovic now the injured one. Federer and Nadal make their comebacks from injury and split the Grand Slams 2/2 between them. Their only head-to-head is a classic 5-setter in Australia, their first Grand Slam final since 2011 Roland Garros, Federer avenging the '09 AO.
Notes: All three having mixed results based on health. Titles: Federer: 1, Nadal: 1, Djokovic: 2. The one showdown is an epic 5-set Nadal-Djokovic Wimbledon semifinal, with Nadal slipping on the grass to lose a critical late-stage point.
Notes: Looks like another year where Djokovic will get 3, leaving Roland Garros for Nadal. However, injury leaves the U.S. Open for Nadal. A 2/2 split. The Djokovic-Federer Wimbledon final is an all-time classic 5-setter, with Djokovic saving championship points on his way to victory. Federer defeats Nadal in the Wimbledon semifinal, then plays the longest match in Wimbledon history, taking Djokovic to five sets - at age 37.
Notes: Djokovic gets the Australian before the pandemic shuts down the year. The U.S. Open was surreal. Nadal dominates Roland Garros. This looked like another year Djokovic was probable to win at least 3 majors. Events and Nadal conspired to make that 1 major. The year could’ve feasibly ended with Djokovic and Federer tied at 20 majors, Nadal at 19. But instead it was Nadal and Federer at 20, Djokovic at 17.
This is where I'm going to leave off for now, since the year is still in progress. So far, Djokovic has captured the Australian Open, his 18th Grand Slam, but faced neither Federer nor Nadal on the way. That would be a light green "soft" victory by the standard of this report. But I think it's most appropriate to evaluate full years based on how events can influence later year outcomes. Thus, 2021 will not be part of my final tallies below.
At the end of 2020, the rivalry of the Big Three looked thus:
Federer Grand Slams: 20
Defeating a member of the Big Three: 6
"Soft" Grand Slams: 14
Nadal Grand Slams: 20
Defeating a member of the Big Three: 14
"Soft" Grand Slams: 6
Djokovic Grand Slams: 17
Defeating a member of the Big Three: 13
"Soft" Grand Slams: 4
Scour this as you want. Draw all the fun conclusions you can. (Don't forget that Nadal also won an Olympic gold medal in 2008, defeating Djokovic along the way. Does that rise to the level of a Grand Slam in this scheme?) I'm thinking of a follow-up article on some of these data points in the coming weeks. I was just happy to plot this all out for myself. In the shorter term, I have another article coming together about mental aspects of the Big 3, something not so data-driven as this. But this is what had to come first!