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Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic: Who will be the greatest of all-time?

  • July 14, 2020

On this day last year, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic gave tennis fans one of the most enthralling Wimbledon finals of all-time with a 4-hour, 57-minute marathon match that saw Djokovic escape Federer 13-12 in the fifth set. 

That victory gave Djokovic his 16th Grand Slam title and he went on to win the Australian Open in February for a 17th major – putting him just three behind 38-year-old Federer (who holds the record with 20) and two behind 34-year-old Rafael Nadal (who is close behind with 19 Grand Slams). 

If there’s any tennis player who was hurt by the coronavirus pandemic stoppage, and subsequent cancellation of 2020’s French Open and Wimbledon slams, it is the aging Federer. His fheartbreaking loss to Djokovic might’ve been his last chance to win another Grand Slam championship. His ability to reach finals in the latter stages of his career speaks to his greatness and garners him respect as he’s currently considered by many the greatest of all-time. 

But the debate for the men’s tennis G.O.A.T. will rage on in the first part of this decade because Djokovic and Nadal are young enough and well-positioned to win more Grand Slams than Federer. Nadal has won a record 12 French Opens and it’s difficult to imagine his mastery on the clay surface not earning him one more Slam. Then consider that Djokovic, the current No. 1, is the same age Federer was when he still had three more Slams to win. 

This combo made from 2009, left, 2008, center, and 2011 file photos shows from left: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic after winning at Wimbledon.

Tennis’ Big Three have redefined the age barrier that used to define the sport. Björn Borg, an 11-time Grand Slam winner and considered one of the greatest of all-time, retired at 26. John McEnroe won his last Slam in his mid-20s. And Pete Sampras – the holder of most Slams before Federer eclipsed him – retired at 32, considered old for the sport at the time. 

While it will be hard to knock Federer off his perch at the top, what could work in Nadal and Djokovic’s favor for Grand Slam count is the next generation’s inability to break through. The up-and-comers of men’s tennis are still far behind. Australian Dominic Thiem, 26, ranks No. 3 in the world but has yet to win a Slam. Russian Daniil Medvedev, 24, ranks No. 5 and has yet a major to win as well. 

Who will win Slams in 2021, 2022 and 2023? Right now it’s difficult to imagine Djokovic and Nadal not picking up a couple more in the twilight of their respective careers. But even if they pass Federer, will they be the G.O.A.T., considering an out-of-his-prime Federer had to face Djokovic and Nadal closer to their primes – and considering Federer’s early Slam wins were against an arguably more competitive field? 

Only time will tell. But one thing is certain: There’s no debate for greatest era of all-time. The Big Three have dominated the sport in a way no three athletes have.  

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On this day in 1968, Hank Aaron hit the 500th home run of his career off Giants pitcher Mike McCormick. Aaron held the MLB record for career home runs for 33 years, finishing his career with 755. 

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What we’re watching

Soccer: The MLS Is Back Tournament starts early with a 9 a.m. ET kickoff between the new-look Chicago Fire and the reigning league champion Seattle Sounders. Starting at 8 p.m. ET, TUDN (Univision) will be airing two more games (NYCFC-Orlando City, Philadelphia Union-Inter Miami). In the afternoon, at 3:15 p.m. ET, you can watch Premier League action on NBCSN as Chelsea takes on Norwich City. 

Follow reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson

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