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Mind the gap: Djokovic, Federer and Nadal playing at a level the chasing pack cannot reach

Mind the gap: Djokovic, Federer and Nadal playing at a level the chasing pack cannot reach

10/07/2019 at 21:07Updated 10/07/2019 at 22:32

For the second Grand Slam in a row, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have reached the semi-final. The trio are on another level over five sets, and they are arguably increasing the gap on the chasing pack, writes Michael Hincks.

There was a smidgen of hope that we might see an upset as we headed into men’s quarter-finals day at Wimbledon. Djokovic, Federer and Nadal - the top three seeds – had all lost to their respective opponents in their previous meetings.

David Goffin beat Djokovic in Monte Carlo two years ago, Kei Nishikori toppled Federer at last year’s ATP World Tour Finals, while Sam Querrey overcame Nadal in Mexico back in 2017. But all of those victories came over three sets. Over five, on Wednesday, it was a completely different story.

After Djokovic dropped just six games – including a second-set bagel – to see off Goffin and set up a meeting with Roberto Bautista Agut, Federer battled from a set down to send Nishikori packing.

Nadal then brushed Querrey aside in straight sets to book a semi-final showdown with Federer, 11 years after their epic 2008 final. But we’ll get to that shortly.

What we witnessed on Wednesday was nothing new, but once again reaffirmed that no other male player can match the trio’s intensity on the court. Doing so over just one set appears to take it out on a player, and that’s against a trio well into their 30s.

Going a break down to Goffin ignited 32-year-old Djokovic. Going a set down to Nishikori sparked Federer into life, while Nadal, 33, was too strong for Querrey after a battle late on in the first set. If you somehow reach their level, they will go above and beyond.

Djokovic: "This is where, especially Nadal, Federer, and myself... we go on to the next level in terms of tennis and focus. We're very dedicated to these tournaments. At this stage of all of our careers, this is what matters the most for us."

The ‘Big Three’s’ Wimbledon to date

  • Top seed Djokovic: 1 set dropped, broken five times, 10hrs 15mins on court
  • 2nd seed Federer: 2 sets dropped, broken three times, 9hrs 24mins on court
  • 3rd seed Nadal: 1 set dropped, broken four times, 10hrs 45mins on court

And so, it appears the only danger to the top three losing will be that they lose to one of the others.

Nadal's only slam loss this year came in the Australian Open final to Djokovic, who himself went on to lose a five-set battle in the French Open semi-final to Dominic Thiem. Federer, meanwhile, fell to Stefanos Tsitsipas in Melbourne before losing to Nadal at Roland Garros, and he will be out to exact revenge when facing the Spaniard again on Friday.

And unless Bautista Agut can spring an upset in his semi-final against Djokovic, then only one of the ‘Big Three’ will be capable of taking down another. Bautista Agut can draw on his two wins over Djokovic this year, but this time around, it's best-of-five...

Federer: "It's impressive to see how sort of healthy (Nadal) has stayed. A lot of them are saying, 'Oh, it's the end,' by 2008. Similar to me in 2009. We're still here."

Back to the Nadal-Federer semi-final then. Their 40th meeting, 11 years after their 2008 thriller and 15 years since they first met in Miami.

Some of tennis’ rivalries have lasted more than a decade, but they have not been as stretched out on such a grand stage. Ivan Lendl’s first slam meeting with John McEnroe came in 1980, their last in 1989. To that extent, McEnroe and Jimmy Connors’ rivalry stretched from 1977 to 1984. McEnroe faced Bjorn Borg in four finals over two years. Boris Becker faced Stefan Edberg 35 times but only met four times in slams over a three-year period. Pete Sampras beat Andre Agassi in the 1990 and then US Open final 2002.

The list could go on, but essentially we can see that Federer and Nadal’s Grand Slam rivalry stands at 14 years having first met in the French Open semis in 2005.

Nadal: "Probably the only reason why we're able to be where we are is because we love the game and we have big respect for this sport. I don't think we improved much. I think we managed to add things because we lose things on the other hand, no? We need to add new things because of the age."

It also shows no sign of stopping on Friday. It has got to the point where we are no longer fearing this could be the final chapter, but simply relishing the fact these two greats of the game will stare each other down across the court once more. They did it at the French, they will do so at Wimbledon, so what’s to say this rivalry does not have a few more years left in it. After all, Federer seems in no rush.

As a result, it is difficult to know whether to rejoice in their greatness, Djokovic’s too, or lament the fact the chasing pack are losing ground, while a whole generation of players look set to forever stay in their shadow.

The Next-Next-Gen do look a promising crop. However, Tsitsipas, Felix Auger Aliassime, Denis Shapovalov and Frances Tiafoe all fell at the first Wimbledon hurdle this year. A difficult slam for all, but their time will come, and it’s increasingly looking like that will only be when Federer, Nadal and Djokovic all retire.

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