Moira Gordon: The dominance of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer harks back to the days of Connors, Borg and McEnroe
TWO is company, three is a crowd pleaser and boy are the spectators wowed at grand slams these days. Not since the days of Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe can tennis fans claim to have been this spoiled.
The same cannot be said of the men unfortunate to share this playing generation. Going into this year’s Wimbledon Championships, it’s hard to see past Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer when selecting a winner. It has now been nine years since someone outside the elite trio lifted the gentleman’s trophy on the lawns of SW19 and few would bet against that becoming a round decade.
In that triumvirate of talent, the sport has an embarrassment of riches. Dominating everyone else in the locker room, they have turned grand slam trophy lifting into a private pastime, with only a handful of others on the tour able to conjure up the necessary magic from time to time.
Juan Martin Del Potro won the 2009 US Open, Juan Carlos Ferrero won the 2003 French Open, Andy Roddick took the US Open the same year, while in London, Lleyton Hewitt in 2002 was the last winner not named Federer, Djokovic or Nadal.
While there have been commanding figures in the past, not since the period from the mid 1970s to the mid ’80s has one group of players been so selfish in its gathering of grand slam victories.
Between 1974 and 1985 Connors, Borg and McEnroe had just such a hold. They went 11 years at Wimbledon without letting anyone else taste glory. It started with Connors, just as it did with Federer. Both majestic, both with a variety of shots as well as the desire to be the best. Both utilised those traits to good effect. After Connors, Borg came along to claim his place on the pedestal. A clay court specialist, the Swede learned to transfer his talents to other surfaces, including the hallowed Wimbledon grass. Just as Nadal has done several decades later.
But while two is a rivalry, those head-to-heads intriguing, throw another contender into the mix and things become really juicy. In the days of wooden rackets and short shorts, that role was played perfectly by McEnroe. A breath of fresh air, he refused to be overawed and refused to wait for an invite. He simply burst into the top tier. The same could be said of current World No 1 Djokovic.
“I’m happy to say that he showed no respect, and I didn’t expect him to,” Connors said of McEnroe’s emergence, “even though he was trying to take my place as the best tennis player at that time. I didn’t give him any respect either. He was trying to brush me aside.”
After seeing the rise of Djokovic, McEnroe said: “I can relate to him. I was trying to break into the mix with Jimmy and Bjorn and those guys were selfish. They wanted to win them all, just like Roger and Rafa. It’s hard to break in. But you know you’ve done something incredible when you do.”
And, for a while, that was it. The three-way fight was captivating. It made personalities of them all. It was a time when allegiances were formed in a way tennis hadn’t really known previously. Fans picked their favourites. It elevated the interest in the game and it forced those around them to up their game in the faint hope of bettering them.
“It brings back nice memories of what we did for tennis,’’ Borg said before a charity challenge match against his old adversary, McEnroe last year. “We brought tennis to another level.
“We had something special when we played,” Connors says of that era. They undoubtedly did. But the current crop has raised the bar again.
Between them Connors, Borg and McEnroe won 26 grand slam titles but today’s top-ranked trio have already accumulated 32, with little evidence that the harvesting of hardware will slow up any time soon.
Others have tried, some have made finals, some have made it past one of them only to find at least another one standing between them and the greatest prizes.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had that experience at the Australian Open in 2008. Having beaten Nadal in the semi-finals, he faced then world No.3 Djokovic in the final. Back-to-back miracles proved too big an ask and the Serb won his first grand slam title.
“They are too good. That’s it. They’re just too good,” says the Frenchman, who is currently ranked world No.5, one of the chasing pack, close but not close enough.
“They’ve, you know, been pretty selfish about grand slam titles for a little bit now,” said three-times Wimbledon runner-up Andy Roddick, who once joked that, instead of talking metaphorically, he may literally have to resort to throwing the kitchen sink at Federer to get the better of him on Wimbeldon Centre Court.
But the Swiss genius has not won a grand slam title in over two years as the Nadal-Djokovic mini drama has been playing out. It is his longest dry spell since he won his first title nine years ago.
Once unbeatable on the grass, Federer’s sorcery on that surface has diminished slightly in recent years and others have taken the titles which were once almost pre-ordained as his. But, even though he will turn 31 in August, no-one will underestimate him at a venue which feels like home. And the desire is still there.
With six Wimbledon titles in the bag already, despite losing at the quarter-final stage in the past two years, to Tomas Berdych in 2010 and Tsonga in 2011, he would love just one more triumph.
“I would just like to get another Wimbledon crown. It would be amazing to get number seven. I think the upcoming two [Wimbledon and the US Open] – those will be my best chances to win.”
And as long as Federer hangs in there fighting with Nadal and Djokovic, this golden era will continue to shine brightly. Thirty years ago, people were absorbed by the three-way tussle involving Connors, Borg and McEnroe, but it was too short-lived and the excitement was diluted when Borg retired after the US Open in 1981. It was great while it lasted, but it just didn’t last long enough.
But, listening to Federer, it doesn’t look likely that Nadal and Djokovic have scared him off just yet or that the interest in fighting for more titles has waned.
For now, the battle is among the big three and anyone who can finally break into that group. Back in the days of Connors, Borg and McEnroe, one man finally managed that. Ivan Lendl reached four grand slam finals and lost them all before eventually taking the next step, in the 1984 French Open final.
Now the coach of world No.4 Andy Murray, his charge is the man many consider most capable of breaking the current stranglehold. So far, he has a 0-3 record in grand slam finals. The Scot continues to knock on the door, becoming only the seventh player in the open era to reach the semi-finals of all four grand slam tournaments in the same year. What will encourage Murray is that, having forced his way through the door, Lendl eventually went on to win eight.
If two is company and three is a crowd pleaser, it’s hard to sum up what it would mean to the game to see Murray make it four in his home slam.
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