Three kings continue to hold the aces

February 28, 2021 4:30 AM

But he attempted one, almost-a-no-look beauty on Championship Point, to win his ninth Australian Open crown and 18th Grand Slam title.

Novak DjokovicNovak Djokovic

By Shahid Judge

The Australian Open ended with an overhead smash. And a rather symbolic one too. For all of Novak Djokovic’s skill – the best backhand in the world, the tactical prowess, tireless legs, and a seemingly unbreakable defence – the overhead smash is his weakest shot.

But he attempted one, almost-a-no-look beauty on Championship Point, to win his ninth Australian Open crown and 18th Grand Slam title. It just went to show that despite the emergence of raw talent from the next generation of players, the Big 3 of tennis still have it in them to use their weakest weapons to haul in the richest rewards.

The latest pretender to the throne is the new World No 3 Daniil Medvedev, a talented yet unconventional player who was rated the only player capable of toppling Djokovic’s unbeaten run at the Australian Open final – Djokovic has never lost any of the nine finals he’s played at the Rod Laver Arena. But Djokovic sent him packing 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 in a match that lasted just an hour and 53 minutes.

The triumph takes him within two of the record Grand Slam tally of 20 each won by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. And there seems to be no end to the race to see who will be the ‘Greatest of All Time,’ the GOAT. On paper all indicators point that Djokovic, the youngest at 33, will overtake Nadal (34) and Federer (39) when they decide to hang up the racquet and watch whatever is left of a steadily disheartening men’s singles pack scramble for the Grand Slam titles now left at their mercy.

But for the past 18 years, there’s been nobody strong enough to fight the Big 3 – save for perhaps Andy Murray and late-bloomer Stan Wawrinka – to overthrow them on the biggest stage. The numbers prove it.

Since Federer won his first title at Wimbledon in 2003, there have been 70 Grand Slams till the recent one in Melbourne. The Big 3 have won 58 of them, and there have been just six summit clashes where neither of them reached the final.

And when you consider the world rankings, you’d see an even greater hold on the tennis dynasty they’ve created. The last player to have been ranked second in the world, outside the Big 3 and former World No 1 Murray, was two-time major winner Lleyton Hewitt. Nadal took over that spot from the Australian on July 25, 2005. For the near 16 years that followed, nobody has managed to break that stronghold.

Djokovic joined the rivalry a bit later, starting with his first major title at the 2008 Australian Open. Then he flourished in the 2011 season by winning three of the four Slams, and by winning the 2016 French Open, became the first man since Rod Laver (in 1969) to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time.

The charismatic, though often controversial Serbian, is an all court player. He’s dominated the hard courts and has been just as devastating on the fabled grass of Wimbledon. You need only look as far as the 2019 final in London to see how he picked his moments to overcome Federer in what became the longest singles final in the tournament’s history – last four hours and 58 minutes.

By that logic, surely, he has a few more hard court major titles coming his way, possibly even a few at Wimbledon – enough to overtake his seniors. Meanwhile Nadal, as he has been since 2005, will be expected to continue winning the French Open. Federer on the other hand is expected to return to the tour after over a year at the ATP 250 in Doha on March 8. It’s uncertain what form the veteran Swiss will be in, but you cannot overlook the fact that the last time he was forced away from the tour for such a long time, he returned to win three Slams.

The Grand Slam race will continue, but by Monday Djokovic will equal Federer’s record of most number of weeks as the World No 1, and break the record a week later. Federer occupied the top spot for 310 weeks, Djokovic is on 309 and Nadal on 209.

Those numbers will continue to grow with every passing week, with every Grand Slam that comes and goes. But for how long?

The much hyped NextGen, a talented group of youngsters well-advertised by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) – the governing body of men’s tennis – has been knocking on the door for a few years.

Medvedev is the eldest in that group at 25. He’s reached two major finals, the recent one at Melbourne and the 2019 US Open summit clash he lost to Nadal. World No 7 Alexander Zverev reached the final in New York last year.

They’ll continue banging on the door. The only question is when the Big 3, who are basking in the music of their dominance, will allow them to breakthrough.

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