The Story of Our Era – The Most Fabulous Sports Trio of All-Time

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Chattanooga Times Free Press

Bill Simons

Wimbledon 

The chirpy BBC weather woman told us, “This afternoon we are looking for sunny intervals.” 

For decades, fans of men’s tennis have been looking for intervals. Seemingly forever, the Big Three – Roger, Rafa and Nole – have dominated. It’s astounding.

The “Tremendous Three” have won 53 of the last 64 Grand Slams since Roger Federer first won Wimbledon in 2003. They’ve won 55 of the last 77 Masters titles. Just like this year, a decade ago, they started the season as the ATP’s top three players. For the tenth time Friday, the big three will be in the same semis of a major. And one of them has finished No. 1 for each of the last ten years. Together they have won 53 Slams. Wow!

Of course, fabled sports duos and trios have long been celebrated. Pundits and poets celebrated the Chicago Cubs infield: Tinker to Evers to Chance. The Yankees boasted Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Then Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris had a home run battle for the ages. In the NBA, there were Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell and  Magic vs. Bird. More recently the trio of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson lit it up. Today’s NBA teams frantically try to assemble clusters of superstars.

Way back when, Notre Dame had the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Army’s backfield featured Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. Perhaps the best duo in modern football was Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. Men’s tennis, too, has had fabulous clusters: France’s Four Musketeers, the Aussies of the 60s, Borg, McEnroe, Connors, Ashe and Gerulaitis, Becker and Edberg, and America’s Fab Four – Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang. But none of those power blends can match Roger, Rafa and Nole – the most fabulous sports trio ever.

After his classic 2008 Wimbledon final against Rafa, Roger said he wanted his children to see him play. Now does he want his grandkids to see him play? 

So, why the dominance? Sometimes the best answers to complex questions are the simplest. When asked what the Big Three, with all their supremacy, are saying to other players, Sam Querrey quipped, “They’re saying they are just better than we are.”

Supercoach Patrick Mouratoglou offered more detail. “Rafa, Roger and Novak are the three best players of history,” he explained. In an era like this, that’s completely incredible. It’s so random that they play at the same time. Just imagine how many Slams titles they would have won if they didn’t play at the same time against each other. That’s crazy.

“The three of them are totally different. They have completely different qualities and completely different concepts of tennis. They play and practice in different ways. You can’t make a rule that swipes the three of them. Their level is incredibly high and they’re the toughest competitors. To beat them in five sets, that’s the most difficult thing to do.”

“For instance, Stefanos [Tsitsipas] could do it once in Australia when he beat Roger, but he couldn’t do it twice in a row. If he’d actually beat Rafa [in the semis] he would have to have beaten Novak in the finals.”

At first, the Big Three was just the Big Two. Nadal deferentially accepted his secondary position. Always the gentleman, he repeatedly said Roger was the very best. But then, Rafa got a stranglehold on the French Open, won a couple of Wimbledons, often beat Roger and became No. 1. Now, he’s only two Slams behind Federer. Novak has 15 slams. He had a fabulous 2011, and Sunday, if he defends his Wimbledon title, he’ll have won four of the last five Slams.

The whole of this once-in-a-lifetime troika is greater than the sum of its parts. They may or may not have auras, but they do intimidate. In some ways are they kind of a team? When talking about the Masters 1000s tourneys, Federer was almost whimsical: “Rafa takes care of the clay there. Novak is in every Masters 1000 on hard court. I float around.”

Federer’s been floating around for some time. The Big Three’s dominance can be traced to 2001, when the 19-year-old Roger beat the then dominant Wimbledon champ, Pete Sampras. Three generations of stars have been rebuffed by the group. The solid Aussie Lleyton Hewitt won only two Slams. America’s last great hope, Andy Roddick, lost three Wimbledon finals to Federer. 

Since then a whole generation of players – Nishikori, Berdych, Del Potro, Cilic, Raonic and Dimitrov could only score modest results. As the weather lady might have said, “There were only a few sunny intervals.” Well, at least Wawrinka and Murray have won three Slams each over these many years. 

Recently, the ATP has promoted their Next Gen players. But the best results that these appealing but still underachieving youngsters have had are good runs at the Miami Open, Tsitsipas’ reaching the Aussie semis and Alexander Zverev’s twice getting to the French Open quarters. Mary Carillo suggested, “We’ll have to retire that storyline for a little while.” Still, Tsitsipas had the gumption to say, “The big three winning all the time is boring.” Some would suggest this brings to mind the phrase, “You can’t be serious.”

And, for one, Boris Becker was not pleased. “As much as I respect Roger, Rafa and Novak, young players should show up,” said the six–time Slam winner. “Eventually, they will be too old, but you want to see the passing of the torch while they’re still in their prime…Outside the big three [no active player] under 28, apart from Thiem, has been in a grand slam final. That’s not good… And don’t give me that ‘The others are too good.’ We should question the quality and attitude of everybody under 28 – it just doesn’t make sense. There’s a certain mentality that they don’t have, that the three others do have. It’s not the forehands, it’s not the fitness. It’s mindset (and) attitude that makes the difference between winning and losing.”

Still, the Big Three have many – mostly earned – advantages. They travel the world with ease, and huge entourages. They rent the same houses at Wimbledon every year. Rafa’s place has a pool. Federer’s is across the street from the All England Club. At New York’s Carlyle Hotel there’s a suite called the Roger Federer Suite. Guess who calls that home during the US Open?

They have the best handlers, trainers and fitness routines, all long ago perfectly honed. These icons are protected and pampered – and why not? They know the big stages of the game so well. And, in a way, it’s no big deal for them to reach a Slam semi. Their comfort zones are vast. 

At times they seem bigger than the game. They can create their schedules to please their needs or whims. The seeding system helps. Often at Slams, until the quarters or so, the Big Three face few formidable foes. 

Federer was upbeat: “Everything is just sort of pink, it’s just happy out there. It just feels nice.” But he added, “I don’t think any one of us plays for fun or to just be part of the tour. We play to be the best. The competitiveness between us has escalated over the years [and] has brought us to that level where we’re still competing…We are working as hard as anybody…The experience we have helps our confidence…Funny enough, you always think we take away something from the other. Probably we have. At the same time, we also pushed each other to greater heights – to improve. Rafa on grass, Novak on hard courts, me on clay. We definitely became better because of one another. I don’t know if we’d all still be playing if we’d played in different eras.” 

Roger and everybody else knows young players will eventually replace the Big Three. Kevin Anderson feels the current dominance is not because of the lack of quality of other players. “It’s just that those three guys are really, really good, and make life very difficult for everyone else,” said Anderson. 

Others aren’t so certain. Three years ago, Djokovic said the wolves trying to get to the top of the mountain are always hungrier than those that are already at the top. But somehow this may not have been the case. John McEnroe claimed, “The young pros have to match the intensity of the Big Three. You’d think those young guys would be more motivated, but they aren’t.” 

One thing is clear, the Big Three have changed boundaries and created new mindsets. Thirty is the new twenty. Hey, tennis fans, enjoy and relish: we’re in a golden age. “Federer is better-er,” Rafa keeps vamos-ing on, and there’s no way you’re going to stop Nole. The Big Three’s dominance is one of the greatest stories in tennis history. It’s an astounding happening that transcends our sport.

Also Reporting – Lucia Hoffman

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