Historic Majors, particularly historic Wimbledons, are by definition easier to identify in retrospect than in advance. For example, the Wimbledons of 1980 and 2008 were both defined by classic men’s singles finals that marked a decisive shift in tennis history, with John McEnroe and Rafael Nadal respectively demonstrating their readiness to rule the tennis world. And whilst it cannot yet be said with certainty that the 2019 Wimbledon Championships will be similarly historic, all the signs are that it could be.
The single most important reason for that is that it could be the last time that men’s tennis’ Big Three compete at Wimbledon on more or less equal terms. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic have won the last 10 Majors, and between them they have won every Wimbledon since 2002, save in 2013 when Andy Murray ended Britain’s eighty year wait for a men’s singles champion and in 2016 when he reclaimed his title. But it is the rivalry of the Big Three that has defined this era.
Indeed, so great has been their rivalry, and so long, that it is undoubtedly the greatest in the history of men’s tennis and surely amongst the greatest in all of sporting history. However, even great things come to an end. The main reason for that is that Federer is now 37, in fact, he will be 38 in just over a month, and not even the great Swiss can go on forever. Given the importance that he has attached to winning Olympic singles gold (he has already won the doubles with Stan Wawrinka), it is possible that he will retire at next year’s Tokyo Olympics, or soon afterwards at the US Open.
If that is the case, it would mean that the man, regarded by many as the greatest male tennis player ever, both statistically and aesthetically, has only six Majors left to play. And in those six Majors, he will be absolutely desperate, despite all that he has won before, to claim at least one more Grand Slam title, in the hope that it might just be enough to finally shut the door on the two men chasing his record, Nadal and Djokovic.
When Nadal won his 12th French Open last month, it brought him to within touching distance of Federer’s current haul of 20 Majors. Now with 18 Grand Slam titles to his name, for the first time in his career the Spaniard is only two Majors away from matching Federer and three from overtaking him. Of course, no-one will be more aware of that than Federer himself, which is why he will be determined to add to his Major haul and this year’s Wimbledon arguably represents his last best chance to do so.
It is, of course, the fact that Wimbledon is played on grass that makes it Federer’s best chance to win his 21st Major title. In the last two years he has played some of his best grass-court tennis since his dominant run between 2003 and 2007. In 2017, he won a record eighth Wimbledon title, finally taking him clear of seven-time champions William Renshaw and Pete Sampras. Last year, he played some more excellent tennis, but had the misfortune to run into an inspired Kevin Anderson, whose thunderous serve and groundstrokes proved just too strong even for the mighty Federer in the last eight. But such is Federer’s enduring quality that he will believe he can come again in SW19.
As for Nadal, after breaking Federer’s stranglehold on Wimbledon in 2008 and winning it again in 2010, he has done surprisingly poorly at the All England Club over the past ten years, reaching only one other final, in 2011, when he lost to Djokovic. Nevertheless, the omens for Nadal this year are relatively auspicious. He showed last year when he reached the semifinals, falling just short there against Djokovic in an instant classic, that he can still play on the grass.
And after winning again at Roland Garros this year, rather than play any warm-up events on grass he elected to rest ahead of Wimbledon. That should mean that he will arrive at Wimbledon in the best possible physical condition. And with Federer now just two Majors ahead of him in the all-time Majors list, Nadal knows that if he can win at Wimbledon and the US Open he could draw level with his greatest rival this year and surpass him at next year’s Australian or French Open.
With so much attention focused on Federer and Nadal, it is almost possible to forget that the defending champion is Novak Djokovic, who began his title defence with a comprehensive straight-sets win over Philipp Kohlschreiber. A year ago, the great Serb arrived at Wimbledon as a forgotten man, a player in desperate need of rejuvenation. A lengthy struggle with form and fitness had seen him fall out of contention for the Majors since completing the unprecedented ‘Nole Slam’ at the French Open in 2016 and few considered him amongst the favourites at Wimbledon, despite a run to the Queen’s Club final.
What happened next showed why the name of Djokovic will forever be linked with those of Federer and Nadal, as he somehow first won Wimbledon, for the fourth time, before going on to win the next two Majors in New York and Melbourne. Indeed, if it were not for the gales that so affected his French Open semifinal with Dominic Thiem, which he ultimately lost in five storm-tossed sets, he might even have found himself arriving at Wimbledon holding all four Majors for the second time in his career.
There certainly seems little likelihood, whatever happens at Wimbledon this year, of Djokovic slipping from his lofty position at the top of the game back into the ranks. Fit and firing after a successful elbow surgery in early 2018, he will believe he has all the tools he needs to further embellish his legacy with a fifth Wimbledon title in eight years. That would bring his tally of Grand Slam titles to 16, placing him well within striking distance of Nadal and Federer.
Of course, it is just possible that someone other than one of the Big Three will win Wimbledon. But given that between them Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have won every Major going back to Stan Wawrinka’s US Open triumph in 2016, it seems more than likely that one of them will add to their Major haul this month.
Federer will be fighting to win what might just be his last ever Slam, Nadal will be trying to remind everyone that he is not just the King of Clay but a Grand Slam champion on every surface and Djokovic will be determined to forcefully reassert himself in the greatest of all time debate. And as a result, Wimbledon 2019 might just come to be regarded as one of the greatest ever Majors and its winner the greatest player of them all.
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