One of the many reasons why the current Federer-Nadal-Djokovic (or “Fedalic”, for short) era is undoubtedly the greatest in the history of men’s tennis is that the members of “The Big Three” have played so many classic finals against each other, especially at the Majors. The Wimbledon 2019 Final was yet another extraordinary example of that, but where exactly does it rate among the finest finals of this period, which stretches roughly from 2008, when Novak Djokovic won his first Major, to the present day?
Here, in ascending order, are the Five Finest Finals of the “Fedalic” era.
- THE 2014 WIMBLEDON FINAL: DJOKOVIC BEATS FEDERER IN FIVE SETS (6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4)
It is fitting that there are three Wimbledon Finals on this list, because Wimbledon is not only the greatest of all the four Majors (for its history and beauty, to give but two reasons) but the Major in which The Big Three have competed most fiercely. Rafael Nadal has almost completely annexed the clay of Roland Garros, winning 12 of the last 15 French Opens; Djokovic has tended to dominate the hard courts of Melbourne and New York; and so it is on the lawns of London SW19 that most of the greatest clashes between the three greatest male tennis players ever have taken place.
Until last weekend, the 2014 Wimbledon Final was the greatest Djokovic-Federer Wimbledon Final, as it lasted for nearly four hours, until Djokovic finally broke free of Federer to win the fifth set 6-4. It had looked as if Djokovic would win in just four sets, as he had a match and championship point in the fourth set. Then, Federer went on one of those extraordinary runs of games that it appears he alone is capable of among The Big Three, winning five games in a row to go from 5-2 down in the fouth to winning it 7-5. However, as has sadly proved far too common for Federer fans over the whole “Fedalic” era, he could not quite maintain that level of play and he eventually succumbed to Djokovic in the fifth.
- THE 2017 AUSTRALIAN OPEN FINAL: FEDERER BEATS NADAL IN FIVE SETS (6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3)
This was the only one of these five “Grand Finals” that Roger Federer has won, despite competing in four of them. Nevertheless, such was the greatness of this win and the quality of the tennis that secured it that it almost makes up for the other three devastating losses. It was Federer’s first Major win for nearly five years; it was the first time that he had defeated Nadal in a Major Final in more than a decade; and, above all, he sealed it by playing arguably the greatest single set of tennis that anyone has ever played.
The first four sets of the 2017 Australian Open Men’s Final had not so much ebbed and flowed as oscillated wildly, as Federer won the first and third sets relatively comfortably while Nadal struck back both times to win the second and fourth sets by a clear margin. So it was the fifth set, almost on its own, that lifted this match to legendary status. Nadal broke early, to take a 3-1 lead, and FedHeds everywhere feared that their hero’s long losing streak in Grand Slam Finals would continue. But then something miraculous (at least in the context of tennis) occurred. As if finally realising that he had absolutely nothing left to lose, Federer began hitting out and hitting freely, so much so that he won an amazing five games in succession to win the fifth set 6-3. It must be emphasised that Nadal did not “choke” or let the match slip. Instead, Federer, perhaps for the last time ever, lifted his game to an unmatchable level and he finally won one of the greatest finals of the Fedalic era.
- THE 2019 WIMBLEDON FINAL: DJOKOVIC BEATS FEDERER IN FIVE SETS (7-6 (7-5), 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 13-12 (7-3))
Five years on from their first truly great Wimbledon Final (and four years on from the relatively disappointing 2015 Final, which Djokovic had won in four sets), Djokovic and Federer faced each other again in London SW19. Incredibly, they somehow surpassed the memory of 2014, not just in the length of the match (the 2019 Final lasted just short of five hours) but in its quality, especially from Federer, who won more points and hit more winners than his opponent, including a few of his trademark “impossible” shots. Nevertheless, Djokovic proved the truth of John McEnroe’s description of him as a “human backboard” by somehow returning enough of Federer’s near-winners to win the match.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the match lasted for six sets, as it was the first Wimbledon Singles Final (either Men’s or Women’s) to go the full distance and require a final-set tie-breaker. Unfortunately, as with the normal tie-breakers in the first and third sets, Federer saved his worst tennis for the super-tie-breaker at 12 games all in the fifth. That and the fact that he actually served for the match at 8-7 in the final set will surely haunt Federer, especially if he does not reach another Wimbledon Final. That is because he knows that he did not just lose the 2019 title to Djokovic but possibly the far greater title of the greatest grass-court player ever, if, as is now eminently possible, Djokovic goes on to match or surpass his record of eight Wimbledon Singles titles.
- THE 2012 AUSTRALIAN OPEN FINAL: DJOKOVIC BEATS NADAL IN FIVE SETS (5–7, 6–4, 6–2, 6–7 (5–7), 7–5)
And so we come to the top two, which, even in such stellar company, stand apart from the other entries on this list. They were almost Super-Finals, in terms of both quantity (the length of time they took) and quality. Indeed, it might be easier to compare them to the “Super-Fights” of the 1970s Golden Age of heavyweight boxing, particularly “The Rumble in the Jungle” (between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974) and “The Thrilla in Manila” (between Ali and Joe Frazier in the Philippines in 1975), than to other tennis finals, such was their sheer intensity and drama.
Nearly a decade on, the 2012 Australian Open Men’s Singles Final remains the longest ever Major Singles Final in tennis history, at just seven minutes short of six hours. What is even more remarkable, however, is that the quality of the two men’s play, particularly in the many long rallies that they contested, was even greater. Eventually, Djokovic won 7-5 in the fifth set and promptly collapsed (bar his celebratory fist-pumping) on the court. In fact, the match was so fiercely contested that last year another legend of tennis, Billie Jean King, cited it as exhibit A in the growing campaign to end five-set matches for men, saying, “I guarantee you that it took a year off their careers”. Even if that were the case (and more than seven years on, there is abolutely no evidence of it so far), it would still be worth it to have produced such an unquestionably epic match.
- THE 2008 WIMBLEDON FINAL: NADAL BEATS FEDERER IN FIVE SETS (6–4, 6–4, 6–7 (5-7), 6–7 (8-10), 9–7)
It would have been easier, and arguably more accurate, to have had two joint No.1s on this list, with the 2012 Australian Open Final ranked right alongside the 2008 Wimbledon Final. However, I would argue that the 2008 Final just shades the 2012 Final, partly because it was at Wimbledon (the greatest Major of them all) and partly because it definitively marked the end of one era in men’s tennis, the “Federer era” of 2003-08 (in which the great Swiss won five successive Wimbledons, four successive US Opens and three Australian Opens) and the beginning of another, the current “Fedalic” era, in which Nadal and Djokovic have rivaled and eventually overtaken Federer in the quest for Majors.
The 2008 Wimbledon Final was a classic see-saw affair, as Nadal won the first two sets in relatively straightforward fashion and at one point looked as if he might win the match in straight sets, before Federer came fighting back to win two successive tie-breakers, the second of which is probably the greatest tie-breaker in tennis history. Thus the greatest stage in tennis was set for the unforgettable fifth set, played out in the gathering gloom. A year later, Centre Court would have its roof, and if it had been in place in 2008 it is just possible that Federer, who is generally regarded as the greatest indoor player in tennis history, would have won a record sixth successive Wimbledon title. As it was, Nadal rallied magnificently to win 9-7 in the fifth, by which point Centre Court was almost completely dark. For Federer, that sense of darkness would linger, and indeed intensify, as his own “Imperial Phase” of the previous five years, which is unarguably the greatest and most sustained “Imperial Phase” of any player in tennis history, finally came to an end.
The Legacy of the “Fedalic” Era and its Five Greatest Finals
Such is the 21st century’s obsession with the “now” that it can be possible to forget the other glorious eras in tennis history and their own great finals. Having said that, however, it is arguable that the five great finals of the “Fedalic” Era are not only the greatest of their own period of time but the greatest in the Open Era of tennis, which covers the entire half-century (and more) since the sport finally went fully professional in 1968. There are only two earlier men’s Major Finals of the Open Era that would seriously merit inclusion in an “All-Open Era” list of great finals: the fantastic 1980 Wimbledon Final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, which Borg eventually won; and the 1984 French Open Final between McEnroe and Ivan Lendl, which Lendl eventually won, despite McEnroe playing arguably the finest two sets of tennis that anyone had played up to that point in tennis history before finally levelling off and losing to his Czech nemesis.
However, the real legacy of the “Fedalic” era and its five greatest finals is that it provides further evidence, if it were needed, that Novak Djokovic might ultimately turn out to be the greatest, or at least statistically the most successful (in terms of winning Majors), of The Big Three. He won three of those finals and did not lose any of them. So, if he goes on to surpass Federer’s record for a man of 20 Major victories, the “Fedalic” era might just have to be renamed as the “Djokaler” era, in recognition of his eventual domination of it.