As Roger Federer prepares to hang up his racquet and bid farewell to the ATP Tour during this week’s Rod Laver Cup, which will mark his swan song tournament, the sport is left staring at the beginning of the end of its golden era.
For over two decades, tennis fans have been treated to otherworldly tennis from the Swiss star, or “The Maestro,” as he was often dubbed in deference to his graceful game, majestic strokes and the effortless ease and style with which he wielded a racquet, all while elevating the sport to great prominence on the international stage.
But, it’s not just tennis fans around the globe that he’s captivated over his 24-year- career. The Swiss is revered by his peers and virtually everyone involved within the world of tennis and, even, sport as a whole. And that is arguably the most defining and telling legacy Federer leaves behind.
The talismanic Swiss enjoyed many firsts. He was the first player to surpass Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam titles – on the way ultimately to his own tally of 20 Grand Slam titles. He was also the first to equal Bjorn Borg’s record at five Wimbledon titles, earning him the label, “the King of Grass.”
There were more firsts, too many to go into in this space. But in the process of achieving these accolades, he forged some of the greatest rivalries the game has ever seen with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, and together they became known as the Big Three in tennis, largely because of their dominance at the grand slams.
“To the game of tennis, I love you.”
Roger Federer has announced his retirement.
His last appearance on Wimbledon Centre Court showed just how much tennis loves him. pic.twitter.com/vVmIxvaliK
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) September 15, 2022
The Big Three, Greatest Rivalries
Federer, Nadal and Djokovic were special talents right from the start of their careers, respectively. But few would have predicted the otherworldly feats of greatness they went on to achieve – between them they have 63 majors. Nadal currently leads the pack at a record 22 Grand Slam titles. Djokovic comes in as a close second with 21 and Federer follows with 20.
Through their determination and competitive spirit, they inspired each other to unimaginable heights. Challengers came and went over the years, those hopefuls that tried to crash the three-way rivalry they’d formed at the majors. And some did achieve success, such as Andy Murray (3) Stanislas Wawrinka (3), Marin Cilic (1), Dominic Thiem (1) and Daniil Medvedev (1). But none of them carried the promise of the Big Three or the kind of aura that they had about them, respectively.
That is, not until Carlos Alcaraz – the 19-year-old Spanish phenom, who captured his maiden Grand Slam title by winning the 2022 US Open title.
Fun Fact: Alcaraz was born on May 5, 2003 – a month before Federer won his maiden Grand Slam title at the 2003 Wimbledon Championships.
Alcaraz Reigns at US Open 2022
The Spanish teenager won the US Open final in four sets over Casper Ruud at Arthur Ashe Stadium in three hours, 20 minutes, clinching his 51st ATP Tour-level win of the season in what was his first-ever Grand Slam final appearance.
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) September 12, 2022
In winning the US Open, Alcaraz became the youngest player in the history of the men’s game to ascend to No. 1 in the ATP rankings – something no one did before him, not even the great Federer, the indomitable Nadal or the obstinate Djokovic.
“I don’t wanna compare myself to them, but I wanna be like them,” said Alcaraz in a recent interview with the New York Times, speaking about his admiration for Federer, Nadal and Djokovic and their undeniable contributions to tennis. Specifically, their longevity.
“It’s incredible to be the youngest No. 1 ever. But it’s much tougher what the Big Three is doing: Stay on top for 20 years. That’s what I’m looking for, “ said Alcaraz.
There’s no hyperbole to describe what the 19-year-old US Open champion accomplished in Flushing Meadows this month, never mind the fact that he did it in his first Grand Slam final.
“Well, this is something that I dreamed of since I was a kid,” said Alcaraz during the trophy ceremony. “It’s something I worked really, really hard [for]. It’s tough to talk, right now. A lot of emotions.”
Passing The Torch?
For several years, as one by one of the Big Three in tennis – Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic – advanced deeper into their 30s, the moment in which the NexGen stars would replace them in their position of importance drew nearer. The dramatic “changing of the guard” moment inevitably comes in any sport.
For Federer, the oldest of the Big Three at 41 years of age, the time is now. A knee injury at last year’s Wimbledon Championships kept Federer out of the game for over a year, although many hoped he would come back to compete again. But time waits for no one. Age finally caught up to Federer, so he said in his 845-word statement posted on social media announcing his retirement.
Nadal, 36, and Djokovic, 35, probably still have a few years left in them. That said, Nadal’s body is showing worrying signs of wear and tear while Djokovic is facing an existential crisis due to being unvaccinated. He missed two Grand Slam events and the better part of the season, and he’s seen his ranking drop in the process as a result.
Alcaraz’s Rise to the Top
The emergence of an heir apparent has taken longer than most anticipated it would, to be fair. The Big Three – more so Nadal and Djokovic in recent years – seem reluctant to relinquish their grip on the game’s most coveted prizes, especially the Grand Slams.
They appear to be ridiculously impervious to the passage of time and aging, defying logic and reason in the process. Case in point: Nadal picked up the first two Grand Slam titles of the year (Australian Open and French Open) and Djokovic lifted the crown at the All England Club – all the while both were on the wrong side of 35 years of age.
Federer statpadded vs part time plumbers and farmers. Djokovic statpadded vs tiktokers and models.
Then there’s Nadal, who dominated the tour, when it was the most competitive it has ever been. pic.twitter.com/XZAoI0nHq2
— ً (@nadalprop_) September 18, 2022
Djokovic’s absence (unvaccinated) from the tournament and, similarly, Nadal’s injury – which led to his untimely demise in the R16 – paved the way for Alcaraz to seize this life-changing opportunity. But it would be unfair, not to mention grossly misleading, to claim he couldn’t have done it with both playing in the tournament. After all, Alcaraz beat Nadal and Djokovic in succession to win the Madrid Open title earlier this year.
Ever since Alcaraz burst onto the scene, experts earmarked him for greatness. All too often, he was likened to his compatriot Nadal, even though his game bears little resemblance to his 36-year-old countryman.
Where he does compare is mentally. His tenacity and never-say-die attitude is up there with Nadal’s. So. too. his supreme fitness and aggressive groundstrokes. But most important of all, he matches Nadal in the record books by becoming the youngest man to win a major title since Nadal accomplished the feat by winning the 2005 French Open at the same tender age of 19.
Alcaraz’s first major breakthrough came at the 2021 US Open where he reached the quarterfinals. So, it’s somewhat fitting that Arthur Ashe Stadium would become the scene of his maiden success exactly 12 months later.
Ruud said it best after his defeat to Alcaraz. The Norwegian and newly minted world No. 2 was very effusive in his praise of the 19-year- old, generously echoing what everyone is saying about the kid.
“He’s one of these few rare talents that comes up every now and then in sports. That’s what it seems like,” said Ruud on Alcaraz’s win. “Let’s see how his career develops, but it’s going all in the right direction.”
Is Alcaraz the heir apparent to carry the torch after Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic hang up their racquets? Maybe. But with only one of the Big Three retiring, it’s premature to give him the torch as yet.