Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, and Prime Times: Fresh Evaluations Of The Big 3

On an immediate level, the Wimbledon men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer marked an occasion to salute Djokovic for the greatness he has achieved.  When you pass Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Ken Rosewall, and Fred Perry on the all-time majors list, with a few prime years left in your career, you deserve to be seen as more than just a third wheel to Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Now that we’re coming closer to a time in which Djokovic is not automatically the third in this group of three, but could potentially become as great as his peers (IF he can maximize the next few years — we’ll just have to wait and see), it’s worth saying a few things about the Wimbledon final; Djokovic and Federer; and their mutual rival, Rafael Nadal.

A few new milestones have been reached in the collective histories of these three players. Without trampling on old territory, there are fresh insights to be found in assessing the Big Three of modern ATP tennis.

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The most revealing aspect of the histories of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal flows from something touched on in Sunday’s review of the Wimbledon final: How these players performed in early age; their primes; and how they perform in current or impending “old age” as a tennis player will all lend definition and clarity to the ways in which they attained such stratospheric greatness.

Being able to divide these careers — and their head-to-head matchups — into three basic segments can shed new light on Djokovic, Federer and Nadal. The points in time used to separate early-, middle-, and old-age segments of their careers are unavoidably arbitrary. Put 10 people in a room — three Nole fans, three Fed fans, and three Rafa fans, plus one Murray fan or some other neutral — and you’d get at least four different opinions on where lines should be drawn relative to “tennis age,” if not 10. However, you have to start somewhere. This is an attempt to do just that.

The ages being used to separate early age from middle or prime age, and then middle/prime from “old” age, are 22 years and 5 months, followed by 28 years and 5 months. Again, these are arbitrary markers. They were selected because:

A) Nadal played brilliantly before 22 years and 5 months, much more than Federer and Djokovic;

B) Federer’s career really began to take off after 22 years and 5 months;

C) Federer’s prime ended just after 28 years and 5 months;

D) Nadal’s career has certainly slowed down at (and after) 28 years and 5 months, with his climb back to the top a just-beginning work in progress;

and

E) Djokovic is in position to build a majestic old-man career, if defined as the point after 28 years and 5 months.

Sure, plenty of people would object to the very idea that there should be only three age ranges in such a discussion: Why not have “early middle age” (22-25) and “later middle age” (25-28), to create four age ranges?

A response is merited: All three of these players have established such pronounced quality over an extended period of time that their most able-bodied years should be viewed as a whole. The other reason is that these players are separated by six years, not — for the sake of example — nine or more years. Had Federer been two years older and Djokovic a year younger, there would have been a wider range (and variance) of ages to account for, making more age subdivisions appropriate. With only six years of separation, that doesn’t seem quite as urgent a need.

With that prelude out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks:

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The main inspiration for launching a new three-way comparison of Federer, Djokovic and Nadal is Djokovic’s history-making victory on Sunday, good for his third Wimbledon title. A close second is the fact that Djokovic’s meeting with Federer marked the 40th match the two men played. This means Djokovic has now played Federer and Nadal 40 or more times (44 against Rafa). No other man in the Open Era has done that. Most of the great rivalries of the late 1970s, early 1980s, and mid-1990s acquired maximums of 33 to 35 matches (where Federer and Nadal currently stand). It’s a testament to this era of tennis that two rivalries have hit the 40-match mark.

What we’re looking at, then, are the two 40-match rivalries, in addition to the 33-match rivalry between Federer and Nadal. You are (likely) well-versed in the hardcourt, grass and clay splits among these guys. This piece will inject a specific focus on ages and (more particularly) age ranges.

After Wimbledon 2015, here are some age-range-based stats on the three great rivalries of modern ATP tennis, and on the men who made them:

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Before 22 years and 5 months of age, Nadal won 5 majors, Federer and Djokovic one each.

Between 22 years / 5 months and 28 years / 5 months, Federer won 14 majors, Nadal 9, Djokovic 8.

After 28 years and 5 months, Federer has won 2 majors; Nadal’s played only three majors since that point and has won none; Djokovic will play his first major after that marker at the 2016 Australian Open.

In the Djokovic-Federer rivalry (with Federer being 5 years and 9-plus months older):

Matches: 40

Head-to-head: 20-20

Before Djokovic turned 22 years and 5 months old (October 2009), Federer went 9-4 head-to-head.

After Federer turned 28 years and 5 months old (January 2010), Djokovic went 15-11 head-to-head. (One match slipped between these two markers — Basel in 2009, won by Djokovic.)

In the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry (with Nadal being roughly 11 months older):

Matches: 44

Head-to-head: 23-21, Nadal

Before Nadal turned 22 years and 5 months old (November 2008), Nadal went 10-4 head-to-head.

After Nadal turned 22 years and 5 months old, and until Nadal turned 28 years and 5 months old (November 2014), Djokovic went 15-13 head-to-head.

After Nadal turned 28 years and 5 months old, Djokovic has gone 2-0 head-to-head, with more chapters likely to unfold in this rivalry.

In the Federer-Nadal rivalry (with Federer being 4 years and roughly 10 months older):

Matches: 33

Head-to-head: 23-10, Nadal

Before Nadal turned 22 years and 5 months old, Nadal went 12-6 head-to-head.

After Nadal turned 22 years and 5 months old, Nadal went 11-4 head-to-head.

Additional subdivisions:

Before Federer turned 28 years and 5 months old, Nadal went 13-7 head-to-head.

After Federer turned 28 years and 5 months old, Nadal went 10-3 head-to-head.

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ANALYSIS

You can see that these breakdowns reaffirm everything you thought you knew about Nadal: Even as a younger player, he exhibited command against both Federer and Djokovic. Against an older Federer, Nadal has been able to take complete control of that series, especially because Federer hasn’t been able to threaten him in best-of-five-set matches at the majors.

The Nadal-Djokovic series is the most supremely layered one of all. Djokovic has proved to be more resilient, but after winning seven in a row against Nadal in his massive 2011 season and then the 2012 Australian Open final, Djokovic watched Rafa turn the tables and win six of the next seven matches. Nadal trails only 15-13 between the 22-5 and 28-5 age ranges. Had he lost (let’s say) four more matches for a 19-9 differential, he’d trail the overall head-to-head, and we’d likely regard him and Djokovic in ever so slightly different lights.

As for the Djokovic-Federer rivalry — a series that’s dead even but poised to end up with Djokovic as the leader by the time Federer retires — you can see both men in a favorable light.

Federer did what he should have done when in his prime (and when Djokovic was younger). Djokovic has clearly been able to turn the tide in his prime, with Federer getting older. Yet, both men weren’t complete pushovers for the other in their more vulnerable periods — Djokovic as a young pup, Federer as an old man. They both fought back even when not in their prime (22-5 and 28-5) age ranges. With Djokovic likely to enjoy a few more top-quality seasons, it’s going to get progressively harder for Federer to overtake him unless the only meetings of the tennis season occur in Dubai, Cincinnati, or other fast tracks that suit Federer’s game. Federer is certain to finish with a losing head-to-head against Nadal, and likely to finish with a losing head-to-head against Djokovic.

Pretty bad news for Federer fans, right?

On the surface? Yes. Underneath the surface? Not nearly as much as you might think.

Notice, in the Djokovic-Federer rivalry, the division in matches before Nole’s prime began and after Fed’s prime ended, with only one match escaping those two categories. Before Djokovic’s prime began (as defined by the age ranges set forth in this piece), the two men played 13 matches. After Fed’s prime ended, the two have played 26 times, twice that number.

Djokovic has made good use of that latter period, but within that fact lies an underappreciated virtue of Federer: He’s lasted long enough in tournaments to play Djokovic in his advanced age. Federer has accrued more losses to Djokovic because he keeps meeting him, but the fact that Federer keeps meeting Nole means that the Swiss is still going deep into tournaments… which is why, on his 34th birthday, Fed will still be No. 2 in the world, an absolutely spectacular feat.

This is similar to the fact that Federer, during his prime years, kept meeting Rafael Nadal in the finals of claycourt tournaments. Federer put himself in position to rack up a lot of losses to Rafa — and that he certainly did (2-13 against the Spaniard on clay) — but by getting to clay finals, Federer created a very happy problem for himself. Had Nadal been a more polished hardcourt player at a time when he had already mastered clay and was beginning to solve Wimbledon, Federer could have played Nadal more times under more favorable circumstances. It’s because Nadal didn’t reach as many hardcourt semis or finals in his early years that Federer couldn’t improve his head-to-head more than he did.

Yet, no one can deny that Nadal — by winning matches so early in his career against Federer, and by swiping multiple wins on hardcourts during that time — has ensured that Federer’s arguments are (and will always remain) somewhat limited.

Ultimately, though, this analysis was meant to show that while all-time head-to-heads are certainly part of the process of evaluating players — they’re particularly relevant for players who are true contemporaries, such as Nadal, Djokovic, and Andy Murray — a more nuanced approach is required for players separated by larger periods of time. When one player in his prime faces an opponent in his early years, and when one player in his prime faces an opponent in his old-man years, a few more distinctions are required. As Nadal and Djokovic begin the climb to age 30 and beyond — becoming old men in tennis terms — these distinctions become more relevant than ever before.

In five years, we’ll be able to revisit this discussion and say even more about the evolution of the careers of the three best male tennis players of our time.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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