Rafael Nadal of Spain at the 2016 Western & Southern Open, Lindner Family Tennis Center, Mason, Ohio.
2019 was an eventful year for Spanish tennis great Rafael Nadal.
But for men’s tennis, there was nothing new. It’s all about the “big three” — Nadal, Novak Djokovic of Serbia and Roger Federer of Switzerland.
After missing the end of the 2018 season with knee issues (a problem that has plagued him throughout his career), an abdominal injury and an ankle injury that required surgery, Nadal won two of the four tennis grand slam events in 2019 (the French Open and the U.S. Open) and lost in the finals of a third (the Australian Open); missed time with hip problems, additional knee issues and a hand injury; married his girlfriend of 14 years in October; and finished the year ranked as the number one player in the world for the fifth time.
Nadal is 33 years old, an age when many past tennis greats had seen their skills decline or had retired. Achieving the number one spot in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rankings at such an advanced tennis age would be viewed as an amazing accomplishment if it wasn’t for Nadal rivals Federer and Djokovic. Federer, now 38, held the top ranking for a while in 2018 when he was almost 37. Djokovic, who held the number one spot for much of 2019, is just a year younger than Nadal.
Nadal ended 2019 ranked number 1, followed by Djokovic and Federer.
The three have dominated tennis since Federer first topped the rankings in early 2004, with Federer holding the number one spot for a record 310 weeks — including 237 consecutive weeks between 2004 and 2009. Djokovic held the top spot for 275 weeks; Nadal for 202. The only other player to gain the top ranking during that 16-year period was Andy Murray of Great Britain, who was number one for 41 weeks in 2016 and 2017 and is the only player not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic to top the year-end rankings since 2004. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic each have five year-end number one rankings during that period.
The three have also dominated the grand slams. Federer has won a record 20 grand slam tournaments. Nadal’s two grand slam titles in 2019 give him 19 (including an astounding 12 French Open titles); injuries have forced him to miss or withdraw from 10 others during his career. And Djokovic, who won the other two majors in 2019 — beating Federer in an epic five-set final at Wimbledon and Nadal in the Australian — has 16. Their grand slam tournament titles have them ranked as the top three in major titles in the history of a sport dating to 1877.
Never in the history of the sport have three players dominated for so long. Of the 64 grand slam tournaments played since the beginning of 2004, 54 have been won by Federer, Nadal or Djokovic. In five others, one of the big three lost in the finals. That means there have been only five grand slam finals in 16 years that didn’t include Federer, Nadal or Djokovic.
And the last 12 grand slam titles have all been won by the big three — five by Nadal, four by Djokovic, three by Federer.
Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are getting older, but they seem to be widening the already large gap to other players on the pro tour.
Every year there is a new group of young players hitting the tour. Every year an expert declares that the next great champion will come from that group. And every year, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic keep dominating.
It’s beginning to look like it’s going to take three retirements to open room at the top.