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A Historic 2021 Awaits Men's Tennis

Robert Frost once famously observed, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” The “Big 3” of men’s tennis (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic) – playing in what many consider to be the golden age of men’s tennis – have been poetically dominating the sport for decades, despite playing by the same rules as everyone else, with the net up and all.

Dominating tennis for decades used to be a near impossibility. Even at the turn of the 21st century, the lifespan of a professional tennis player struggled to eclipse the age of 30. Three decades ago, the average age of the top 100 ranked men’s players was 23.74 years, but by the end of 2017, that average rose to 28.26 (credit: In 2002, Hall of Famer, Pete Sampras, who held the men’s major championship title record (14) before he was surpassed by Federer, retired at the age of 31. In 2012, Hall of Famer, Andy Roddick, the last American to win the U.S. Open, announced his retirement on his 30th birthday. The “Big 3” of Federer (39), Nadal (34), and Djokovic (33) are the archetype for a new age in tennis, where longevity reigns, allowing for a re-writing of the record books.

Federer, after his Wimbledon victory in 2012 (his 17th major title) at the age of 30, came up empty over the following four seasons, triggering a chorus of calls for his retirement. In 2017, he flipped the script dramatically, however, defeating Nadal in a legendary Australian Open final, after a six-month layoff following left knee surgery. Federer went on to win two of the next four major championships, securing his 20th major title at the Australian Open in 2018, at the age of 36.

With Federer ready to re-emerge after two arthroscopic right knee surgeries and sitting out the entirety of 2020, hoping to repeat his 2017 magic at the Australian Open, and Nadal just coming off his record-tying 20th major title at Roland Garros in 2020, the holy grail of tennis records stands before us for the taking, to kick-off 2021.

While Federer and Nadal currently share the most coveted record in men’s tennis, heading into 2021, Djokovic, owner of 17 major titles, is likely to be the favorite to win three out of the four majors (Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open), and Nadal will undoubtedly be the favorite to win what would be his 14th French Open title.

Magnifying the historic nature of 2021, during this golden age of men’s tennis, is the quadrennial opportunity to literally take home the gold, with the 2021 Olympics taking place this Summer in Japan. While Nadal has one gold medal in singles tennis (2008 in Beijing), neither Federer nor Djokovic has matched that feat to date, leaving Nadal as the only of the “Big 3” to claim the “Golden Slam” (all four major championship titles, plus a gold medal).

Which of the “Big 3” ultimately finishes his career with the most major titles will be the primary, but not the sole, basis to declare GOAT (greatest of all time) status. Nadal’s win at Roland Garros was his 86th tour title, which leads Djokovic (81) but trails Federer (103). Meanwhile, 2020 will be Djokovic’s 6th season in which he finishes with the #1 ranking, tying a record previously held by Pete Sampras. Djokovic, as well, holds the record for most Masters 1000 tournament victories with 36, just edging out Nadal (35) and Federer (28).

There is, of course, the next generation of stars looking to take over the reins from the “Big 3” and foil the record-breaking play. Dominic Thiem, the third-ranked player in the World, won his first major title at the U.S. Open in 2020, while Daniil Medvedev, the fourth-ranked player in the World, won the ATP Finals in November, becoming the first man in 10 years to beat both Nadal and Djokovic on his way to the year-end title. Whether Thiem, Medvedev, or any of the other next-generation stars can keep the “Big 3” from accumulating additional major championship titles – having won 57 of the last 69 - is another story.

According to Paul Annacone, Tennis TV commentator and former coach of Roger Federer, “2021 will speak volumes in terms of the Big 3,” all beginning with the “very important” Australian Open. The action, and history-making, begins on February 8th.


About the author

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Tim Shelley was born in Rockville Centre, NY, and raised in Massapequa, NY. Tim graduated from Massapequa High School, Villanova University (B.A. in Political Science), and St. John's School of Law (J.D.).

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