As Roger Federer prepares to put up his racquet and bid farewell to the ATP Tour during this week’s Rod Laver Cup, which will be his final tournament, the sport finds itself at the beginning of the end of its golden period.
For more than 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 all across the world who have been attracted by his 24-year career. The Swiss is admired by his peers and nearly everyone involved in tennis and, indeed, sport in general. Federer’s legacy is undoubtedly the most definitive and telling.
The talismanic Swiss achieved numerous firsts. He was the first player to break Pete Sampras’ record of 14 Grand Slam championships, on his way to a total of 20 Grand Slams. He was also the first player to tie Bjorn Borg’s five Wimbledon victories, earning him the moniker “King of Grass.”
There were too many firsts to list in this space. But, in the process of obtaining these honours, he established some of the game’s greatest rivalries with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, and together they became known as the Big Three in tennis, owing to their dominance at the grand slams.
The Greatest Rivals, The Big Three
Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic were all extraordinary talents from the outset of their careers. Few could have guessed the extraordinary feats of greatness they went on to achieve – they have 63 majors between them. Nadal currently holds a record 22 Grand Slam titles. Djokovic is a close second with 21, while Federer is third with 20.
They motivated one other to inconceivable heights via their determination and competitive spirit. Challengers came and went over the years, those dreamers who tried to disrupt the majors’ three-way competition. Some did succeed, including Andy Murray (3), Stanislas Wawrinka (3), Marin Cilic (1), Dominic Thiem (1), and Daniil Medvedev (1). (1). But none of them possessed the promise or the glamour that the Big Three possessed.
That is, until Carlos Alcaraz, a 19-year-old Spanish superstar, won his first Grand Slam championship by winning the 2022 US Open.
Alcaraz was born on May 5, 2003, just one month before Federer won his first Grand Slam title at the 2003 Wimbledon Championships.
Alcaraz Reigns at the 2022 US Open
The Spanish teenager defeated Casper Ruud in four sets in three hours and twenty minutes at Arthur Ashe Stadium, claiming his 51st ATP Tour-level victory of the season in his first-ever Grand Slam final appearance.
By winning the US Open, Alcaraz became the youngest player in men’s tennis history to reach No. 1 in the ATP rankings, something no one had done before him, not even Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic.
“I don’t want to compare myself to them, but I want to be like them,” Alcaraz stated in a recent New York Times interview, referring to his appreciation for Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic and their unquestionable contributions to tennis. Their longevity, in particular.
“Being the youngest No. 1 in history is fantastic.” But what the Big Three are doing is even more difficult: remaining at the top for 20 years. “That’s what I’m searching for,” Alcaraz stated.
There is no exaggeration to describe what the 19-year-old US Open champion accomplished in Flushing Meadows this month, let alone in his maiden Grand Slam final.
“Well, this is something I’ve wanted to do since I was a youngster,” Alcaraz stated during the award presentation. “It’s something I worked so hard for.” It’s difficult to speak right now. A lot of feelings.”
Is the torch being passed?
For several years, as one by one of tennis’ Big Three – Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic – reached their 30s, the moment when the NexGen players would take their place in the spotlight became closer. In any sport, the dramatic “changing of the guard” moment is unavoidable.
Federer, the eldest of the Big Three at 41 years old, believes the time has come. Federer missed the Wimbledon Championships last year due to a knee ailment, and many anticipated he would be able to compete again this year. But time does not wait for anyone. Federer’s age finally caught up with him, he claimed in an 845-word statement shared on social media announcing his retirement.
Nadal, 36, and Djokovic, 35, are both likely to have a few more years in them. However, Nadal’s body is displaying symptoms of wear and tear, while Djokovic is experiencing an existential crisis due to his lack of vaccinations. He missed two Grand Slam events and the majority of the season as a result, and his ranking has dropped as a result.
Alcaraz’s Ascension to the Top
To be fair, the emergence of an heir apparent has taken longer than most expected. The Big Three, particularly Nadal and Djokovic in recent years, appear unwilling to cede their grasp on the game’s most cherished prizes, particularly the Grand Slams.
They appear to be unreasonably resistant to the passage of time and aging, defying logic and reason. For example, Nadal won the first two Grand Slam championships of the year (the Australian Open and the French Open), and Djokovic won at the All England Club – all while being on the wrong side of 35.
Djokovic’s absence (unvaccinated) from the event, as well as Nadal’s injury, which led to his premature death in the R16, prepared the path for Alcaraz to take this life-changing opportunity. But it would be dishonest, not to mention deceptive, to suggest he couldn’t have done it when both were competing in the event. After all, Alcaraz defeated Nadal and Djokovic to win the Madrid Open earlier this year.
Experts have predicted Alcaraz’s grandeur since he first appeared on the scene. He was frequently compared to his compatriot Rafael Nadal, despite the fact that his game bears no resemblance to that of his 36-year-old countryman.
He does compare himself psychologically. His persistence and never-say-die attitude rivals Nadal’s. His incredible fitness and powerful groundstrokes are also impressive. Most importantly, he equals Nadal in the record books by becoming the youngest man to win a major title since Nadal accomplished the feat in 2005, when he won the French Open at the age of 19.
Alcaraz’s first major breakthrough came in the quarterfinals of the 2021 US Open. So it’s only right that Arthur Ashe Stadium would be the site of his first victory exactly a year later.
Ruud put it best after losing to Alcaraz. The Norwegian and recently minted world No. 2 lavished admiration on the 19-year-old, generously reiterating what everyone else is saying about him.
“He’s one of those unique talents that pops up in athletics every now and again.” “That’s what it appears to be,” Ruud remarked of Alcaraz’s victory. “We’ll have to wait and watch how his career grows, but it’s all heading in the right path.”
Is Alcaraz the clear heir apparent to carry the flame after Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic retire? Maybe. But, with only one of the Big Three retiring, it’s too soon to pass the baton.