Since I first picked up a tennis racket at the age of roughly seven years old, I have been a Roger Federer fan. If at first only because that racket was a yellow and red Federer-branded Wilson.
Once I began following tennis, I became a Federer fan for reasons more substantial than the name printed on my racket: His gorgeous one-armed backhand, his consistent dominance, his grace on the court and his grace off it.
As I quickly discovered, there was one requirement that came with being a Federer fan in the late 2000s: You couldn’t be a Rafael Nadal fan. Sure, you could appreciate their respective greatness on some level, but rooting for both would be the equivalent of cheering for both the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Then Novak Djokovic took his place among the greats, and the Big Three of men’s tennis, which has dominated the game for the last 15 years, was formed. No two male players have had more head-to-head matches in the Open Era than Rafa and Joker, and no players in men’s tennis history have more Grand Slam singles titles than Fed and Nadal.
That Big Three has been fantastic for the game of the tennis. Parity is welcome in a sport like baseball or football, but in a game driven by individuals like tennis or golf, you want dominance. You want a select few who, despite the mass number of athletes in their sport, consistently finish at the top. You want faces that define the game and will continue to for nearly their entire careers. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have done just that.
But there’s a downside to the Big Three mentality. When a player spends his whole career battling with the same few faces, he’ll inevitably be relentlessly compared to his rivals. A Grand Slam for Federer is not discussed as an additional title on his resume, but rather as an extension of his lead over his peers.
It’s no surprise that when Nadal won the U.S. Open this past weekend, his name was rarely alone in the headlines. It wasn’t enough that he had just won his 19th Grand Slam, it was more significant that the victory put him just one Grand Slam behind Federer’s 20, the most in history by a male player.
Times have changed. It’s no longer sacrilege to call yourself a fan of both Nadal and Fed, especially since their off-the-court relationship is the closest it’s ever been. Cheering for both—and you could easily throw Djokovic in there as well—is arguably the most common tennis rooting interest today. It’s no longer such a fierce rivalry, but rather a mutual admiration for two of the greatest to ever play.
But let’s not fall into the trap of grouping the Big Three together for eternity. Rafa should be celebrated in his own light, not a spotlight shared with two others. His unmatched passion for the game, his ability to extend points and hit otherworldly shots, his sheer dominance on clay, his small quirks between serves—these are the things we’ll remember about Rafa, not how many times he bested Federer or Djokovic.
In 20 years, when new faces have taken center court in the world of men’s tennis, we’ll regret not celebrating Rafa, Roger and Novak as individuals rather than parts of a whole. Nadal is simply spectacular, regardless of the performances of his contemporaries.
Had I been given a Nadal racket for Christmas, I likely would’ve grown up on the other side of the rivalry. But I’m fairly certain that I would’ve eventually arrived at the same position I am now: More than willing to sit back and enjoy as the greats of the game give us a few last displays of greatness. This weekend’s U.S. Open final was certainly that.
Thanks for the memories, Rafa, and, before hanging it up, hopefully you’ll make a few more.
Andrew Morrison is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.