For the first time in 16 years, dating all the way back to Roland Garros in 2004, the “Big Three” were absent from a Grand Slam semifinal.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic have dominated mens tennis for a decade and a half now. Since Nadal’s maiden title in 2005–the first of his 12 French Open victories–only four men having won a Grand Slam outside of the “Big Three.” However, the tides are turning, and for the first time since Marin Cilic in 2014, we will have a new first-time Grand Slam champion.
Djokovic was favorite to win this years’ US Open before an untimely default against Pablo Carreno Busta. The week earlier, the Serbian completed his second Golden Masters by winning Cincinnati and remains World #1. Here he differs to his counterparts, as Federer and Nadal have not played a match since January and March, respectively. After a knee injury in the Australian Open this year for Federer, and months off as a result of the COVID Pandemic for Nadal, how will two of tennis’ greatest players fare on their return to the scene?
Nadal back on clay:
The two are scheduled for returns at very different times. Roger is aiming for a return to action at the Australian Open in 2021–a year on from his injury. Nadal will look to return much sooner than his Swiss pal.
The Spaniard is preparing for a 10th Rome Masters title, boasting a 61-6 record at the competition on his favored surface. The defending champion beat Novak Djokovic in the final the last two years. A victory at Foro Italia would bring him to 36 Masters 1000 victories, overtaking the Serbian. They both currently have 35 victories a piece.
In terms of preparation, Nadal is doing all he can. The likes of Dominic Thiem–Nadal’s closest clay-court rival–and Daniil Medvedev, the man who fell short to Nadal in the US Open final last year, have been playing on hard courts at Cincinnati and New York. Unlike them, the 19-time Grand Slam Champion has been training in his Academy based in Mallorca. He was joined by Grigor Dimitrov after the Bulgarian’s third round US Open exit against Marton Fucsovics. The two have been hitting balls on clay rather than hard courts, which will give them an advantage going into the clay swing season.
A lack of match fitness:
There is no doubt technically Nadal is still one of the strongest players on the tour, and his record on clay is unfathomable. The one thing that may stump the Spaniard is his lack of match fitness. Despite training hard in Mallorca, a training session cannot replicate the intensity and heightened emotions of a match, and that lack of cutting edge could see Nadal take some time to adjust to playing tournament-level matches.
His last ATP Tour match was the Acapulco final in which he beat young American Taylor Fritz 6-3 6-2 on March 1st, over six months ago. Players have had time to adjust to competitive matches with the likes of Ultimate Tennis Showdown and the Adria Tour before flying to New York to play, so anyone coming over from the U.S. for Rome will have that slight advantage in terms of fitness over Nadal. However, an injury-free Nadal on clay cannot be written off at any point. Expect a strong showing from the 34-year-old on his return after a six month hiatus.
Federer and the 2017 Australian Open all over again?
Roger Federer has not played a competitive tennis match since his semifinal defeat to Novak Djokovic at this year’s Australian Open, in which he lost in straight sets. After the match, the Swiss Maestro confirmed he would be missing the remainder of the 2020 season for knee surgery. He underwent a second surgery in June, which pushed back preparations but is still looking to make the 2021 season. This all feels very reminiscent to his 2016 knee injury, sidelining him for the remainder of that year and dropping him to 17th in the rankings. His comeback year in 2017 regarded as one of the greatest in sporting history.
Federer overcame career-rival Rafael Nadal to win his first Australian Open since 2010. He followed up on his success in Melbourne with wins at Indian Wells, Shanghai, and a record eighth Wimbledon title. Now, four years on, Federer and fans alike will hope for a similar return to action. However, the complexion of mens tennis has changed entirely.
Will the NextGen have caught up?
The 20-time Grand Slam Champion has a fairly strong record against the NextGen of ATP Tennis. He has beaten the likes of Alexander Zverev in Halle in 2017 and Stefanos Tsitsipas in Dubai in 2019. However, the new generation of tennis are always improving. The motivation of a new Grand Slam Champion this year in New York should only spur them on. Federer has been beat by this field of players before too, losing to the likes of Dominic Thiem in Indian Wells last year, and unsuccessfully defending his Halle 2017 title by losing to Borna Coric the year after. With an extra year of fitness and experience under their belts, the new wave will hope a year out for the 39-year-old is enough time for them to step up and dethrone the old guard.
How is Federer preparing for his return?
The Swiss will return to the tennis court next week. He’s playing two 45-minute sessions as he steps up his recovery ahead of his targeted return in Australia next January. The second surgery in June obviously pushed back his recovery time after the first in February, but he’s still confident on being fit for 2021 and is looking to play “the entire season“. Here’s to hoping he can push on for a 21st Grand Slam and a first Olympic Gold Medal–the only honor denied to him thus far.
Main Photo from Getty.