The Story Behind The Big Three’s Grand Slam Race

Novak Djokovic made up ground in the Slam Race by winning at Wimbledon.
Spread the love

The last three Grand Slam winners have a familiar ring to it. Rafael Nadal won the first two (Australian and French Open), whilst Novak Djokovic recently won Wimbledon. To put this is in perspective; Nadal won his first French Open in 2005 and Djokovic his first Australian Open in 2008. This is unprecedented domination and despite the fact that they are currently 35 and 36 years old, there is no sign of this coming to an end, with their ‘Grand Slam Race’ only hotting up.

The question becomes, what factors and conditions have allowed such continued excellence? After all, traditionally in men’s tennis, you were “finished” by your early 30s as a top professional. Some players played on to their mid-30s but mainly as lower ranked players or even challengers events. Djokovic, Nadal and soon to be retired Roger Federer are the poster boys for longevity.

However, there are also players like Marin Cilic, Stan Wawrinka, Richard Gasquet, and John Isner who are playing into their late 30s, as well as Andy Murray who continues to play on despite a metal hip. There are a number of key factors that have led to this Slam Race. These factors need exploring further to explain how the tennis world has arrived to this point.

The Slam Race

Inspiration

The first factor is inspiration. Before the mid 1990s, there was no Slam Race. In fact, there was no talk of the Grand Slam record or catching the record. At this stage, the record was held by Roy Emerson who had 12 major victories. Emerson was an Australian player who stayed amateur his entire career whilst many of his peers turned professional.

Players of the calibre of Pancho Gonzales, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver and Tony Trabert. Tennis turned from an amateur sport to a professional sport in 1968. This allowed pro players to now play major tournaments which were called “Open” open to everyone amateur and professional.

Interestingly, Bjorn Borg came closest to the record with 11 major titles by the age of 25. However, in 1981 Borg suddenly quit the game and only came back briefly in 1992. Borg appeared not motivated by equalling or breaking the record. This indicates to me the record was not of any great significance to top players during this era.

This all changed in the mid 1990s when Pete Sampras started racking up the major victories. Initially, the media and Sampras’ associates would talk about it on his behalf. As it got closer, Sampras started talking about the record openly in 1998.

Sampras eventually broke the record in 2000. However, far from going from strength to strength, Sampras inexplicably seemed to run out of motivation and slowed down dramatically. Sampras would eventually win another major title in 2002, finishing with 14 major titles. At the time in 2000 before his decline, Sampras looked on course to win at least 16 major titles before retiring in his mid-30s.

The seeds were sown. Human beings love a challenge, and someone down the line was going to challenge his record. This came much sooner than everyone expected in Federer. Federer would break Sampras’ record in 2009 Wimbledon with Sampras in attendance to pass the torch.

By 2010, Federer won 16 major titles but then went through a barren spell before winning Wimbledon in 2012 to make it 17 titles. This is where it gets interesting. Federer was having some shaky losses and had a bad back but was determined to keep going, even changing his racquet for a bigger frame. Under typical circumstances of previous decades, Federer would have contentedly retired and kept his body intact. However, Federer felt he had to keep going.

Why? Because Nadal and Djokovic were breathing down his neck chasing his record. Federer knew this, pointing out once that he needed to win as much as possible to keep both players at bay. One thing Federer did not have is time, and time has caught up with him, leaving it to Nadal and Djokovic to rack up the numbers.

The change in the perception of major tournaments.

One of the reasons Grand Slam records were not talked about for decades was the unevenness of the major events. It was not on a level playing field and some events carried more weight than others in the eyes of the pubic and players.

This is evident in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Let’s look at the Australian Open. In the 1970s and most of the 1980s, the Australian Open was held in December on grass in Kooyong. This did not fit well with the world’s top players, for many years most of them skipped the event. During Borg’s career, he played the event once. John McEnroe would regularly skip the Australian Open. One of the reasons pointed out for inertia was the event was held in December. On the other side of the world, too close to Christmas. It didn’t make sense for many Northern Hemisphere players.

The Australian Open decided this needed addressing and commissioned a new complex in Melbourne where the event would be held in future. The Australians decided to go state of the art, coming up with a new surface called rebound ace and even building a retractable roof on Centre Court. The event was not held in December 1987 but instead January 1988 where it has since stayed. By 1990 many of the top players were now coming more regularly. One interesting trivia is Andre Agassi. Agassi missed the event after turning pro between 1986 and 1995. On his debut, he won the event! Beating Sampras in the final. Agassi must wonder how many he could have won if he came from 1988 when it switched to rebound ace. He won four times, then a record until 2017.

However, even though perceptions were finally changing in the 1990s, Sampras skipped the event in 1990, 1991 and in 1999. In 1999 Sampras even skipped the tournament “to have some time off”. Not what the Australian Federation wanted to hear from the world #1.

From the 1970s through 1990s, Wimbledon and US Open were considered the two most important events players wanted to win. The French Open was third on the list, albeit an important third. However, third nonetheless as the French Open was often the domain of clay court specialists. Americans Michael Chang and Jim Courier helped to changed perceptions in 1989 and 1991 when they won the French Open. Courier beating Agassi in an all American final in 1991. Hardcourt players were starting to achieve on clay. Courier’s game was tailor made for clay with his full on western grip and dictating with his inside out forehand.

However, for most of that decade, the French Open was won by specialists who didn’t do much anywhere else. Players like Bruguera, Muster, Corretja, Rios, Moya would skip Wimbledon year after year and no one would notice their absence.

The US Open was only the true major where everyone turned up to play. Initially held on grass until 1974, green clay from 1975 to 1977, finally settling on Deco II hardcourts in 1978. The court was deemed medium paced (some commentators said medium fast, others said medium slow). Either way, it was a surface all players felt comfortable on.

Conditions at the Majors

This is where things get even more interesting. We have established invariably for three decades top players missed the Australian Open, Wimbledon and in some cases the French Open on a regular basis. Many top players were banned from the French Open in the 1970s due to Team Tennis.

That tells one part of the story. The other part is conditions.

With the moving of the Australian Open, the tournament was now held in often oppressive conditions and extreme heat. There were night matches indeed but interestingly, semifinals and finals were all held in the afternoon sun up until 2004. As a result with the higher bouncing rebound ace, the Australian Open was not dominated by one man.

The US Open also had a unique set of conditions for players to deal with. In this case, it was heat mixed in with humidity which affects some players more than others. The US Open also held “Super Saturday” from 1984 through 2007. Initially the women’s final was sandwiched between two men’s semifinals on the same day! The winner of the second semifinal could finish their match late night and come out for the final within 20 hours. Consequently the saying went that it was difficult for a man over 30 to win the US Open, not enough recovery time between semifinal and final.

At Wimbledon, many clay court players simply did not turn up year on year in a self imposed exile. Marcelo Rios once said “grass is for cows grazing and playing football”. This was validated in 2001 when world #1 and French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten skipped Wimbledon to have a holiday. 2001 also saw Alex Corretja lead a player boycott.

Corretja claimed the seeding system worked against clay court players who worked hard to get into the top 10. Only for their seeding to be relegated by the Wimbledon committee who rewarded previous grass court results. It was a double whammy of clay court players not adapting to fast grass, and the Committee not giving them draws their rankings deserved.

The French Open was always seen as a gruelling major tournament to win, not aiding attacking players from the 1970s through 1990s. Conditions were often heavy due to the spring weather and the balls were heavier. Ironically, the French Open introduced lighter balls in the 2000s; initially Dunlop then Babolat in later years. With more modern racquets and string technology, these adaptations came too late for the 1980s and 1990s players.

Outcomes

The perception of major tournaments, along with the conditions how they were played, led to many changes which gives us the game we have today. The major tournaments are run in conjunction with the International Tennis Federation (ITF). However, we should not underestimate the role of the ATP in influencing change as well.

The Australian Open switched all semifinals and finals from daytime to night in 2005. This coincided with Australia Day celebrations but this schedule has been retained since. This has no doubt benefited players considerably. In 2008, the Australian Open also switched from the slightly unpredictable rebound ace surface which retained heat to a totally reliable plexicushion surface.

In 2008 the US Open was forced to delay their final to Monday due to continual storms. This continued through to 2014, when the Unites States Tennis Association went back to Sunday, but finally playing semifinals on the second Friday. This was something players advocated for decades to allow more rest between semifinals and finals. Under the previous system, it is hard to see Rafael Nadal would have coped well.

In 1995, Wimbledon made the first tentative steps to lasting changes. Initially introducing a softer ball in 1995 to slow down play. Wimbledon settled on changing the composition of the grass in 2001 and opened the cans of Slazenger balls before the tournament to depressurise them.

As mentioned, the French Open introduced lighter balls in the 2000s, to cut down on long gruelling rallies.

The International Tennis Federation also played a decisive role. The four major tournaments all agreed to make participation mandatory. The ATP also increased ranking points significantly. Today, the winner receives 2000 ranking points, considerably more than in the past. During the 1980s and 1990s it was possible to become the world #1 without winning a major tournament. Ivan Lendl achieved this in 1983 and Marcelo Rios in 1998. Today that would be extremely unlikely to impossible.

The ATP Tour reciprocated by making all Masters events mandatory, awarding 1000 points for the winner and making all finals best of three sets since 2008. This meant players no longer were able to choose which big tournaments they wanted to play in. Whilst best of three sets meant it was more difficult for smaller tournaments to attract the big names, many falling by the wayside such as Indianapolis, San Jose Open and Los Angeles.

Analysis

These constant changes to professional tennis created a perfect storm to produce the “Slam race” which we see today.

  • Mandatory participation of major tournaments
  • More rest and recovery at the business end of the US Open
  • Night matches at the business end of the Australian Open instead of playing in the hot sun
  • Switch from rebound ace at the Australian Open which was less predictable to plexicushion then Greenset which is far more predictable
  • Wimbledon grass and balls changed to allow counterpunchers to flourish
  • Standard uniform pace at all major tournaments. The convention today is that the US Open is the fastest surface to play on, marginally.

Conclusion

The “Slam Race” is set to continue for at least another two years if not longer. Comparing the current Big Two to the past greats is slightly unfair as they operated under totally different set of circumstances. Federer is a beneficiary of the current set up but a large number of his major titles were won under the older set up. Federer also played on far longer than he might have done, to win as many majors as possible in his 30s (four).

And that’s the thing; the circumstances have allowed these players to consistently win Slams into their mid and late 30s. The Big Three should be thankful for the path paved by the past legends of the game, and administrators for allowing players to peak into their late 30s instead of 29 as it used to be.

Djokovic and Federer are thankful to past legends for paving the way. The same can’t be said for Nadal. But either way, Nadal has benefited from all of the changes to men’s tennis. The “Slam Race” is of its time and in my opinion has nothing to do with the achievements of past players or how many majors they won. This should be factored into any discussion when comparing eras.

Main photo:
Embed from Getty Images