Roger Federer captured his first Grand Slam title in 2003, at Wimbledon. Rafael Nadal followed two years later with his maiden major, at the French Open. And Novak Djokovic broke through at the 2008 Australian Open. Since that time, the triumvirate has dominated men’s tennis, winning 46 of the last 54 Grand Slam men’s singles titles, a command run with no historical precedent.
But only once prior to this year, in 2012, had the three kings of men’s tennis divided the year’s first three majors, setting up the US Open as a winner-take-all, best-in-the-game gauntlet. So while there will be plenty of drama at this year’s Open, none will compare to this: Who emerges as the men’s champion? Djokovic, Federer or Nadal?
The three men have been largely defined by each other over the course of their careers, which continue to defy logic and history in terms of achievement and longevity. All three men are north of 30 and all three have been counted out in recent years. Yet here they are, the three preeminent players heading into this year’s Open, with Djokovic’s recent victories at Wimbledon and Cincinnati putting him back in the discussion of the best in the game – and back in the running for best of all time.
That title currently belongs to Federer, and with good reason. The Maestro has won an astonishing 20 Grand Slam singles titles, three more than any other man in tennis history. That next man just happens to be his longtime rival Nadal, who checks in at 17 majors, with Djokovic at 13 trailing only his two peers and five-time US Open champion Pete Sampras (14) on the all-time list.
Their head-to-head matchups, however, are flipped opposite of their major crowns, with Djokovic owning a 27-25 mark over Nadal – in the most-played men’s rivalry of the Open era, the most recent of which was their match-of-the-year candidate in the Wimbledon semifinals – and sporting a 24-22 record against Federer. Nadal, meantime, has a 23-15 record against Federer, though the Swiss has won the last five.
But the US Open is an altogether different beast, a tournament that has delivered grand triumph and bitter disappointment for each of our three champions. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at their rivalries through a New York lens.
This is arguably the greatest US Open rivalry of the Open era. The two men squared off in either the semifinals or final for five consecutive years from 2007 to 2011 and again in a riveting 2015 title tilt. Those matchups produced two of the Open’s most memorable semis, with Djokovic warding off match points in both his 2010 victory – including an inside-out, screaming forehand winner he struck with his eyes closed – and 2011 win, in which he came back from two sets down. Making it even more compelling theater has been the quality of the matches – the only two that went straight sets, both Federer wins, included three tiebreaks and two 7-5 sets – and their equity – the two men are 3-3 head to head in Flushing Meadows, including 2-2 in semis and 1-1 in finals.
“He's still improving and keeps on going,” Djokovic said of Federer after the 2015 final. “I have tremendous respect for Roger and what his game [presents] to me and any other player.”
Djokovic and Nadal have battled in some of the longest, most grueling encounters the tour has ever witnessed. That includes three matchups at the Open, all in the final and all in the span of four years. And each was significant and well-played. Nadal emerged as the victor in 2010 and 2013, the first title giving the Spaniard the career Grand Slam and the last one capping a brilliant summer in which he swept the two Masters 1000 summer titles, in Montreal and Cincinnati, as well as the Open. Nadal would finish both campaigns at No. 1 in the world. Djokovic’s 2011 title, meantime, put a capstone on one of the Open era’s finest seasons, in which the Serb posted an astonishing 70-6 overall record and won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open to finish at No. 1 for the first time.
“Between Novak and me, every point is fighting, every point is long rally, every point is more strategy. This is very tough,” Nadal said after the 2013 final. “Probably nobody brings my game to the limit like Novak.”
This is tennis’ greatest missed opportunity. In their Hall of Fame careers, Federer and Nadal have played four times at the Australian Open, five times at the French Open, three times at Wimbledon and on 21 occasions in Masters 1000 events. But they have, improbably, never played at the US Open. Adding further lament to the woe, the two men have come within one round of playing each other in New York on six occasions, only for one of them to win and the other to fall. Djokovic spoiled two of those chances with his semifinal victories over Federer in 2010 and 2011, and Juan Martin del Potro has soured two others, rolling past Nadal in the 2009 semifinals and ousting Federer in the quarterfinals a year ago.
“Rafa definitely has been very particular in my career; I think he [has] made me a better player,” Federer said. “It remains for me the ultimate challenge to play against him.”
So where does that leave us heading into the 2018 Open? All three men are in top form. During the 2018 US Open Series Nadal won the Rogers Cup title for his record-extending 33rd Masters 1000 championship, and the following week Djokovic and Federer advanced to the final in Cincinnati (where Djokovic became the first man to complete a career sweep of the nine Masters 1000 titles).
Federer and Nadal are the top two seeds at this year’s Open, placing them neatly on opposite sides of the draw. That makes Djoker the wild card. Due to injuries that kept him out of the last half of 2017 and ruined much of his early 2018, the Serb is seeded No. 6 here, landing in Federer's half of the draw. If form holds, he'd face of with the second seed in the quarters.
Of course, if history is any indicator, it may not matter. The only other time the three divvied up the year’s first three Slams, none took home the title in Flushing Meadows. Nadal pulled out with an injury, Federer was stunned in the quarterfinals by Tomas Berdych, and Djokovic, the heavy favorite, fell to Andy Murray in the final.
The only sure thing in tennis is that there are no sure things. But certainly all eyes will be on the men's game's big three here to see if one can claim a second Slam on the season.