Dominic Thiem looked certain to win a first grand slam until Novak Djokovic rose from the dead. (AP: Dita Alangkara)
To win a grand slam, you have to win seven matches.
And while that’s hard enough in a vacuum, for most men’s players trying to be contenders over the past 15 years, at least one, more likely two, and possibly three of those matches will come against a player who will go down in history as one of the greatest we’ve seen.
As we saw from 26-year-old Dominic Thiem in the Australian Open final, it just about takes a miracle to break through in this era.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have now won 52 of the past 60 major men’s singles titles, including 13 in a row and counting.
That dates back to the 2016 US Open, when Stan Wawrinka won his third slam, which itself came after Andy Murray’s Wimbledon title marked number three for him — a back-to-back effort that suggested the pack was catching up. How foolish we were.
In the time since, Wawrinka, Marin Cilic (twice), Kevin Anderson (twice), Dominic Thiem (three times), Juan Martin del Potro and Daniil Medvedev have come within one victory of grand slam glory only to be denied by the Swiss, the Spaniard or the Serb.
For del Potro and Cilic, the pain is lessened by their standout wins at the 2009 and 2014 US Opens respectively, but for most others, the last step to the summit has proven too hard to take.
Andy Murray famously lost four finals before winning his first of three slams. (AAP: Tracey Nearmy)
Let’s take a walk to remember some very good tennis players who had the misfortune of being contemporaries of three of the best tennis players in history.
The Australian Open bolters
For three years back at the start of the ‘big three’ era, Melbourne became upset city. Marcos Baghdatis, Fernando Gonzalez and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga made runs to the final in 2006, 2007 and 2008 respectively.
People always seem very gracious, but it must get tiring watching these guys make victory speeches all the time. (AAP: Julian Abram Wainwright)
From outside the top 50, Baghdatis reached the final on the back of wins over top-10 players Andy Roddick, Ivan Ljubicic and David Nalbandian — all excellent players, but mortals. When it came to Federer in the final, the electricity generated by his shock run propelled the Cypriot to a 7-5 win in the first set, but once that energy subsided Federer took over and won the next three sets, including 13 of the last 15 games.
The barbarians at the gate*
- Dominic Thiem (2018 French Open, 2019 French Open, 2020 Australian Open)
- Daniil Medvedev (2019 US Open)
- Juan Martin del Potro (2018 US Open)
- Kevin Anderson (2017 US Open, 2018 Wimbledon)
- Marin Cilic (2017 Wimbledon, 2018 Australian Open)
- Stan Wawrinka (2017 French Open)
* The interlopers who have lost 10 of the last 13 grand slam finals to Federer, Nadal and Djokovic
Gonzalez’s run was perhaps the least surprising of the lot, considering he was the 10th seed, but still took the tennis world by storm thanks to his power and who he beat. The La Reina Bomber brushed aside Aussie hope Lleyton Hewitt, fifth-ranked American James Blake, Nadal and German veteran Tommy Haas in successive matches, before getting dominated by Federer in three sets.
Tsonga’s 2008 final match-up with Djokovic was perhaps the closest of the lot. Ranked 38th, he beat Murray in the first round and Nadal in straight sets in the semis, then took the first set off Djokovic, who at this point didn’t have a major to his name. Djokovic won three sets straight to take the match, but he was pushed to a tiebreak in the fourth by the athletic and exciting Tsonga, who was probably the least “flash in the pan” of this category.
Marcos Baghdatis captured Australia’s imagination in 2006 but never came that close again. (AAP: Andrew Brownbill)
Baghdatis and Gonzalez reached their career-high rankings in the wake of their finals and struggled to hang onto them, but Tsonga was quietly in and around the top 10 for a decade, not reaching his highest mark (5) until 2012. The Frenchman also made five other major semi-final runs without ever getting over the hump, painting the picture of a supreme talent held at bay by generational superstars.
The ‘Good But Just Too Small’ guys
Murray and Wawrinka were often kept at bay by the big three, but they also broke through three times each, so they can’t lay claim to the title of Most Frustrating Career. That honour goes to David Ferrer.
David Ferrer may not be the shortest person in this photo, but he was the shortest in most of his major match-ups. (AAP: Dennis Sabangan)
He was good enough to reach world number three at the height of the Fed Al Djokovic era, but he spent 159 weeks of his career ranked between three and five, just hovering outside the elite.
Everyone loved this plucky Spaniard for his tenacity and ability to hang with the big boys despite his relatively diminutive stature — 5’9″ — and lack of serious power. Think Lleyton Hewitt with two fewer major titles and a more universal approval rating.
His only major final came at the 2013 French Open — when countryman Nadal pulled his pants down and ran rings around him to the tune of 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. On five other occasions he reached the final four of a grand slam, but ran into Nadal or Djokovic for four of those, and Murray in another.
If you saw Hewitt and Ferrer on the street, you wouldn’t say they were short, but in the tennis world they are. (AAP: Tracey Nearmy)
He simply lacked the killing blow that so many of his bigger peers possessed and it cost him at the pointy end of tournaments.
The same could be said of Japanese speedster Kei Nishikori, who managed to get all the way to the 2014 US Open final, only to be blasted off Arthur Ashe Stadium by a giant with a massive serve. Speaking of which…
The ‘Good But Just Too Big’ guys
So, Nishikori’s inclusion comes with an asterisk because his path to that 2014 title wasn’t stopped by an all-time great, but by big-serving Croat Marin Cilic (6’6″).
Marin Cilic actually won a slam in 2014, but Federer has beaten him twice since then. (AP: Andy Brownbill)
In a Nadal-less draw, Cilic reached the final by smacking Federer in the semis (Nishikori outlasted Djokovic for the record) before dusting Nishikori 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 to become one of four men outside the big three to win majors in the past 15 years.
But Cilic also falls into the near-miss category by virtue of his two lost finals against Federer at Wimbledon 2017 and the 2018 Australian Open. Sandwiched in between those was Nadal’s straight-sets ousting of South African Kevin Anderson (6’8″) in the US Open decider — a result that was replicated when he reached the 2018 Wimbledon final against Djokovic.
Kevin Anderson is a two-time major finalist. Novak Djokovic is about 6’2″ by the way. (AP: Ben Curtis)
2010 Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych (6’5″), 2016 Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic (6’5″) and 2018 US runner-up Juan Martin del Potro (a 6’6″ Argentine who won a major as a 20-year-old in 2009) are similarly cursed. They are all massive humans with so much power, mostly on the serve and forehand, and enough skill to get close, but can be found out if Federer, Nadal or Djokovic get into rallies and start painting the lines.
The trivia question
Who was the first man to beat Nadal at the French Open? It wasn’t a major champion. It wasn’t even someone you’d call a star.
It was Robin Soderling.
He had a perfectly good tennis career, but Robin Soderling will always be linked with one match. (Jerry Lampen: Reuters)
To this day, the fiery Swede is one of just two men (with Djokovic) to take the court against Nadal at Roland Garros and win. More remarkably, Soderling’s four-set win in the fourth round in 2009 ended a 31-match winning streak for Nadal, dating back to his first match in Paris as an 18-year-old in 2005.
Like everyone mentioned here, Soderling was no slouch (that’s kinda the point). He made the 2009 and 2010 French finals — losing to Federer and Nadal in straight sets because the tennis gods are tools — and later reached a career-high ranking of four. But he never progressed any further than the quarters at the other majors and will forever be remembered at trivia nights as “That guy who beat Nadal. Whatshisface? Angry bloke. Big forehand. Robert somebody?”.
The ‘Too Early To Tell’ crew
This is where things go from sad to exciting, because Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem have made the final in four of the past eight slams.
Thiem has a 5-2 win-loss record against Roger Federer and has beaten him on all surfaces. (AP: Mark J Terrill)
Thiem ran into Nadal at his favourite major in 2018 and 2019, becoming his 14th and 21st successive victory for the Spaniard in France. Then lost to Djokovic in the Serb’s specialist slam in devastating fashion this year. He just can’t catch a break.
Medvedev, meanwhile, won two sets against Nadal in the 2019 US final — the last man to force Nadal to win in five sets in a major final was Federer at the 2009 Australian Open.
At time of writing, Medvedev is 23 years old and ranked four in the world, with 26-year-old Thiem one spot behind him coming off his third slam final.
Nick Kyrgios was one of the first of this generation to slay a giant at a major, but he’s not the only one anymore. (Reuters: Max Rossi)
While we’ve been proven wrong on this front before, the “big three” era feels closer to ending than ever before (and not just because they’re obviously all older than ever before). Medvedev and Thiem are currently leading the next wave, with 22-year-old Alex Zverev coming off his first major semi-final and the naturally gifted Nick Kyrgios sitting at the back of class waiting to shock everyone by finally chiming in with the right answer.
Federer, Djokovic and Nadal will have to retire sometime and Thiem, Medvedev and Zverev’s ascension into the upper echelon, along with the rest of their generation and the fact that 10 of the past 12 major finals have included an interloper, should give us hope that unpredictability will once again return to the men’s game before too long.