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Federer, Nadal and Djokovic: What comes next for ‘the Big 3’ in men's tennis

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are gearing up for Madrid and Rome, while they’re set to be joined at French Open and Wimbledon by Roger Federer. What’s all this mean for the Olympics?
By Nick McCarvel

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have been dominating men’s tennis for well over a decade now.

“The Big 3” – as the trio is known on the ATP Tour – has a busy few months ahead of it with clay, grass and Olympic events on the horizon.

Masters 1000 stops in Madrid and Rome will serve as lead-ins for the French Open (30 May—13 June); the Olympic ranking entry deadline is set for 14 June; Wimbledon takes place thereafter (28 June—11 July); and the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 gets underway on 23 July.

Of the three, it’s only Nadal who owns a gold medal in singles (Beijing 2008), with Federer (silver, London 2012) and Djokovic (bronze, 2008) still chasing that coveted singles crown.

Federer won gold in doubles alongside Stan Wawrinka in 2008.

Andy Murray is the first tennis player to win back-to-back golds at the Games in singles, capturing both London 2012 and Rio 2016.

Here, we look at the prospects for Federer, Nadal and Djokovic as Tokyo 2020 nears – and also name the players who could give them the biggest of challenges come Games time.

Roger Federer: An uphill battle awaits

How is Federer’s form? That’s the biggest question that lingers for a player who has competed in just two matches over the last 15 months – and turns 40 in August.

But while Federer is planning a home comeback in Geneva the week before the French Open, the big factors that help him are coming at Wimbledon and Tokyo: Quicker courts and – at the Games – best-of-three set scoring.

Federer is an eight-time Wimbledon champ, and held two championship points at the last staging of the event, in 2019, when he fell to Djokovic in the final. With a 101-13 record at the All England Club, the Swiss maestro will certainly be a part of the conversation come early July.

With Federer currently tied with Nadal for the most majors won at 20, the grass courts of Wimbledon remain his best chance at adding to his Slam total.

Wimbledon finishes just 12 days before the tennis event is set to get underway at the Summer Olympics, where Federer will again be helped by quick hard courts that suit his playing style and a best-of-three format in scoring, which will protect his body from the long, arduous matches he’s faced with at the majors.

"The Olympics is a major goal for me," Federer said as recently as last month.

The key? Is to stay healthy. And if Federer does that, he’s in the mix.

Rafael Nadal: Dreaming of more gold

Not only does Nadal have a gold in singles, but also one in doubles, too, teaming up with Marc Lopez in 2016 to capture the doubles event for Spain.

Nadal has actually only competed in those two Games: Beijing and Rio, having just missed out on Athens 2004 and been forced out of London 2012 with a bad knee injury.

While Nadal will go for an unprecedented 14th Roland Garros in early June (where he'll be favoured), the Olympics’ shortened scoring format will help him, though hard courts are not like the slow red clay that he has been so dominant on – and where the Paris 2024 Games will be held.

So far in 2021 he’s made a run to the Australian Open quarter-finals (losing to Stefanos Tsitsipas) and won a 12th title at his “home” event in Barcelona, marking a 61st trophy on red clay and 87th overall.

With Tokyo in mind, Nadal was 26-3 on hard courts in 2019, before the pandemic hit, and won the U.S. Open that year behind a lethal, unrelenting game.

And how about this: Late last year, two-time Grand Slam champion Garbiñe Muguruza said she'd like to play on the mixed doubles court with Nadal at the Games. "The most special thing is sharing successes," she said.

The key at the Olympics? For Nadal, it’s to stay healthy, too, but also keep his level across each match. If he has a flat day on a hard court then he becomes vulnerable.

Novak Djokovic: A goal unlike any other?

While Djokovic has been outspoken about his desire to finish atop the standings in major titles won – he’s third (18) behind Federer and Nadal (20) – he also would like to claim perhaps the lone big title that has eluded him in his career: The Olympics.

In 2008, he lost a classic semi-final to Nadal, the eventual winner. Murray would thwart him in the 2012 semis, and then he’d lose a tight two-setter to Juan Martin Del Potro in the first round in Rio, leaving the court in tears. (Del Potro also beat him in the bronze medal match in London.)

“No doubt this is one of the toughest losses in my life and in my career. It’s not easy to handle,” Djokovic told reporters after that 2016 loss. “You have to deal with it. It’s not the first or the last time I am losing a tennis match. But the Olympic Games, yeah, it’s completely different.”

Djokovic and Federer are both still looking to join Nadal and Andre Agassi as the only men to win all four majors as well as Olympic gold.

The hard court surface is undoubtedly to his advantage: The Serbian started the 2021 season by winning a mind-boggling ninth Australian Open on the same surface. In fact, 61 of Djokovic’s 82 career singles titles have come on hard.

The key? Djokovic will be the favourite in Tokyo – that much is near certain. How does he approach trying to accomplish something he’s never done before in his career? We’ve seen him do it plenty of times before.

Medvedev, Tsitsipas and more: Who else to watch

While all eyes will be on “The Big 3”, the men’s tour has welcomed new stars – albeit slowly – over the past few years, each of whom will be after what would be a career-defining moment (at least so far) at Tokyo 2020.

That includes:

· Two-time major finalist Daniil Medvedev of Russia, the first player not named Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray to break into the top 2 in the rankings in 15 years

· Greece’s Tsitsipas, the 2019 ATP Tour Finals champion and first-time Masters 1000 winner in April 2021 at Monte Carlo

· Dominic Thiem of Austria, the 2020 U.S. Open winner who is coached by double Olympic gold medallist Nicolas Massu

· Andrey Rublev, Medvedev’s Russian compatriot who has won six titles in the last two seasons

· Italy’s Jannik Sinner, a former junior downhill skiing champion who has become a giant-killer in tennis at age 19

Team GB’s Murray has also voiced his hope to compete in Tokyo, though, due to injury and surgeries, he is currently world No.121. The home hope for Japan in the men’s event is former world No.4 Nishikori Kei (currently No.41), who beat Nadal in Rio for bronze.

And Del Potro, long dealing with injuries himself, would like to try for a Tokyo cameo, as well, the Argentine having won bronze in London and silver in Rio. He is currently recovering from another knee surgery.