All three players have proudly served as flagbearers for their delegations at Games opening ceremonies: Federer has done so twice (Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008), while Djokovic carried his nation’s flag at London 2012 and Nadal led out his delegation at Rio 2016, having been selected to do so four years earlier before being forced to pull out of the Games with injury. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are the “Big Three” of world tennis, having won 55 Grand Slam tournaments between them since 2003 (20 for Federer, 19 for Nadal and 16 for Djokovic), and giving very few other players the chance to even contest a final, let alone win a title, during this period. Federer holds the record for the most victories at Wimbledon (eight), Nadal has won at Roland Garros an incredible 12 times, and no other player has as many Australian Open titles as Djokovic (seven).
“It's definitely not a regular time in tennis in the men's game,” said Federer. “I don't think we would have thought that Novak, me and Rafa, all of us, were going to be so solid, so dominant for so many years. I think that collective domination, number one, stopped a lot of runs from the younger guys. Number two, I'm not sure, were they as talented as Rafa, Novak and myself and others? Maybe not.”
All three men attach particular importance to representing their countries at the Olympic Games – a special moment for players who are normally competing very much as individuals year after year, on every surface, all over the world. They have experienced differing fortunes, however, at the Games, whereas Great Britain’s Andy Murray, who was in the same bracket as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic from 2012 to 2016 (when they were known as the “Big Four”), managed to win consecutive Olympic singles tennis titles, at London 2012 and Rio 2016.
The three men are now preparing to once again vie for Olympic glory at Tokyo 2020, with all three set to take part barring injury or any unforeseen circumstances. Federer was the last of the three to confirm, in October 2019, that he planned to play at the Games at the age of 39. Let’s take a look back at how the Big Three have fared in Olympic competition.
Two Olympic titles and a Career Golden Slam for Nadal
Nadal is the only member of the Big Three to have won the Olympic singles tournament and therefore to have achieved a “Career Golden Slam” – that is to say win each of the Grand Slams and Olympic gold at least once. The only other male tennis player to have achieved this feat is the USA’s Andre Agassi, who won the tennis tournament at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. “Rafa” had just turned 18 when he took part in his first Games in 2004 in Athens. He did not compete in the singles, only in the doubles, alongside Carlos Moya, and the pair were knocked out in the first round.
But the Nadal who arrived in Beijing in 2008 was a different beast: a four-time champion at Roland Garros who had just claimed his first title at Wimbledon, where he had beaten a certain Roger Federer. Nadal was imperious on the hard courts of the National Tennis Centre in the Olympic Park, dispatching Djokovic in the semi-finals before defeating Chile’s Fernando González 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 to secure the title. As the icing on the cake, he became world no.1 for the first time after the Beijing Games.
After missing the 2012 Games through injury, he returned to Olympic action at Rio 2016, where he was edged out by Argentina’s Juan Martín Del Potro in an epic semi-final (7-5, 4-6, 6-7 after more than three hours of play), before losing out to Japan’s Kei Nishikori in the bronze-medal match (2-6, 7-6, 3-6). But alongside his friend Marc López, Nadal clinched his second Olympic title with gold in the men’s doubles after a marathon three-set victory against Romania’s Horia Tecau and Florin Mergea, in a match that lasted two-and-a-half hours. “It was an amazing experience, especially doing it with one of my best friends,” said Nadal. “For Marc and me, this is unforgettable.”
Gold and silver for Federer
Federer took part in his first Games aged 19, in Sydney in 2000. He reached the semi-final, where he was beaten by Germany’s Tommy Haas, before losing the bronze-medal match to France’s Arnaud Di Pasquale. But the Sydney Games will always be special for him as it was there that he met Mirka Varvinek, the future Mrs Federer and the mother of his four children. Despite dominating the tennis season in the run-up to Athens 2004, Federer had a disappointing Games, getting knocked out in the second round by the Czech Republic’s Thomas Berdych. He went out at the same stage in the doubles competition, playing alongside Yves Allegro.
Four years later, in Beijing, Federer’s expected success in the singles once again failed to materialise, as the Swiss was eliminated in the quarter-final after defeat to the USA’s James Blake. He then lost his world no. 1 spot to Nadal, having spent a record 237 weeks at the top of the rankings. The doubles competition, however, was a different story – Federer and partner Stan Wawrinka stormed through the rounds, beating doubles kings Bob and Mike Bryan in the semi-final before winning the gold medal with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-7, 6-3 victory against Sweden’s Simon Aspelin and Thomas Johansson. Federer had finally achieved his goal at the Games at the third time of asking, and was visibly overjoyed as soon as the match point had been won.
Federer had just claimed his seventh Wimbledon title when he returned to the grass courts at the All England Club to compete at the London 2012 Games. In the semi-final, he battled it out against Del Potro in a match that lasted over four hours, and eventually won a 19-17 tie-break in the third set. Federer was not at his sharpest in the final, which he lost 2-6, 1-6, 4-6 to Murray, but he was delighted to step onto the podium with the silver medal. Federer did not take part at Rio 2016 due to a knee injury, but returned to the tennis circuit in 2017 and has since won three further majors – the Australian Open in 2017 and 2018 and Wimbledon in 2017 – to take his Grand Slam haul to a record 20.
Bronze at the first attempt remains Djokovic’s only medal
Djokovic competed at his first Games at the age of 21, in Beijing in 2008. He had recently won his first major – the Australian Open in January – and his first Olympic experience ended with a bronze medal. Knocked out in the semi-final by Nadal, Djokovic secured a 6-3, 7-6 victory in the third-place match against Blake, who had defeated Federer in the quarter-final. But that was as good as it got at the Games for the current world no. 1, who took his Grand Slam tally to 16 in 2019 with victories in Melbourne and then at Wimbledon, where he won an epic final via a “super tie-break” (13-12) in the fifth set against Federer on 14 July.
At the Olympics, the Serb has twice come up against the same stumbling block in the shape of Del Potro. At London 2012, having lost to Murray in the semi-final, Djokovic was beaten in straight sets by the Argentinian (7-5, 6-4) in the bronze-medal match. At Rio 2016, “Delpo”, returning from a long spell out with injury, eliminated the “Djoker” in the first round, following two tie-breaks (7-6, 7-6). Djokovic, though, took the defeat well, saying that he was sad to lose but happy for Del Potro, who had fought hard to return to action.
Tokyo on the horizon
While Nadal has already secured a Career Grand Slam, Djokovic and Federer, both of whom have won multiple Grand Slams, have yet to achieve this feat, and the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 could well be their last chance to do so.
In October 2019, Djokovic won a tournament held at the Ariake Coliseum, the tennis venue for the 2020 Games. “The surface suits my game and the venue is amazing,” he said. “First of all, I’m trying to be ready for the Tokyo Olympics in great shape. Last time I was injured and not in good condition. I’d like to reach the final and go further than in Beijing. I’ll fight for the gold medal. The Olympics are always in my heart. It’s special to represent my country in a historic sports event.”
Federer has the same Olympic passion:
Nadal is no different: “Everyone knows what the Olympic Games represent for me, and I will do as much as possible to try to prepare as best as [I can].”
Of course, there are players other than the Big Three who could emerge victorious in the Tokyo 2020 men’s singles.
But the opportunity to see all three of them in action at the same time as part of the greatest sports event on earth, probably for the last time, is one that cannot be missed. The Big Three will, undoubtedly, be one of the main attractions at the Games next year.