The ‘big three’ of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic are well established as tennis’ true titans, but does TV really do them justice? Michael Graham went to the ATP Finals to find out.
Last summer, I decided it was time I finally got myself to an ATP Finals. It had just been announced that the event was leaving London in 2021, and I’d have not forgiven myself had I not been to at least one at the O2.
Back then, of course, we had no idea who would even be competing in the tournament, never mind which three matches I’d be able to see.
You, of course, want the big three, but at the end of the day your still going to see the best players in the world, no matter who it is. So the tickets were booked, trains and hotel were booked. It was a big expense.
Sometimes, though, the stars just align.
First of all, it transpired that all eight of the highest-ranked players in the world would be heading to London. That’s rare.
Then came the scare in Paris, when it looked like Rafael Nadal would be injured and withdraw. And, with Roberto Bautista Agut the first alternative – a player whose style does not really incite excitement on its own, never mind when contrasted with Nadal – that seemed like it was going to be a bit of a downer.
Still, Nadal made it, and then Dominic Thiem did us a great favour in beating both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the round-robin stage.
That meant that Federer and Djokovic would be meeting on court the day that I arrived in London. The schedulers were also on our side, as we’d only be getting to one session that day, and they gave us Federer/Djokovic.
We were already certain to see Nadal, fitness permitting, but his loss to Alexander Zverev meant that when we did see him, he really needed to win.
So, there I was heading to London, guaranteed to see all of the ‘big three’, two of them against each other. Such a great opportunity to see be able to analyse ad compare, at close quarters and in a condensed time scale, each one in the flesh.
I appreciated each one before, but I left the O2 with a clear idea of exactly what makes each completely unique from the others.
Rafael Nadal, in simple terms, is pure spectacle. Everything he does is dramatic.
The intensity in his hitting is, of course, legendary alone, but the groaning, the bobbing on the spot for the coin-toss, the sprint back to the baseline for the warm-up…
Then there is the relentless acts of OCD too: his pre-serve routine, his meticulous bottle-arranging, his absolute refusal to cross the tram-lines without first taking his towels from the ball-kids. It’s all just absolute theatre.
Nadal and Stefanos Tsitsipas treated us to three sets, after which Rafa somehow found a way to win. It was like the scene in Avengers: Infinity War, when Spider-man, Ironman, and co. had hit Thanos with everything imaginable and brought him to his knees – yet he had just enough power to overcome it and emerge triumphant. That was Rafael Nadal.
It’s a fine line, though, I suppose. “Every time I look at him he has his hand down his pants,” was the observation my partner made after nearly three hours of watching Nadal, but still…
I wrote recently that Novak Djokovic’s failure to endear himself to the London crowds was down to his arrogant swagger, and while I don’t think that should make him less popular at all, it is impossible to watch the man play tennis and not feel his presence.
He walks like he owns the whole building and we spectators are just his fortunate guests. He struts, he saunters with authority, he doesn’t interact with anyone while on court, not even the ball-kids.
He even looks about 10-foot-tall, which is remarkable given he’s not and I was sat in the upper tier.
There is something downright imperial about Djokovic that you only really get a true sense of in his presence. A confidence that breeds belief and entitlement and it’s tough not to be struck by it – even as far back as the second tier and when he’s getting whopped by Roger Federer.
Okay, I have to admit it. Of the big three, Roger Federer was the one I like the least. He was also the one I was looking forward to seeing the least.
Federer’s quality has always been unquestioned. But, in all honesty, I have always found Nadal’s power game and Djokovic’s defence more appealing than Federer’s finesse.
However, he was at his absolute best against Djokovic, and watching him was almost like watching another sport entirely.
It was like a cross between tennis and ballet, the way in which he covered the court and moved into his shots. It was all so fluid and, from a higher vantage point, the sheer pace at which he does everything was more evident than it had ever been before.
I have to admit that I as absolutely devastated when the match was over – just because I wanted to see more of Federer. I could have sat there and watched him all night, and that was not the case for Nadal and Djokovic, regardless of their own incredible appeal.
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