PARIS – One of them is focused on numbers, hoping they will provide the confirmation he’s always longed for.
Another has come to play on the pitch that makes him an apotheosis of his sport and to protect this place as his personal kingdom.
The third longs for what’s left and prepares for what’s next.
The big three on the men’s side of tennis – Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – are playing in a Grand Slam for the first time in 18 months. Due to a quirk in the sport’s seeding system, everyone is in the same half of the draw. Djokovic could face Federer in the quarter-finals and Nadal in the semifinals. You’re not getting any younger. Djokovic and Nadal are 34 and Federer, 39, stutters from his comeback after knee surgery. There may be only a few slams like this left.
For years they have been blessed with essential tennis gifts that are so impressive for so long that opponents feel like they have lost a set even before the first point is played. It was hard for lighter players to imagine beating them, let alone actually doing so.
They still love to compete, really love to win (even though Federer only won once a year), and embrace the worldwide fame that a tennis superstar brings with them. Any debate about who will finish their career with the most individual Grand Slam titles and have a legitimate claim to be the greatest becomes quickly reducing.
They differ dramatically, however, when the conversation shifts to what drives each of them to keep playing long after making hundreds of millions of dollars and cementing their reputation for history. And those 30s are way past the expiration date of the great players of all the eras that preceded them.
But at this unique moment in their careers, when Federer and Nadal tie 20 Grand Slam wins and Djokovic is just behind at 18, only Djokovic is so focused on the numbers. Djokovic, who has just celebrated his 34th birthday and is the closest to the top in the eyes of most experts, leaves no doubt that the hunt for supremacy on the scoreboard is what motivates him.
“Whether I’m thinking of winning more slams and breaking records, of course, of course I do,” Djokovic said in February afterwards Beat Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open final. “And most of my attention and energy from that day until I retire from tennis will be focused on majors trying to win more big trophies.”
That sounded very different to Nadal when he talked about his own motivations earlier this week. Nadal allowed that, yes, he wanted to win Grand Slams. The 13-time French Open champion is always the favorite here on the red sand. but nowhere elseThis could be one reason why winning more slams than your rivals isn’t that important. Too much ambition, he said, can frustrate you when things don’t go your way.
“For me the main thing to come home with personal satisfaction is that you gave it your all,” he said. “That’s what makes me happy and what keeps me calm.”
The Grand Slam tennis season takes a long hiatus between the end of the Australian Open and the start of the French Open, which begin on Sunday. The hiatus felt even longer this year as the Big Three skipped a number of key tournaments to nurture injuries or avoid international travel during the pandemic.
That left time for the verbal dance that Nadal, Djokovic and Federer undertook to pursue records and legacies and what it means to surpass the others.
In March, Djokovic broke Federer’s record for most weeks at the top of the world rankings – a ridiculous 311. Then he announced that with that mark in his pocket he had the freedom to shorten his schedule and focus on hitting the highs for that Focus on Grand Slams. even if it meant losing the opportunity to earn ranking points and claim your place as number 1 in the world.
Days later, Federer returned to competitive tennis more than a year of recovery of knee surgery. Before returning, he essentially took himself out of every competitive interview with Nadal and Djokovic, stating that his obsession had been Breaking Pete Sampras’ old record of 14 Grand Slam titles he made in 2009.
“The boys are unreal,” he said of Djokovic and Nadal. “I hope that you can do whatever you want and that you look back with no regrets. We want to leave the game with no regrets and I think from that point of view we all sleep very well at night. “
He said his goal is to be at his best for Wimbledon in June and play in front of the fans against the best players in the world for something important.
Then it got interesting.
In April, during a promotional interview for a beer sponsor, Nadal said Djokovic was “obsessed” with winning more Grand Slam titles than his rivals.
“It means a lot to him, all of these things, the way he always says and talks about these records,” said Nadal. “It’s not my approach to my tennis career.”
He insisted he didn’t mean it negatively, and yet.
Days later, when Djokovic was preparing to play the Belgrade Open, he turned down the characterization.
“It was never difficult for me to say, ‘I want to break this record or achieve a certain goal,” he said.
Whether you play cool or care too much, everyone will be focused on the same thing for the next 14 weeks, playing against each other on red sand at Roland Garros, grass at Wimbledon, and hard courts at the United States Open.
Djokovic has been a for years Hero in his homeland and the Serbian diaspora, but rightly or wrongly a kind of party crasher for a once-elite two-way rivalry between Federer and Nadal and even the occasional tennis villain. Fans are more against him than with him, especially when he’s playing Nadal or Federer. In the last year alone, he defied health safety protocols and hosted a tennis exhibition about it became a coronavirus superspreader eventand accidentally struck a ball in the throat of a linesman and received a disqualification from the US Open.
Nearly two decades into his professional career, nobody expects him to capture the almost universal adoration that Nadal and Federer enjoy, but if he wins more than them, it will be hard to argue that he is less of the three.
He is the only one who has set a victory record against the other two, although Nadal had an advantage within one game (29:28) when he played Djokovic two weeks ago in a close game with 7: 5, 1: 6, 6: 3 defeated in the final of the Italian Open.
Once again, the arena in the park west of the Eiffel Tower becomes your battlefield. While they were preparing for Paris, everyone stayed true to the form.
May 18th Federer suffered a heavy loss to Pablo Andujar from Spain, who ranks 75th in the world in his first game at the Geneva Open. Trying to lower expectations, he pointed to Wimbledon, where he has won eight times and will remain a deity even if he doesn’t win again.
“Roland Garros is not the target,” he said. “The goal is the grass.”
Nadal continued to focus on his process and efforts as winning is less predictable. After sending Djokovic to Rome, Nadal talked about bringing passion and effort to the pitch for every game. In Paris on Friday, he was more focused on his opponent in the opening round, young Australian Alexei Popyrin, than on his statue, which the tournament organizers had unveiled. “Every lap is tough,” he said.
Then there was Djokovic, who spoke big, looked for another trophy, then quickly secured himself and tried not to sound obsessed.
“I think I have a good chance of going all the way to Paris,” he said. Then he realized exactly what that meant and added, “Of course it’s a long way.”