What youth movement? The Big Three still dominate at Wimbledon

LONDON -- It has been 11 years since Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal last played each other at Wimbledon, going back to when the Spaniard won his first title here, ending Federer's run of five straight victories. The two men will meet again at Wimbledon on Friday, this time in the semifinals. In more than a decade -- once considered a lifetime in tennis terms -- almost nothing has changed at the top of the men's game.

Novak Djokovic, who won his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 2008 and has won 14 more since, tops the world rankings, followed by Nadal, who won the French Open that same year and won it for a 12th time last month. The two winners of the Australian Open and French Open this year? You guessed it: Djokovic and Nadal. And with world No. 3 Federer making it through on Wednesday, all three are into the semifinals at Wimbledon yet again.

With the honorable exceptions of Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, who have won three Grand Slam titles apiece, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have dominated men's tennis at the Grand Slams for the past 16 years. Dating back to, and including, Federer's first Wimbledon win in 2003, the trio have won 53 of the 64 Grand Slams played since then.

Their dominance is even more impressive when you go a little deeper. Between them, the three have played in 80 Grand Slam singles finals: 30 for Federer, 26 for Nadal and 24 for Djokovic. They have also made at least the semifinals of a Slam 110 times between them (43, 32 and 35, respectively). And the trio have been in the semis of the same Grand Slam event together 13 times.

Among current players, only one man under the age of 28 -- 25-year-old Dominic Thiem -- has even made it to a Slam final, let alone won one. These are not normal times. "I think it's definitely not a regular time in tennis in the men's game, because I don't think we would have thought Novak, me and Rafa would have been so solid, so dominant for so many years," Federer said. "I think that, 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 also not."

Djokovic, the defending Wimbledon champion who is trying to win the title for the fifth time, said the top three have inspired each other to new heights. "Don't ask me more questions about young tennis players, when is their time to come up, because we've talked about it," he said. "I said that eventually it is going to happen.

"It doesn't seem like it's happening in Grand Slams. I guess this is where, especially Nadal, Federer, and myself, in a way we go onto next level in terms of tennis and focus. We're very dedicated to these tournaments. In particular, at this stage of all of our careers, this is what matters the most for us."

When Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Federer on his way to the semifinals of the Australian Open in January, it seemed as though the so-called Next Gen were about to break through, but it was yet another false dawn. At Wimbledon, they fell flat. Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and Denis Shapovalov all went out in the first round.

Tsitsipas was distraught after losing in five sets to Thomas Fabbiano of Italy. "People expected things from me. I didn't deliver," Tsitsipas said. "When you get so much support, so much energy, so much positivity from everyone [and] just ruin everything by yourself, it's devastating.

"We've seen players my age, many years ago -- I would like to name Rafa, Roger -- seemed very mature and professional what they were doing. They had consistency from a young age. They always did well tournament by tournament without major drops or inconsistency. Something that we as the Next Gen players lack, including myself as well, is this [consistency] week by week. It's a week-by-week problem basically, that we cannot adjust to that."

Canada's 18-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime reached the third round, but Tsitsipas is the only one of the Next Gen to even make a Grand Slam semifinal so far, and first-week defeats remain the norm.

Now compare that with the familiar sight of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer ripping through the first week of a Grand Slam event, wasting as little time as possible on the court, saving their energy for the bigger, tougher battles to come.

Between them, the world's top three have won 14 Wimbledon titles, and the common factor in many of those victories is how Federer, Djokovic and Nadal have managed to avoid too many draining matches in the first three rounds.

At Wimbledon, Federer has reached Week 2 without dropping a set in half of his eight title-winning runs, in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2017. Only once, in 2012, did he drop more than a set in his first three matches on course to the title.

Djokovic did not drop a Week 1 set in 2015 and lost only one Week 1 set each in 2011, 2014 and 2018 on the way to winning Wimbledon. Even Nadal, who has had plenty of early departures at Wimbledon, dropped just one set in 2008.

There have been exceptions, of course, notably in 2010, when Nadal dropped four sets in the first week but still won the title. But generally, the Big Three have made a habit out of easing through the opening week and keeping their powder dry for Week 2.

"It's a two-week event -- the more efficient you can be in the first week, the better it is," Djokovic said. "It's kind of tricky because you can't really think about what happens in the second week. You need to balance it. In order to win straight-set matches ... you need the right intensity. You need to kind of be in the moment, focus only on the next challenge. At the same time, yes, an ideal scenario to conserve energy is welcome, of course, for the later stages."

In his 15 Grand Slam victories, Djokovic has gone through Week 1 without dropping a set nine times. Nadal has done it 11 times out of 18 and Federer 11 of 20. Each of them, naturally, excels on his favored surface: Djokovic has done it seven times out of 10 on hard courts; Nadal has done it eight times out of 12 at Roland Garros on the clay; and Federer has managed it four times out of eight Wimbledon wins.

But equally, when they have won away from their favorite surfaces, they have been dominant. Djokovic did it once at Wimbledon and in his only French Open triumph; Nadal won two of his three US Opens without dropping a set in Week 1 and did the same thing when he won the Australian Open for the only time, in 2009. Federer won four of his six Australian Opens without losing a set in the first three rounds and did the same thing in three of his five US Open victories.

Heading into Wimbledon, the trio had made the last 16 of a major without dropping a set a whopping 81 times in 189 Grand Slam appearances: Federer was 37-for-76, Nadal was 25-for-56 and Djokovic was 19-for-57.

Each man dropped just one set in a relatively easy first week at this year's Wimbledon, a platform that set the tone for their march to the semifinals.

One of them, almost surely, will be the champion yet again.