If there's an argument the sport of tennis doesn't need to hear, it's the contrarian's view of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the vaunted Big Three of the men's game. It's not that they're so wondrously superior, the critics say; it's that the depth on tour is sadly lacking.
Sometimes, I suppose, people just run out of things to say.
If there were anything remotely repetitive about this golden age of the sport -- and it is surely that -- perhaps the argument would make sense. Nobody wants to see the same storylines written, time and again, with the protagonists staying right in character. The remarkable thing about these three men is that they keep re-inventing themselves, absolutely dismantling long-held theories and elevating their status among the all-time greats.
All recent evidence pointed to the notion that Djokovic owns Federer, having won six of the previous seven matches leading up to Friday's semifinal on Wimbledon's Centre Court. Federer's only win during that period had come at the 2011 French Open, and Djokovic reversed the tide with a straight-set win at Roland Garros last month.
Federer changed all that, and bolstered his chances to regain the world No. 1 ranking, with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory that sends him into his eighth Wimbledon final, an all-time record. He took charge at the beginning and had removed any shred of suspense by the early stages of the fourth set. Here was a 30-year-old man resurrecting the glory of his past, and there was no interruption to the postmatch applause. It was a sustained roar of appreciation, from the execution of match point right through the players' departure from the arena.
Remarkably, Federer will recapture that No. 1 ranking if he wins Sunday's final against Andy Murray, who beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 to become the first British man since Bunny Austin in 1938 to reach the Wimbledon final. Doing so would earn Federer a tie with Pete Sampras for the most weeks (286) at the top. He is now 8-0 in Wimbledon semifinals, and should he win this tournament for the eighth time, he will surpass Sampras and William Renshaw, a champion of the late 19th century, for the most titles in history.
So much of the Big Three discussion, though, goes beyond the numbers. For all of his accomplishments and incomparable panache, Federer will be remembered for his amazing ability to prove people wrong.
There was a time when some rather vocal former players, notably Mats Wilander, felt Federer lacked a real-man's gumption and would forever be psyched out by Nadal. The theory only gained credence when Federer, after a tough loss to Nadal at the 2009 Australian Open, broke into tears. It seemed the great man was on an irreversible downslide, and he staged a shocking temper display in losing to Djokovic at Key Biscayne that year, slamming his racket to the ground so hard that it bent in half.
(Federer's fans knew he'd been a petulant, temperamental player in his youth, and as the New York Times' Chris Clarey put it so well, "It was like watching the owner of a health-food store start fumbling through his desk drawer for a long-lost pack of cigarettes.")
Imagine Federer's sense of satisfaction, then, after he won his first French Open that spring (albeit with Nadal on the sidelines), and then Wimbledon. He must have felt the same way on Friday, on a drizzly London afternoon with the Centre Court roof in place. Winless in the majors since the 2010 Australian, he's one match away from making perhaps the most grandiose statement of his career.
And so it goes with these masters of re-invention. In his youth, Nadal was considered to be strictly a clay-court specialist who hated grass and couldn't handle the madness of New York. Presto: two Wimbledon titles and another at the U.S. Open. He appeared to be so mentally destroyed by Djokovic last year, he bared his frustrations in interviews suggesting a man on the psychiatrist's couch. Behold the transformation, capped by Nadal's emotional win over the Serb in this year's French Open final.
Djokovic's turnaround, needless to say, was the stuff of legend. He went from a funny, talented but somewhat wimpy guy to a veritable superhuman in 2011, winning three of the majors and brazenly embarrassing Federer with that match-point forehand at the U.S. Open. I doubt if there was anyone in tennis who felt Djokovic was capable of such outright dominance.
Over the next year or so, people should be advised to back off the "greatest of all time" argument. These guys are still active, and their fortunes change by the minute. As soon as you've reached a hard-and-fast conclusion, flawless and unassailable, they'll tear it right down. That's why we're in a men's tennis era for the ages. It's a book you cannot put down.