Recently, sporting icon Roger Federer said farewell to the game of tennis at the Laver Cup, encircled by his biggest rivals throughout a glittering career.

For years, tennis and sporting fans have marvelled at the beauty and elegance of the Swiss Maestro. When his exit from the tennis world was confirmed (on the 15th of September 2022), it came as a reminder of inevitably painful sporting departures, and that in a few years, the greatest era in men’s tennis will come to a natural end. A man who had so long remained at the pinnacle of the sport was finally giving up his racket and becoming a faraway image of tennis’ ‘Golden generation’.

The competition, set in London’s 02 Arena, proved to be iconic, as tennis legends (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray) all teamed up as one, rather than fiercely engaging in war on a tennis court in pairs as we had all been so commonly accustomed to. Ironically, team Europe lost, but the tournament was completely overshadowed by the great Swiss’ retirement party. With Djokovic and Nadal (the other two greatest tennis players ever) approaching the end of their illustrious professional tennis careers, what made this era of tennis so special?

To put it simply: dominance. The utter and absolute dominance of the Big 3 (Federer, Djokovic, Nadal) was something never witnessed before in the sport and may never be witnessed again. Collectively, the trio won 63 of the past 78 Grand Slam titles and amassed a staggering 892 weeks as number 1s in the world put together (17.2 years). 

While it was the Big 3 that steer headed tennis for decades, the sport wasn’t short of brilliant players in any department. For years, Andy Murray remained at the top of tennis, incessantly trying to keep up with the three greatest players of all time – winning three Grand Slam championships, including two Wimbledon’s. Swiss player Stan Wawrinka was also a central figure in those trying to usurp power, winning three Grand Slams himself, each time against a member of the Big 3 in the final.

As ever, life and sport move on, and the next crop of players will grow into legends; but will they be able to fill the shoes left behind? Federer himself said that ‘the future of tennis is incredibly bright on either side, both men’s and women’s’ in an interview during the Laver Cup, but for many, darkness is setting on the most scintillating time of the sport’s existence. How could such legends be so rapidly replaced?

The Big 3 had encouraged more people than ever to become involved with the sport. They had also created options for who to support. Was it Federer’s elegance, precision and graceful nature that made the sport seem so straightforward? Or was it the iron like figure of Novak Djokovic, the seemingly immovable wall of the Serb with natural resilience stored in abundance? Or perhaps the physical and mental fighting spirit of Spanish bull Rafael Nadal, pushing himself to every limit, synonymous of a gladiator?

Whoever it may be, these sporting phenomena had revolutionised the sport. Previously there was Rod Laver, then the ice and fire rivalry between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, followed by the all-American Agassi – Sampras friction for history, but never had the sport witnessed three men be so imperious over the rest of the field for what seemed like an eternity. So, after 149 encounters, why not divulge into my three favourite colossal matches between the three, in no particular order.

Nadal vs Djokovic: 2012 Australian Open Final

The longest Grand Slam final in history, which spanned 5 hours and 53 minutes, finishing at 01: 37am local time, is perhaps the most intense, gruelling and brutal tennis match ever. Extensive rallies were followed one by one, with the duo producing an astonishing level of tennis, exhilarating to watch. Djokovic came into the match as favourite, winning the previous edition in Australia, and having been victorious in the previous 6 encounters against Nadal (impressively all in finals). Nadal had come off of beating Roger Federer in the Semi Final and appeared in impeccable condition, ready to beat the player who had beaten him in the previous two Grand Slam Finals. The match lived up to the billing. 

Nadal started strong, prevailing in a tight first set 7-5, roaring his famous ‘Vamos’ across Rod Laver arena. However, Djokovic raced back, winning another tight set 6-4 to level up the match. The Serbian superstar then bull-dozed his way to the third set and put himself in poll position to finish the match, winning it 6-2. Yet Nadal had other ideas, revealing all his grit, fighting as tough as nails and being successful in the fourth set tie-break (7-6[5]) to draw level. The fifth set proved a roller coaster, with Nadal drawing first blood and taking an early break, but Djokovic broke straight back. The match was now into the early hours of the morning (or the peak of night), but not a single seat was empty. Djokovic found a way to break, and with a hold of serve won the fifth set 7-5, becoming victorious in an epic tennis classic. 

"When they write the stories of the great tennis matches ever played, this one has got to be right up the front of the book" the commentator said. Rightfully so. 


Federer vs Djokovic: 2011 French Open Semi Final

Possibly the most underrated match between the pair, Federer and Djokovic had both been overshadowed by Rafael Nadal when it came to clay and Roland Garros; not this time, playing the outright match of the tournament. Federer came in with a somewhat underwhelming start to the 2011 season, while his opponent had won 41 straight matches. Nevertheless, Federer’s sharp array of tools and skill proved exquisite in an instant masterpiece in Paris.

Both players started nervously, but as the first set got underway, so did the extraordinary elevation of tennis. Federer managed to dig out an impeccably close set in the tie-break, winning 7-6[5], and took control of the match with a routine second set (6-3). Advantage Federer. Of course, no champion ever just lays low, and Novak Djokovic was imperious for a reason – fighting tooth and nail and reaping the rewards with a 6-3 set himself. Game on. Tension filled the air, a spot in the final playing Nadal was at stake. In one of his greatest ever victories, Federer managed to eloquently serve an ace at 6-5 in the tie-break to finish the match, celebrating by shaking his finger up and down. No one wins a 42nd straight match against me!


Nadal vs Federer: 2008 Wimbledon Final

Widely acknowledged as the greatest tennis match in history, the glorious green court of Wimbledon’s Centre Court witnessed a truly majestical sporting event. Roger Federer was the five-time consecutive champion, eagerly searching for a sixth like no man had ever done before. Rafael Nadal was the fierce, young student, who had previously demolished his rival in the French Open final only a month earlier, determined to finally beat Federer at Wimbledon after losing the past two finals. The pair had completely different styles, but both had spotless talent, flawless work ethic and had dominated the tennis circuit for the past two years. History awaited.

It was the ferocious young Spaniard who stormed to the opening set 6-4, clearly adamant on winning a first Wimbledon crown. Nadal carried on in fine fashion, playing brilliant tennis and gaining the second set as a result (6-4 again). Despite the Spaniards rapid start, a King never gives his crown away without a fight. The Swiss wasn’t giving up just yet. After a tumultuous third set battle, rudely interrupted by rain, the five-time champion said this is my turf. Federer won the third in a tiebreaker, 7-6[5]. However long this would go on for, the tennis Gods had provided a treat. The intense game of Nadal matched beautifully with the smooth nature of Federer; each rally was a piece of art between two contradictions. The fourth set demonstrated skill beyond belief. At 6-6, [7-7] in the tiebreak, Nadal hit an unbelievable forehand rocket passing shot down the line to set up match point. Destiny was here. What happened next? Federer said no. The Swiss produced an astounding passing shot himself with his backhand. Had tennis ever been played at this level before? Federer won the following two points, and with that the match headed to a fifth set.

London had always been a centre for sporting gold, for legends to be born, for history to be written. This was sporting heritage. As the fifth set played out, surrounded by flood lights and a gripped, attentive crowed, absorbed by what was occurring in front of their eyes, Nadal broke at 7-7 to lead 8-7, with the ball on his racket and serve. Finally, the Spaniard guided a mistake from Federer’s forehand into the net and soaked into the ground in celebration. History had been made.

"This is the greatest match i've ever seen" - John Mcenroe

While the cycle of sport continues, with new stars coming to the fray, it would be unimaginable not to reflect on the sublime, aw-inspiring and breath-taking tennis fans had been provided with for so many years. This truly was a ‘Golden Era’.