The match was riveting and intense, lasting 3 hours and 59 minutes. But in the end, the result was what we’ve come to expect: The old men of tennis still rule.
Novak Djokovic beat Dominic Thiem on Sunday in a 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 final at the Australian Open. The win gave Djokovic his eighth title in Melbourne, where he has never lost in a final. Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have now won the past 13 majors, adding to their previous streaks of 11 consecutive majors in 2010-12 and an astonishing 18 in 2005-09.
The last two victories from the Big Three have been close, with Djokovic needing five sets on Sunday and Nadal surviving Daniil Medvedev in last year’s U.S. Open final. They have still managed to turn away the next generation of would-be tennis stars: Incredibly, no man born in the 1990s has won a Slam, while the women already have a winner born in the 2000s. But the young talents of men’s tennis finally look like they might be able to break through.
The 26-year-old Thiem has come as close as possible to winning a major. He has now pushed two of the world’s best to their limits in their best venues — Djokovic in the Australian Open final and Nadal in the French Open final last year, when Thiem lost in four sets. The only thing that seemed to be missing for Thiem in both finals was the belief in himself to seal the deal. To wit, Djokovic was lucky that Thiem didn’t go for the throat on Sunday. “[Thiem] was a better player,” Djokovic said after the match. “Probably one point and one shot separated us tonight. Could have gone a different way.”
While Thiem seems closest to knocking off one of the Big Three, the other two notable challengers to their throne are also making progress. After a disappointing 2019, 22-year-old Alexander Zverev was finally playing with confidence in a major in Melbourne. He achieved the best Grand Slam outcome in his career, making it to the semifinals before losing to Thiem in four sets (including two tiebreakers). The 23-year-old Medvedev had a tougher time in Australia, losing a five-setter to Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round. But his near-win against Nadal in the U.S. Open last year was encouraging. He plays with confidence and goes for his shots, and he won two ATP Masters 1000-level events in 2019.
What about the rest of the top men’s players? Only four have taken majors from the Big Three since Nadal won his first title in 2005: Andy Murray, Juan Martin Del Potro, Marin Cilic and Wawrinka. Wawrinka remains a threat in the later rounds of a Slam, but he hasn’t won a tournament since 2017. Murray, who for a while turned the Big Three into a Big Four, faced two hip surgeries and pulled out of the Australian Open this year. Del Potro has battled a number of injuries in his career, including a fractured kneecap last year. Cilic, at 31 the youngest player to have won a Slam, has fallen off recently, slipping to No. 39 in the world rankings. The man Cilic beat in the 2014 U.S. Open final, Kei Nishikori, hasn’t come closer than the semifinals of a Slam since. And 28-year-old Grigor Dimitrov has shown promise but has never reached a major final.
Can the Big Three keep winning? In Australia, Djokovic proved he has plenty left in the tank and showed a new wrinkle with a speedy second serve. Federer lost to Djokovic in the semifinals, and Nadal — who has struggled to solve the Australian Open lately — lost to eventual runner-up Thiem in the quarters. (Nadal lost three tiebreakers in the four-set match against Thiem.)
Federer, at 38 years old, holds the men’s record at 20 major titles. The 33-year-old Nadal is breathing down Federer’s neck at 19 titles, and now Djokovic, at 32, has 17.
“It’s unique in sports history that the three best players by far are playing in the same era,” Thiem said after his finals loss. “That’s what makes it very, very difficult for other players to break through.”