In August 2003, Pete Sampras officially announced his retirement from tennis.
He exited the sport as reigning US Open champion, the last of a record 14 majors accumulated since his professional debut in 1988.
With 286 weeks at no.1, 64 titles and over $43 million banked, Sampras was widely viewed as the greatest men’s player of all time.
Now, fifteen years on, the Californian has been surpassed by not one but three players.
The first was of course Roger Federer. The Swiss displayed his promise with that fourth-round defeat of Sampras at Wimbledon 2001, but nobody knew how good he would become.
Federer is now considered to be the best we have seen in the men’s game with an array of extraordinary achievements on his CV.
• All-time record for grand slams victories (20)
• Most grand slam finals (30)
• Most weeks spent at no.1 (310)
• Most World Tour Finals titles (6)
• 98 titles in total and almost $118 million in prize money
To this writer, the records that best signify Federer’s greatness and longevity are his run of consecutive grand slam semi and quarter-finals. The Swiss made the last four or better at every major from Wimbledon 2004 to the 2010 Australian Open, a total of 23. In terms of quarter-finals, Federer reached 36 in a row from 2004 to 2013.
He’s also a nice guy with style and a social media game that’s the envy of influencers the world over. That’s surely enough, right?
But wait, shouldn’t we mention the Mallorcan?
While Federer holds most of the cards when it comes to all-time records and selfies, Rafael Nadal has hurt him the most in showdowns.
The King of Clay first met Federer in Miami in 2004 and, aged just 17, conquered the then no.1 in straights sets.
It was the first of 23 victories for Nadal over the Swiss that have taken place on all surfaces.
Their head-to-head record is distorted by the Spaniard’s dominant record on clay (13-2), but he has beaten Federer nine times on hard courts and once on grass in a match you may have heard about.
Federer has closed the gap a little in recent years thanks to a more aggressive backhand, intelligent charges to the net and supreme serving.
The 37-year-old has won their last four encounters, ticking his side of the ledger up to 15 wins.
Aside from his head-to-head record against Federer, Nadal has a number of records that place him in the conversation for best of the best:
• 17 grand slams including an obscene 11 at Roland Garros
• 189 weeks at no.1 and counting
• Most ATP Masters 1000 titles (33)
• One of two men (with Andre Agassi) to win the golden career grand slam (four majors plus Olympic gold medal)
• 80 titles in total and over $103 million in prize money
Can Nadal equal or surpass Federer’s final total of majors? If he does, there will be a strong argument that the Spaniard is the best player that the men’s game has seen given their head-to-head record.
That’s it, Roger or Rafa look nailed on to finish top of the pile in the end says you. However, Novak Djokovic could still usurp both of them.
This time last year, Djokovic was out of action as he rested a troublesome elbow. The Serb split with his long-time coach Marian Vajda in April 2017 and seemed rudderless as he dropped to no.12 in the ATP rankings.
Djokovic entered the Australian Open this January but the elbow was still an issue as he bowed out to Hyeon Chung in the fourth round. It wouldn’t be until the Monte Carlo Masters in April, after surgery, when Djokovic could play pain free.
Bar a few hiccups, it’s been business as usual for Nole since.
He clicked into gear at the Rome Masters when he made the last four and put up a creditable performance in a loss against Nadal. The 31-year-old was upset by Marco Cecchinato in the last eight of Roland Garros but has been almost invincible since.
After finishing runner-up at Queen’s to Marin Cilic, Djokovic stormed the Wimbledon draw and produced one of his finest performances to beat Nadal in a superb semi-final. A comfortable victory over Kevin Anderson in the final earned Djokovic his fourth Wimbledon title and 13th major overall.
Two months on, Djokovic has collected a couple more trophies at Cincinnati and most significantly, Flushing Meadows. It’s hard to imagine anyone playing better than the Serb did against Kei Nishikori in the semis, and Juan Martin del Potro in the final. Major no.14 for the Monte Carlo resident.
Djokovic at his peak looks different to Federer and Nadal at their best, but the outcome is the same – total domination. Right now, Djokovic is the preeminent force on tour and his already frightening records are improving.
• 14 majors (three behind Nadal and six behind Federer)
• 223 weeks at no.1
• 31 Masters 1000 titles and the only man to have won each of the nine events
• Five World Tour Finals
• 71 titles overall and a record $119 million in career prize money
Djokovic can also boast the greatest season of all-time (2015), one of the best winning streaks (43 matches from 2010-11), and head-to-head advantage over Federer (24-22) and Nadal (27-25).
Healthy, motivated and six years younger than Federer, Djokovic is in the right place to challenge records and our assumptions for some time yet.