by Matt Cronin
When Bjorn Borg won his 11th and final Grand Slam in 1981, he had to take down a young and ambitious Ivan Lendl for the title, who would end up winning eight majors himself.
When eight-time Slam champ Jimmy Connor grabbed the 1976 US Open, he won the title on clay and bested former Wimbledon champ Jan Kodes, a French Open winner in Guillermo Vilas and another Roland Garros champ in Borg in the final.
John McEnroe’s final major title came at the 1984 US Open, when he beat Connors in the semis and Lendl for the title, who - by the way - had defeated Pat Cash in the semis, who would go on to win Wimbledon three years later.
If there is an argument to be made for any 'Big 3' matching the accomplishments of the current trio of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, at least in the Open Era ,Connors, Borg and McEnroe would fit the bill. Connors was older than Borg, who was older than McEnroe, so age certainly played a part in their rivalries at some point, but what is fair to say about them is that they never combined to totally dominate the tour, which is what Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are doing now.
Which is why when 2012 Wimbledon opens it doors on Monday, that the current 'Big 3' will once again be substantial favorites to win the crown, and the rest of the pack will once again be looked at as bunch of pretenders - perhaps rightfully so.
Since Federer won his first major at the 2003 Wimbledon, the current trio has won 33 out of the last 36 Slams. In fact, since Djokovic realized his potential starting in late 2010, it’s been hard to go into any Slam thinking that anyone else but those three had a sniff of chance to win the title. Consider this too: the three have combined to win the last 16 Masters Series (including the ATP World Finals) titles.
So is this really tennis' golden era, or is the reason why the trio shines so brightly is because this period does not have enough guys with the talent or mental toughness to go the distance with them and seal a victory? Is a lack of depth on the men's side really the reason why men's tennis has become so predictable?
Clearly, they are all great players, but they all are also aggressive baseliners who do not have to contend with net chargers, or many men with a lot of variety. They also play in an era where racket and string technology have advanced to point where it's possible to hit ridiculous passing shot winners from way off the court that would have been impossible 30 years ago, much less 20 years ago, which scares potential net rushers to death.
Over his expansive career, Connors had to deal with a high variety two-time Slam champ in Ilie Nastase, serve and volleyers such as Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe and John Newcombe, and legendary all courters such as Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver, and that's when he was just getting started.
Borg had to contend with the serve-and- volleying McEnroe at Wimbledon as well as a slew of other net rushers, such as lefty Roscoe Tanner. McEnroe contended with Connors, Borg, Lendl, the tricky Vitas Gerulaitis and early versions of multiple Slam winners Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker.
Lets jump ahead to the generation prior to Federer's, which is a more recent and perhaps a more appropriate comparison. It was the one headed by Pete Sampras and is the last one that included a number of notable serve and volleyers. Sampras, who retired after winning his then record 14th major at the 2002 US Open, was a pretty dominant player in New York, winning five titles. But Sampras did not just have to play a slew of other aggressive baseliners during his numerous visits there.
Yes, he had to put down two excellent aggressive baseliner in Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, four serve-and-blowtorch groundstrokers in Goran Ivanovic, Mark Philippoussis, Marat Safin and Andy Roddick, and two quick counterpunchers in Michael Chang and Lleyton Hewitt. But he also faced three terrific serve and volleyers in Edberg, Richard Krajicek and Greg Rusedski, and a guy who could do a little but of everything in Todd Martin.
During seven title runs at Wimbledon, Sampras had to punch his way past not only Ivanisevic, Courier and Agassi at various times, but vintage serve and volleyers in two-time US Open champion Patrick Rafter, three-time Wimbledon champion Becker, and the very respectable net-loving Briton, Tim Henman.
While clearly Federer and Nadal have more impressive Grand Slams - better than all of Sampras' aforementioned foes, their roads to their major titles have rarely been chock full of attacking men who could suffocate them.
If you examine Federer's very impressive six title runs at Wimbledon, you will only find six men who could serve and volley whom he took down, and none of those -- Mardy Fish, Feliciano Lopez, Henman, Nicolas Mahut, Mario Ancic and Jonas Bjorkman - was ever a major impact player at a major, with the possible exception of Henman, and he never reached a Slam final.
In Nadal's run to his second Wimbledon title in 2010, he did beat two good serve-and-crush-a-forehand men in Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych and a cagey one in Andy Murray, but he did not have to come up with 50 passing shots to best any of them, let alone have to consider that he was going up against a former Grand Slam winner who wouldn’t gag in the clutch.
And outside of Nadal and Federer, if you take those players whom Djokovic beat in his last four Slam wins, none of them hold a candle to the likes of Courier, Agassi, Rafter, Hewitt, Becker or Edberg when it came to winning big matches: Murray, who is very talented but has yet to show the mental fortitude that it takes to win a major; David Ferrer, who is determined but easy to game plan for; Janko Tipsarevic, who has a tattered resume and is prone to collapse at big tournaments; Michael Llodra, a good serve and volleyer who defines streaky; the talented yet immature Bernard Tomic; the improved but stiff Berdych; and the capable yet enigmatic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Let's take the three men who won a Slam during the current trio's remarkable mid-2003 to mid- 2012 run: Andy Roddick (2003 US Open), Marat Safin (2005 Australian Open) and Juan Martin Del Potro (2009 US Open). Roddick has yet to win another Slam and can be compared with another one time Slam winner, Goran Ivanisevic, both who were armed with huge serves and decent smarts but who don't possess great movement or have enough all around weaponry. Safin is a cross-generational player who generally underachieved, but did have two great title runs at New York in 2000 where he stunned Sampras. and at the 2005 Aussie when he shocked Federer and Hewitt. Then there's Del Potro, who after clubbing Nadal and edging Federer in New York had the look of a top 3 player to be, but broke his wrist and now is consistently letting down in big matches.
So there are two ways to look at the dominance of this Big 3 heading into Wimbledon: either they are a generation apart, or the rest of the field since mid 2003 has been pretty average.
As in most things in life, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, but unless the likes of Milos Raonic suddenly rises up and reaches his full potential or Murray answers the pleas of his countrymen for a British champion and wins Wimbledon, we will be debating this question through the US Open: does this generation contain a trio made out of real gold, or merely one that is spray-painted with the color to hide the cracks in its foundation?