In July 1978, Bjorn Borg won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon for the third straight season. No one had matched that feat in more than 40 years. Granted, one reason for this drought was that, for most of the 20th century, tennis careers were quite short. Prior to the advent of the Open Era in 1968, amateurs were not allowed to make money from tennis. Those few who sought to earn money as pros were banned from the prestigious Grand Slam events. Once prize money was permitted, there wasn’t that much available, compelling a great many players even in the 1970s and ’80s to cease competing by age 30—Borg played his last major at the age of 25.
“When I was playing, you had to win big to make big money,” Jimmy Connors once said.
Borg’s third straight Centre Court victory lap raised his stature to a whole other level. The Borg mystique grew greater in 1980 when he earned his fifth straight Wimbledon title—and a year later, won a record sixth at Roland Garros. Those remain titanic accomplishments.
Now consider these contemporary numbers.
—Thirteen: the number of times Rafael Nadal has won Roland Garros.
—Eight: Roger Federer’s tally at Wimbledon and Novak Djokovic’s at the Australian Open.
—And that’s just how much the Big 3 have dominated the majors. Federer has won the singles at Halle and Basel 10 times apiece. Djokovic has never lost in Beijing, racking up six titles and a 29-0 match record. Then there’s Nadal’s clay-court path to Roland Garros: Monte Carlo (11 titles), Barcelona (11), Rome (9). That is no mere road. It is a rampage.
“Winning begets winning,” says strategy coach Craig O’Shannessy, who has worked with many top pros, including Djokovic. “We really see it with these guys winning these same events year after year.”
O’Shannessy believes one major reason for such dominance is that the top players are able to more carefully manage their schedules with long-term success in mind.
“In Halle, Federer committed to play for five years,” he says. “You see the marriage of the player and the tournament. So then you get familiarity—with the conditions, with the courts, with everything.”
Yet while in some instances sustained excellence at a particular tournament is the result of planning and even a defined business relationship with an event, the way Federer has arranged with Halle and Basel, in other cases, it comes down to more intangible factors.
“Sometimes a player just feels more relaxed in one city than another,” says 1993 Roland Garros doubles champion Luke Jensen. “It might be the hotel, a restaurant, getting to and from the tournament, the speed of the court, a friendly face at the transportation desk—any and all of those little things can make a big difference in how you perform.”
And for repeat champions who add considerable luster to the marquee, you can be certain that tournament directors take every stop possible to make sure all those player-friendly attributes are properly handled—right down to the proper mint on a pillow.
Beyond the makeup of a specific tournament, in more recent years, there have been considerable upgrades in the care and maintenance department. When Borg traveled to tournaments, his support group largely consisted of his coach, Lennart Bergelin. For matters related to his body, Borg relied on the on-site staff of trainers that treated everyone entered in the event. It’s different now.
“As more money has flowed into our sport, particularly at the top, players have the ability to hire a team—specific people for specific purposes,” says O’Shannessy. “For Roger, Rafa and Novak, they can hire someone for strength, another person for flexibility. Just think about that: Roger has had someone on a daily basis look after his body. Every little tweak gets taken care of immediately. So the body is not aging like it used to. The physio is the MVP.”
Having worked with 10 players ranked No. 1 in the world, Hall of Famer Nick Bollettieri is quite familiar with sustained performance.
“It’s no longer just working out with your coach,” says Bollettieri. “It’s a total dictionary. What they drink, what they eat—every single thing can be measured and studied. It’s totally changed, the physical and mental. It’s a science.”
It adds up to a combination that is powerful and intimidating.
“The mindset of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic is amazing,” says Bollettieri. “They think they’re winners. They’ve proven they’re winners. And I believe that gets in the head of opponents. They instill fear.”
And yet, year after year, the same message echoes: the depth is increasingly greater, a threat from a lower-ranked player that much more likely, the weaknesses among the Top 100 surely less pronounced. That would surely preclude dominance, wouldn’t it? How, then, are Federer, Nadal and Djokovic able to remain so much better and continue to win these tournaments year after year?
Perhaps they too are witnesses to their own genius, keen to regard their achievements with awe, insight and appreciation. Just ask them.
Federer, following his 2017 run to eighth Wimbledon: “Winning eight is not something you can ever aim for, in my opinion. If you do, I don’t know, you must have so much talent and parents and the coaches that push you from the age of three on, who think you’re like a project.”
Djokovic, after winning his eighth Australian Open earlier this year: “My upbringing was in Serbia during several wars during ’90s, difficult time, embargo in our country where we had to wait in line for bread, milk, water, some basic things in life. These kind of things make you stronger and hungrier for success I think in whatever you choose to do. . . . That’s probably one of the reasons why I managed to find that extra gear or necessary, I guess, mental strength to overcome challenges when they present themselves.”
Nadal, earlier this month after winning his 13th title at Roland Garros: “In the sport, the life change quick. I did the things that I had to do with the big support of my team. I had all the time my team next to me and supporting, especially in the tough days because is difficult to work every single day without a clear schedule. Is great to have such great professionals and great human beings next to me to push me and to help me in that tough days, no?”
But as these three have demonstrated for so long now, the tough days have been exceeded by the glory days.