The ‘Big 3′ on Grass?

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Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are the three greatest male tennis players of all time, of which there can be no doubt. In which order you rank those three depends on an almost endless list of variables but where there can be no dispute is that Djokovic, Federer and Nadal have been the best hard-court players of this era with the former two also being the best in history on the surface, evidenced by a combined 23 majors at the Melbourne and New York based slams. Nadal, Djokovic and Federer have also been the best clay-courters of their era. That Nadal is the greatest clay-courter ever is one of sport’s most indisputable facts, the Spaniard having won 112 of his 115 matches at Roland Garros on his way to winning the title an untouchable fourteen times. 

But have these 3 great’s also been the best of their era on grass? Well with a record 12 Wimbledon final appearances and 8 wins, Federer currently stands as not only the greatest grass courter of his era, but number one of all time on the Men’s side. However with 6 Wimbledon titles, Novak Djokovic will not have given up hope of catching ‘Pistol’ Pete Sampras (7) and Roger Federer’s total, to become the number 1 of all time on the surface, but he already currently stands as comfortably the second best of his era on grass. So who is third? and this is where grass may differ from hard courts and the clay, as here there can be an argument made that someone in the top 3 on the surface comes from outside the ‘Big 3′.

It is worth remembering that before leaving the tour for surgery in 2017, Andy Murray forced in lots of people’s mind a ‘Big 4′, or at the very least a ‘Big 3 and a half’. He was by an enormous margin the fourth best player of his era, and on the tour he was closer to the ‘Big 3′ than any of the others were to him. Between 2006 the year Murray won his first ATP final and 2016, his last full injury-free year on the tour the Scot reached 64 finals, winning 44. In the same time period, Federer won 55 (an average of 1 more than Murray per year), Nadal 57 and Djokovic 66. For comparison, Stan Wawrinka won 15 and reached another 10 finals.

Between 2008 (the year Murray reached his first Masters 1000 final) and his last full year on the tour 2016, Djokovic won 30 M1000 events from 43 finals, Nadal won 19 from 28 and Federer reached 21 finals and won 10. Andy also reached 21 finals in the time period but actually won more than the Swiss, as he came out victorious on 14 occasions. In contrast, the three other men’s slam winners of the era Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic and Juan Martin Del Potro played a combined seven Masters finals, winning just two. 

Murray made his first Slam final appearance in 2008 and his last in 2016, reaching 11 Grand Slam finals. In that period Djokovic reached 20, Nadal 15 and Federer just one more than Murray across 9 years, with 12 final appearances. It wasn’t just in final appearances that Murray and Federer were close at slams, in this time Roger won 5 to Andy’s 3. Between 2010 the year Murray made his second major final appearance and 2016, Murray reached 10 finals which was four more than Federer in that period and only two fewer than Nadal. Federer’s only two slam final wins in that 7 year period both came against Murray, but the Briton still outnumbered him in that time with 3 major wins. In comparison, across their whole careers Wawrinka, Del Potro and Cilic have reached a combined 9 slam finals, fewer than Murray alone reached in that 7 year period between 2010 and 2016. Wawrinka has the 5th most slam final appearances of his era with 4, which is fewer than Murray has made at the Australian Open alone.

By the end of 2016, Murray trailed Federer by 10 M1000 titles, given the Swiss won his first 6 years before Murray’s first due to age difference, this was not an enormous number. Andy also had reached 9 fewer Grand Slam finals than Nadal, with Rafa playing 5 before Murray’s maiden final. Murray had just turned 29 when he reached his 11th final and won his 3rd major, given he became year-end number 1 on his last full year on the tour it was highly likely he would have gone on to make many more and far from out of the question that he would have won a few more too.

These stats are not to claim that Murray was ever going to get numbers *that* close to the Big 3, but to remind that in some areas he wasn’t that far away compared to now where they have been able to pull much further away. Whereas the 30′s of the Big 3 have been defined by their consistency and longevity which has seen them further cement their untouchable status at the top of the men’s game, Murray has spent the better part of his 30′s side-lined through multiple hip surgeries and ultimately a hip replacement. When he has been able to play, it’s been with a ranking so low that it’s been difficult to find any form and rhythm due to early meetings with high ranked players.

Despite this and despite missing so much of the tour over the last 5 or so years (evidenced by Murray playing only 5 slams of the last 18 held), Murray has managed to reach a total of 70 ATP finals, which is exactly twice as many as the man with the 5th most final appearances of this era, Marin Cilic. He has also won 46 titles which is more than Cilic and Del Potro (who have the 5th and 6th most men’s titles of this era) combined.

Despite the hip injury robbing him of what may well have been his prime years given his age and position at the time, Murray has still managed to be only the second player ever after Andre Agassi to win a Slam, a Masters, The Davis Cup, Olympic Gold (Murray is the only player ever to win 2 in Singles, which he won in successive events) and the ATP tour finals. He is also the only player of this era outside the big 3 to have won multiple times at one slam, making him the only player to have won as many titles at a slam as a Big 3 member when that number of titles is more than one (for example Wawrinka has as many slams as Federer at Roland Garros, but Federer has only won it once). 

This brings me to the main point of this article which can be summed up by a question: Who has been the 3rd best Grass court player of this era of men’s tennis? Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray? The only place to start with this question is Wimbledon. Both men have taken the title twice, once against an extremely formidable opponent and once when they were strong favourite going into the match. Nadal has reached 5 finals there to Murray’s 3, with both men appearing in 7 semi-finals at SW19. Nadal’s first Wimbledon final came at his second appearance at the event where he met Roger Federer. Nadal was bagelled in the opening set, then lost a narrow tie-break before taking a tie-break of his own to force a fourth set, though Federer took this 6-3. The following year Nadal returned to the final to meet the same opponent, the Spaniard won 6 games in four of the five sets, but lost two tiebreaks and went down 6-2 in the final set. 

In the 2008 Final Nadal met Federer for their sixth successive European slam final. At that point Nadal had won 3 from 3 on Clay and Federer was 2/2 on Grass. In this Wimbledon final they produced the greatest Grass court match of all time, and one of the greatest on any surface, as Federer fought back from two sets down to win two tiebreaks to force a fifth, which Nadal won 9 games to 7. This was one of the greatest wins of Nadal’s entire career as Federer was one set away from winning a record breaking 6 successive Wimbledon titles. Nadal’s win ended Federer’s run of 41 straight victories at the slam. Federer would go on to win his 6th the following year meaning this was Federer’s only loss at the slam in 7 years.

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Nadal missed the chance to defend his title in 2009 due to injury but returned the following year. In the Semi-Finals Rafa met Murray who was in his first Wimbledon semi with Nadal prevailing 6-4,7-6(8-6),6-4. In the final he met Tomas Berdych who was playing what would be his only ever slam final, and he too was beaten in straights by Rafael Nadal. Nadal and Murray met again in the semis in 2011, the former again triumphant despite losing the first set. In the final Rafa met Djokovic who was playing his first ever Wimbledon final, with the Serb coming out on top by 3 sets to 1. That run of reaching 5 Wimbledon finals from the 5 he played between 2006 and 2011 was an incredible one for a player for whom grass is considered by far his weakest surface. Though since that 2011 match, Nadal has not been back in the final, reaching the semi-finals only twice since. 

Andy Murray has always had a special relationship with his home slam of Wimbledon, it is where he reached his first fourth round and then his first Quarter. He would though lose 3 successive semi-finals, two against Nadal and the other against Andy Roddick before he was able to reach his first final in 2012. In that final he met Roger Federer against whom he took the opening set, before the Swiss levelled it up in the second. Rainfall meant the third set had to be delayed for the roof to close, and on becoming an indoor final Federer was able to take control winning 3 sets to 1. 

Murray returned to the showpiece event the following year where he met Djokovic. It was to be their 3rd slam final meeting of the last 4 played, with a win apiece going into this one. Murray became the first British man in 76 years to win Wimbledon by defeating Novak in straight sets. It was the Serb’s only straight sets final until the 2020 Roland Garros final, and remains to date the only Wimbledon final he has lost, having won the other 6, including 3 against Federer. 

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Murray’s defence ended at the Quarter-Final stage against Grigor Dimitrov in 2014, but he returned to the semis again the next year but was bested in straight sets by Roger Federer. 2016 saw Murray reach his third Wimbledon final and he took the title against Milos Raonic the same way he won 5 of his 6 previous matches, in straight sets. Due to injuries Murray has only featured at 2 Wimbledon’s since then. 

So who has had the better Wimbledon career? their final victories were similar with both producing one of their career-best performances to defeat a grass-court King and the other wins coming when they were big favourite in the final, which they both won in straight sets. Nadal has been the better semi-final performer winning 5 of his 7, whereas Murray has won 3 and lost 4. Nadal’s Wimbledon success however has been more concentrated in a smaller period, aside from the run of 5 finals in 5 successive tournaments played, he has only reached the Quarter-Finals on 2 other occasions. He has been forced to endure a number of upsets, notably a 2nd round exit to Lucas Rosol in 2012, a 1st round exit the following year to Steve Darcis, a 2nd round defeat to Dustin Brown in 2015 and a 4th round departure to Giles Muller in 2017. During this period between 2012 and 2017, Nadal was unable to reach the last 8. 

Murray reached at least the Quarter-Finals for 10 consecutive years at Wimbledon and has only exited before the 4th round twice, once at his first ever slam and not again until 2021 when he entered Wimbledon short of match practice. Overall Murray holds a record of 59-11 at the slam for a win % of 84%, and Nadal’s record is 53-12 which gives a win % of 82%. With 10 Quarter-Final appearances to Nadal’s 7, Murray has been more consistent and reliable when it comes to going deep in the slam and has been less likely to lose against a player he’s expected to beat, and with more matches and more wins despite playing one fewer Wimbledon than Rafa, he deserves to get the nod here as the 3rd best Wimbledon men’s player of his era up to now, though it’s so close that it could easily change by the end of this year’s tournament

In total on the surface Murray has reached 10 grass court finals of which he has won 8, and Nadal has reached 7, winning 4. Nadal’s play time on grass has undoubtedly been limited by him going deep in every tournament he plays on clay year after year so certainly that must be taken into consideration when reviewing these numbers. However Murray has reached 5 Roland Garros semi-finals, so he too has on occasion been busy during the clay-court swing before the switch to grass. The Scot has won the pre-Wimbledon tournament Queens a record 5 times, Nadal has won it once beating Djokovic in the final and his other grass court title was at the Stuttgart Open. Aside from Wimbledon, the biggest event to be played on grass has been the Summer Olympics. At London 2012 on the centre court of Wimbledon, Murray defeated Djokovic in straight sets in a best-of-three format, then defeated Federer in straights in the final in best-of-five, to avenge his defeat to the Swiss from a few weeks prior in the Wimbledon final. 

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Murray became the second man of the era after Federer to win 100 matches on grass, and still currently has the second most wins on the surface despite playing Wimbledon just once since 2018. Murray has 114 wins for 24 losses for a win % of 82.6%, Djokovic has 102 wins and 18 defeats for a win % of 85%, Federer has 192 wins on grass and 29 defeats and has a win % of 86.9%. Nadal with 71 wins and 20 defeats on the surface comes in with a 78% win %. 

In conclusion, looking at the evidence it would be fair to argue Nadal peaked higher on grass than Murray did, which is unsurprising given he’s been by far the better player overall in his career. You can also look at the fact Nadal has won both their meetings on grass, though Murray has always found Nadal to be his toughest adversary, against noone whom he has regularly faced does he boast a lower win %. However over their careers, Murray has been the more consistent grass court player, it is the surface best suited to his game evidenced by it being the slam he has won most matches at. It is the only slam in which a player outside of the Big 3, competing against them, has been able to win more matches than a Big 3 member, and for that Murray must receive plenty of credit. There’s a reason it’s only been done once, by one player at one slam, and that’s because it’s very difficult to do. To do it in fewer Wimbledon appearances than Rafa too, adds to the achievement. 

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