I always thought I witnessed the “Golden Age” of men’s tennis growing up in the 1980s. I watched Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl rack up tournament wins and volley the number one ranking back-and-forth. These tennis legends won more tournaments than any other three men on the planet in the Open era. Connors led the way with 109 titles. But I was wrong. The Golden Age of tennis is right now.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have utterly dominated the sport of tennis in recent years and their play is absolutely brilliant to watch. The 2012 French Open will mark 28 out of 29 straight Grand Slam tournaments where one of this trio emerged victorious (Juan Martin del Potro’s 2009 U.S. Open is the exception). One of the three has also been the runner-up in more than half of these Grand Slam events. They almost never lose on the biggest stage, except to each other.
Their matches against each other are often epic like the nearly six-hour 2012 Australian Open final where Djokovic beat Nadal. Or consider the almost five-hour 2008 Wimbledon final in which Nadal outlasted Federer to snap Federer’s streak of five straight All-England titles.
It is a circuitous argument on who is the best. Federer, 30, has a record 16 Grand Slam titles and held the number one ranking 237 straight weeks–another record. Federer and Nadal have played 28 times with Nadal, 26, holding an 18-10 edge. Nadal’s French Open record is an otherworldly 51-1 and he owns 10 Grand Slam titles. Djokovic beat Nadal in seven straight tourney finals starting in 2011 before Nadal won their last two meetings. Djokovic’s epic 2011 season included three Grand Slam titles and seven other tourney wins. He is the youngest of the bunch at 25.
The success of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic has been good for all of their bank accounts. Tennis’ big three earned more than $100 million over the past 12-months from prize money, sponsors and appearance fees. Federer and Nadal rank one and two all-time in career prize money with $71 million and $48 million, respectively. Djokovic ranks fourth all-time at $37 million and enjoyed a record $12.6 million haul in 2011.
It is even better off the court for this group. Federer and Nadal each command at least $1 million for exhibition matches. Federer earns $45 million a year off the court. It is more than any other athlete in the world outside of Tiger Woods when it comes to sponsorship income. Fed’s Nike deal is the biggest in tennis and he has nine other blue-chip sponsors like Mercedes, Gillette, Rolex and Credit Suisse.
Nadal counts eight sponsors in his stable that generate $25 million annually including exhibitions and appearance fees. He has big deals with Nike, Bacardi, Kia Motor and Babolat.
Djokovic has been slower to cash in on his success. Elite tennis players earn their biggest paydays from their apparel deal. Djokovic signed a 10-year, incentive-laden deal with clothing brand Sergio Tacchini in 2009. The bonuses from Djokovic’s monster 2011 season blew Tacchini’s marketing budget out of the water and the company stopped paying him. Tacchini also had trouble distributing its tennis apparel outside of Italy. Djokovic signed a new deal with Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo last month to replace his Tacchini contract.
Who is the best of the bunch? They will settle it on the court as usual. In Sunday’s French Open final, Nadal squares off against the winner of the semifinal between Djokovic and Federer.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have utterly dominated the sport of tennis in recent years and their play is absolutely brilliant to watch.