Australian Open Takeaway: Why Reaching 21 Slams Just Got Tougher

Is it now more likely, or less likely, that a man will reach 21 slams than it was before the AO started? Logic would tell you it’s more likely, since Novak Djokovic just got a bit closer, winning his 17th. We disagree. Here’s why:

The main challenge to Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer isn’t Dominic Thiem or any particular individual. It’s “the field.” Especially in the best-of-five format, it’s the field that has the best chance of wearing them down before Djokovic can win four more Slams, Nadal two more or Federer even one. And the field improved more during the Australian Open than the Big Three did.

Thiem got closer than ever to winning a Slam, and one could make a decent argument that it was the field, not Djokovic, that ultimately beat him. Thiem was softened up by grueling matches against Nadal and Alexander Zverev. It’s reasonable to wonder whether he would have beaten Djokovic if he had fresher legs in the fifth set and was able to run around his backhand to hit more inside-out forehands. That’s not an excuse. It’s just a reality of the best-of-five format.

Granted, Thiem had to go through Nadal, but Djokovic was fresher in the final because he took care of business better than Thiem did in the previous rounds. We love best-of-five matches because they provide the greatest moments in men’s tennis.  However, it’s undeniable that five-setters, and even long four-setters, compromise players later in slams, and many matches end up being determined by who has the least-empty tank.

How does this affect the Big Three going forward? Increasingly, as they age, their tanks can be depleted before a slam final because the second tier is getting better. Thiem clearly has to be reckoned with at any slam, except perhaps Wimbledon. If he’s ranked No. 3 or No. 4, he could take out either Djokovic or Nadal in a slam semifinal. Zverev just got a huge confidence boost by reaching the AO semifinals, and should now become increasingly difficult to beat at slams. Tsitsipas, Medvedev and also Rublev will probably come out of Australia motivated to get better.

So let’s look at some scenarios for the next slam, Roland Garros. Let’s say Nadal faces Zverev (or Tsitsipas or Medvedev) in the quarterfinals. Would one of those three beat Nadal? Not likely. But they could definitely make him work long and hard to advance —  much harder than Nadal has had to work in past RG quarterfinals. Then if a beaten-up Nadal plays Thiem in the semis, especially if Thiem goes into the match fresher than Nadal, Thiem has a good chance of winning. You can substitute Nadal in this scenario for Djokovic, and then it’s Djokovic who is defeated or at least exhausted before reaching the semis or finals. We simply don’t accept the conventional wisdom that Nadal will win several more French Opens. Let’s say, using our scenario above, that he doesn’t win it this year. He’d then be trying to reclaim the crown in 2021 as a 35-year-old. Sure, it’s possible he could do it, but far from likely. By then the field will have caught up to him. 

Federer, for his part, is already getting beaten by the field. Yeah, it was Djokovic who got him at Wimbledon last year, and Djokovic would have been a clear favorite at this year’s AO even if Federer were fully fit. But it was the field (i.e., wear and tear) that made the AO semi a non-match. Federer’s last two U.S. Open defeats were essentially due to wear and tear/weather conditions, which is to be expected of someone in his late 30s. Federer could win one more slam, but it’s unlikely. So many, many things would have to break his way. 

Another challenge that’s sometimes forgotten in the slam record chase — and is impossible to quantify — is nerves. You can see Nadal feeling more stress late in slams as he approaches Federer’s total. He overcame those nerves in last year’s U.S. Open final, but they clearly influenced his performance in the Thiem AO quarterfinal. As Djokovic draws closer, he won’t be immune to the pressure, either. 

Lots of tennis fans ask who will be the man to supplant the Big Three. But that’s not the right question. The question is when will the field be able to collectively stop the Big Three. We think the answer is probably this year.

Obviously these are just guesses: We think the chances of either Nadal or Djokovic getting to 20 slams is about 55-60%. We’ll put the chances that any of the Big Three gets to 21 slams at a tad less than 50%. And we’ll put the odds of anyone getting to 22 slams at one-in-three.