Commentary

'Big three' better than ever

Updated: June 17, 2011, 8:47 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Tennis players are often their own best public relations people. Positive spin, something they also impart on virtually every point, is a big part of their game.

The bigger the star, it seems, the more pure positivity proliferates. Let's revisit the Roland Garros postmatch media conferences of the "big three":

Rafael Nadal: "This is my biggest chance of the year. If I win this tournament, I know my year is fantastic."

Novak Djokovic: "It was the best five months of my life, my tennis career. I cannot complain. It was definitely an incredible period."

Roger Federer: "It was important to get to another Grand Slam final, keep on playing well. I'm feeling better physically than I have in a long time, so that's been very positive."

Confidence. It's one of the leading reasons they're the best at what they do. Over the past six years, they have been utterly dominant against their peers in the Grand Slams. With all due respect to the Boston Celtics' Big Three (who have shared exactly one NBA title), the tennis version has won 24 of the past 25 majors.

That's a white-hot winning percentage of 96.

Andy Murray, who is a ranked behind them at No. 4 on the ATP World Tour, has come oh-so close to taking that number down. He's been to three major finals -- most recently earlier this year in Melbourne -- but Djokovic and, earlier, Federer (twice) denied him.

After falling to Nadal in the semifinals at Roland Garros, Murray was asked how he might emulate Djokovic's success in breaking the Federer-Nadal duopoly.

"Just get better," he said, simply. "I've won against Roger and Rafa before quite a few times, I've won against Novak quite a few times. Every year our tennis gets better. I said at the beginning of the clay-court season to the guys that I work with that I feel like tennis has gone to a different level than it was physically.

"In terms of the standard, even in comparison with two years ago, I feel like players are quicker. I feel like they're hitting the ball harder. I feel like everyone has improved a lot. You need to do things in your training and your practices to allow yourself to get up to that level and stay there.

"I'm going to need to get even better if I want to get ahead of those games."

Since 2007 Roland Garros, the big three have reached the semifinals together 20 times, including eight in a Grand Slam event.

Nadal, Djokovic and Federer -- listed in order of their current ranking -- all have compelling, credible reasons to believe they will win this year's title at Wimbledon. Here is the skinny behind their power of positive thinking:

Rafael Nadal

[+] EnlargeNadal
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal is seven wins away from sweeping his second consecutive Euro Slam.

Track record on grass: Rafa is secure in the knowledge that he has reached the final at the All England Club the past four times he's played there; Nadal missed the 2009 edition with knee issues. Moreover, he has been the champion in his past two outings. His career record on grass is an impressive 42-9 (.833) and 29-4 at Wimbledon.

Recent form: Couldn't be much better. After a sluggish start in the first several rounds at Roland Garros (Nadal admitted that losing four straight finals to Djokovic preyed on his confidence), he found his game against Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals and finished in a blur. He won nine of 10 sets against Soderling, Murray and Federer, the Nos. 5-, 4- and 3-ranked players in the game.

State of mind: Coming in, Nadal should have the most belief among the big three because he's won his past 14 matches at All England. He was the only one to jump straight into the grass season, playing doubles at Queen's Club two days after taking the title at Roland Garros. He'll be trying to match last year's spectacular (and rare) double of the French Open and Wimbledon. That would give Rafa five of the past six majors.

Novak Djokovic

Track record on grass: Good, but not great. Nole reached the semifinals a year ago but lost in straight sets to Tomas Berdych. Overall, he's 31-11 on grass, although he is still looking for his first title. His mark at Wimbledon -- 20-6 -- includes two semifinal and one quarterfinal appearances. Djokovic was scheduled to play at Queen's Club but withdrew.

Recent form: He came into his semifinal match against Federer with a 43-0 match streak going back to last year's Davis Cup. For the season, Djokovic is now 41-1 with a 7-1 record against his big three cohorts. Despite the loss to Federer, he has still won 16 of the 22 sets against Roger and Rafa.

State on mind: Merely reaching the semifinals of a major is no longer going to feel satisfactory to Djokovic. After losing in Paris, he's going to be highly motivated to go further -- and prove he can win a Grand Slam event other than the Australian Open. Djokovic retired from his 2007 semifinal match with Nadal, a failure he could erase with a victory over the Spaniard in the final.

Roger Federer

Track record on grass: Federer, a six-time champion at the All England Club, is looking to tie Pete Sampras' modern record of seven titles. The Swiss announced himself here, beating Sampras in the 2001 fourth round -- on Centre Court, 7-5 in the fifth set -- ending the American's 31-match winning streak. Federer is 55-6 at Wimbledon and 96-14 overall, with 11 titles.

Recent form: Better than expected. Federer was brilliant at times in defeating Djokovic. He might have been a few millimeters from beating Nadal in the final when a critical drop shot fell just wide in the first set. Federer is 34-8 for the season, having lost to only four players -- Nadal and Djokovic three times each and Richard Gasquet and Jurgen Melzer. Not bad for a guy who turns 30 in August.

State on mind: Judging from his postmatch comments in Paris, pretty damn good. This is how he reacted to losing a 5-2 lead to Nadal in the first set: "I definitely thought that I got maybe a touch unlucky there and he got a touch lucky." And then there was this: "That's obviously the huge priority right now, to win Wimbledon in a few weeks' time. That's always, for me, the No. 1 goal in the season."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.