Mission Possible? Slowing Down Djokovic, Federer & Nadal At Wimbledon
In the time it took Roger Federer to lead by a set in his fourth-round match at Wimbledon, you could have started cooking dinner, but you wouldn't have gotten much more accomplished. The eight-time champion sprinted through the opening set against Italian Matteo Berrettini in only 17 minutes and never slowed down, surrendering only five games – 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 – to advance in 74 minutes.
Before he knew it, Berrettini, who was making his Centre Court debut, was already down a set and wracking his brain for miracles. “The points were going really fast,” he said.
It can be a familiar feeling for anyone playing Federer and his fellow Big Three members, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, on the most prestigious courts in tennis. The all-time greats, who have won 40 per cent (53/132) of all Grand Slams in the Open Era, feel comfortable playing on the Centre Courts of the world, where they've won dozens of matches. Their opponents, however, arrive with far less experience on the big stages, and by the time they've adjusted to their new environments and overcome the aura of the man across the net, they can be down a set and a break and reeling.
“The experience we have helps confidence, everything that we have achieved in our careers obviously we carry onto the court, then most of the players feel that, feel pressure,” said Djokovic, who also didn't drop a set in beating Frenchman Ugo Humbert in the Round of 16. “For us, it's another match on the centre stage that we've experienced so many times. I think that's one of the reasons why we feel comfortable being there and manage to play our best consistently.”
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The Big Three all dominated en route to the quarter-finals, and they're rarely more ruthless than during the last eight at Grand Slams. Together, they've won 81 per cent (110-26) of their Slam quarter-finals, including 26 of their 32 at Wimbledon.
David Goffin, Kei Nishikori and Sam Querrey – quarter-final opponents of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, respectively – can pull off the upsets, however, so long as they can focus on their games and not where they're playing, said Brad Gilbert, former coach of World No. 1s Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray.
Most Grand Slam Semi-finals All-Time
“You can't worry about the visual, 'Oh, wow! I'm playing on Centre Court at Wimbledon or Court 1.' You have to play the opponent and use your strategy,” Gilbert, who's commentating at Wimbledon for ESPN, told ATPTour.com.
“It was not easy at the beginning of the match because I wasn't used to the centre court,” Goffin said. “But you have to find some solutions.”
Big Three In Wimbledon Quarter-finals
When Gilbert was coaching, he'd always make it a point to bring his player to the court before the match so they could walk around and get used to the new environment before the match.
He'd remind his charge that every court is the same size. “Some have bigger running areas, but the actual dimensions of the court, 72x28, that's what you can worry about,” he said.
Too often, Gilbert said, players start the match in awe of everything and quickly fall behind a break, which further relaxes their opponents.
“Tell yourself you're playing on Court 11,” Gilbert said. “You have to go out there and play your game, albeit when you play the Top 3, it's not easy anytime.”
Goffin eventually calmed his nerves and felt comfortable playing in the biggest stadium at Roland Garros. The Belgian won the third set, but Nadal, who dropped only two sets all tournament, recovered in the fourth set.
Matches can be like that against the Big Three. Goffin, Nishikori and Querrey, all of whom have played in Slam quarter-finals, could feel comfortable from the very start of their matches. They could hone in on their games and block out where they're playing. Yet the three could still find themselves down a set and a break in 30 minutes' time.
Because, as Gilbert said, “The Big Three are the Big Three for a reason: They dominate.”
Did You Know?
This is the 24th time the Big Three have reached the quarter-finals or better in a Grand Slam tournament, including the second year in a row and fifth time overall at Wimbledon. Twenty of the previous 23 times one of the Big Three has lifted the champion’s trophy, with the only exceptions being Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open and 2015 Roland Garros and Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 US Open.