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Tennis's golden trio tighten grip on men's game
IT HAS been more than 15 years since Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic began their collection of Grand Slam tennis championships and the bad news for anyone eyeing the sport's big prizes is that their stranglehold on those top trophies is as tight as ever.
Nadal, a few days after turning 33, proved unstoppable at this year's French Open for a 12th time on Sunday as he crushed Austrian Dominic Thiem with the same frightening intensity that he displayed when beating Mariano Puerta to win his first title at Roland Garros back in 2005.
Federer, who will be 38 in August, played some dazzling tennis to reach the semi-final before Nadal and a Parisian gale ended the Swiss maestro's hopes of a record-extending 21st Grand Slam title.
The 32-year-old Djokovic, meanwhile, remains stuck on 15 Slams - three behind Nadal - after falling agonisingly short of holding all four majors at the same time for the second time.
Between them, they now have 53 Grand Slam titles from the last 64 played, dating all the way back to Federer's first Wimbledon triumph in 2003 when he was just 21 years old.
What's more, the trio have shared the last 10 between them in their third era of total domination, having won 11 in a row between 2010 and 2012 and 18 in a row between 2005 and 2009.
Thiem, ranked fourth in the world but still without a Grand Slam title to his name, is now 25. By that age, the three players above him were already multiple Grand Slam champions.
Thiem said that he will strive to get better and better, but knows they will too. Their relentless desire to stay ahead of the chasing pack is why only seven other men have won a Grand Slam title in the last 16 years.
With the exception of Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka (who have won three apiece), four of them have been one-Slam wonders.
Marat Safin won his second major at the Australian Open in 2005 but that was before either Nadal or Djokovic had begun their count.
After watching Nadal for the past two weeks, seven-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander believes the Spaniard is still improving his game.
"The way he hit his backhand against Thiem tells me he's still working at his game, developing another way of playing," said the Swede.
While chiefly motivated by his rivalries with Nadal and Djokovic, Federer says his enthusiasm to keep evolving as a player comes from watching the likes of Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev and the new challenges they bring.
"It never gets boring, because every day plays different, every opponent plays different, every guy gives you different struggles," Federer said last week.
The way things look right now it might be Old Father Time that finally brings down the curtain on the current era, rather than the young pretenders stuck in the shadow of arguably the greatest three players ever to swing a racket.
"Being in this era, it seems like it's going to be hard for anyone to kind of do something similar to what the three of us did," Djokovic said last week. "I don't know what the future will bring, but I'm sure it will be bright." REUTERS