Tennis’ big 3 poised to strike again

Djokovic, Nadal, Federer have won 28 of 29 Grand Slams

Novak Djokovic enters Wimbledon as the world’s No. 1 player and the tournament’s defending champion, an honor he earned by beating Rafael Nadal. Nadal and Djokovic have combined to win the last nine Grand Slam titles. Enlarge photo

Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press file photo

Novak Djokovic enters Wimbledon as the world’s No. 1 player and the tournament’s defending champion, an honor he earned by beating Rafael Nadal. Nadal and Djokovic have combined to win the last nine Grand Slam titles.

WIMBLEDON, England

As Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer step back on the grass at Wimbledon, each has reason to believe he’ll be hoisting the trophy in two weeks.

None of the other 125 men in the field honestly can say the same.

Indeed, it’s tough to imagine anyone outside that trio winning this year’s championship at the All England Club, where play begins Monday.

“They’ve, you know, been pretty selfish about Grand Slam titles for a little bit,” said 2003 U.S. Open champion and three-time Wimbledon runner-up Andy Roddick.

They sure have.

Either Nadal or Djokovic has won each of the last nine major tournaments, and they met in the last four finals, to boot.

“It’s up to somebody ... to break that mold,” said Federer, owner of a record 16 Grand Slam titles. “I hope I can do that.”

Add him to the equation, and those three men have combined to win 28 of the last 29 majors, a seven-year run of dominance that began with Nadal’s victory at the 2005 French Open. (The lone exception was the 2009 U.S. Open, where Federer lost in the final to Juan Martin del Potro.)

The top-seeded Djokovic is the defending champion at Wimbledon – and while it’s the only grass-court title on his resume, it’s a rather significant one.

“I mean, this is what I’m born for,” he said after beating Nadal in four sets in the 2011 final. “You know, I want to be a tennis champion. I want to win more Grand Slams. I will definitely not stop here.”

He moved to No. 1 in the ATP rankings the next day and has remained there while compiling a 27-match Grand Slam winning streak that included titles at the U.S. Open in September and Australian Open in January. It ended with a loss to Nadal in the rain-interrupted, two-day French Open final two weeks ago.

Nadal once was thought to be a clay-court expert but has shown that he can adapt to, and excel on, other surfaces, joining Federer among the seven men who completed a career Grand Slam. At Wimbledon, the Spaniard reached the final each of the last five times he entered the tournament, winning twice and finishing runner-up to Djokovic or Federer the other three.

And Federer? Well, all he’s done is win six championships plus make one final at the All England Club in a seven-year span from 2003-09.

“I would just like to get another Wimbledon crown. It would be amazing to get No. 7,” said Federer, who lost in the quarterfinals the last two years, to Tomas Berdych in 2010 and to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2011.

He’s gone about 2½ years without winning a Grand Slam title, his longest drought since he won his first nine years ago.

“The hunger is obviously big,” Federer said.

His mastery of faster surfaces such as the grass at Wimbledon and the hard courts at the U.S. Open makes it tough to rule him out, even if he’s approaching his 31st birthday on Aug. 8.

Asked to size up his prospects for adding to his Grand Slam total, Federer said, “I think the upcoming two,” referring to Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, “those will be my best chances to win.”

While players such as Berdych or Tsonga or Roddick or del Potro have shown they can compete with the best on their best days – and No. 4 Andy Murray, a three-time major finalist, gets plenty of home-crowd support because he represents Britain – the expectation is that Djokovic, Nadal or Federer will extend their hard-to-believe rule at Grand Slam tournaments.

“Murray is obviously the other guy. He would be the other guy that would have the next best chance,” said seven-time major champion John McEnroe, who’ll be calling matches for ESPN as it takes over from NBC as the main Wimbledon TV channel in the U.S.

Murray, for his part, dismisses questions about being burdened by all the attention he gets these two weeks – and all the hopes the locals have.

“Doesn’t add any extra pressure. I think in all sports, playing at home is viewed as being a huge advantage, whereas for some reason when it comes to Wimbledon, everyone thinks it’s a bad thing,” he said. “I haven’t really found it that way. When I’ve played here, I’ve enjoyed the challenge, I’ve enjoyed playing in front of a passionate crowd, and it’s helped me.”

He also refuses to dwell on what might be considered the bad fortune of playing tennis at the same time as the top three.

For some perspective, consider what’s been going on in golf: When Webb Simpson won the U.S. Open last weekend, he was the ninth consecutive first-time major champion in that sport; he also was the 15th man to win one of the last 15 majors. That sort of parity does exist in tennis, too, but only in the women’s game, where six players divided up the most recent six Grand Slam titles, capped by Maria Sharapova’s triumph at the French Open.

Why has tennis’ top trio won major after major?

“Because they are too good,” Tsonga said. “That’s it. They’re just too good.”

Rafael Nadal’s proficiency on non-clay surfaces in recent years has helped him catapault to the top of men’s tennis. The reigning French Open champion will look for Wimbledon title No. 3 this year. Enlarge photo

Alastair Grant/Associated Press file photo

Rafael Nadal’s proficiency on non-clay surfaces in recent years has helped him catapault to the top of men’s tennis. The reigning French Open champion will look for Wimbledon title No. 3 this year.