The year 2019 was a delightful year for tennis fans. With the ‘Big 3’ of men’s tennis—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic—in imperious form and mostly fit for the entire duration of the Grand Slams, there were some intriguing duels on display between the three players, all staking their claim to be the greatest of all time. While Djokovic and Nadal eventually shared two Grand Slams apiece, Federer, even at 38, remained extremely competitive. Many parts of his game were ticking along fine, and it was largely his inability to come out on the right side in high-pressure situations that proved to be his undoing.

In spite of the emergence of a generation of younger players on the tour, the Big 3 continued their dominance in the highest echelons of tennis. They remained the most successful players in Grand Slams this year, reaching the last 16 in all four competitions and having the highest win percentage among all players.

The maximum number of matches a player can play at Grand Slams in a year is 28. Nadal played as many as 27 (including a walkover), Djokovic 24 and Federer 22. While Nadal and Djokovic tore away from the pack with a win percentage exceeding 90%, Federer remained third, a fraction above contenders Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic.

Further clues regarding their respective performances can be found in unpacking specific elements of their game. Federer, who has traditionally had a strong service game, continued his dominance in this aspect. Among the Big 3, he served the most number of aces in Grand Slams this year (215), miles ahead of Nadal (162) and Djokovic (142). He also served the fewest double faults among the three. Consequently, he had a very healthy aces/double faults ratio, which meant he won a healthy number of quick points on serve. Federer also matches his two rivals in terms of the percentage of service points won in Grand Slams this year.

In an interview in the run up to the US Open, Federer had said, presciently, “No return, no wins, I'll tell you that. It's that simple. It's maybe not as important as the serve. I think still bigger serving is a bit more important". Ironically, Federer fell behind his two rivals this year in terms of his return game.

While this has not traditionally been his strong suit, Federer only won an underwhelming 39.91% of his return points, almost 4 percentage points lower than Djokovic. Opponents have looked to exploit this weakness to his game, which is likely to become more prominent as he reaches the twilight of his career.

Federer’s last-gasp loss to Djokovic in the Wimbledon finals, failing to convert two consecutive championship points, encapsulates his performance this season. His inability to be successful at crucial junctures in matches cost him dearly. In high-pressure situations such as break points and tie-breaks, Federer has a lower win percentage than both his rivals in Grand Slams this year.

Federer converted 43.3% of his break points, trailing Djokovic by more than 6 percentage points. In Grand Slams in 2017, by contrast, where Federer enjoyed a resurgence and great success (winning two titles), he converted 44.4% of his break points, leading both Nadal (40.5%) and Djokovic (41.4%).

Federer also won a higher proportion of tie-breaks than both players in the 2017 Grand Slams, but trailed them this year. Federer has also lost both deciding sets he has played in Grand Slams this season. Had Federer been more decisive in these crucial moments, his results this season could have looked different.

With Federer playing through obvious pain in his quarter-final loss in the US Open, and his heartbreaking loss in the Wimbledon, there were fears this could be the last time that he graces the big stage. However, considering the fine margins of his losses in this year’s Grand Slams, it seems there is reason for Federer to believe he can solve the puzzle of winning seven matches in a row and add to his tally of 20 majors.

It’s a defence that has acquired greater preciousness in the past couple of years, with both Nadal (19 majors) and Djokovic (16 majors) not only closing in, but also threatening to leapfrog him, given their age advantage of 5-6 years over Federer. In 2020, the stage is set for yet another encore of the three titans of men’s tennis battling it out in Grand Slams.

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