Commentary

The three aces

Updated: June 29, 2012, 6:28 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Federer, Nadal, DjokovicClive Brunskill/Getty ImageRoger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal take winning tennis Grand Slam events seriously. Very seriously.

Most weeks, Andy Murray is The Unluckiest Human on the Planet. He was born a fabulous tennis player at the worst time in history to be one.

Each major, Murray tries to achieve the equivalent of beating a practice wall. He lives in the era of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who've won 28 of the last 29 majors. He is the fourth ball trying to fit into a can of three.

Suddenly, though, there is a sliver of light in Murray's spider hole at this Wimbledon. Nadal is out. He was shocked in the second round by the 100th-ranked player in the world, a beanpole Czech named Lukas Rosol. Murray's half of the bracket is now Rafa-free. Can Poor Andy finally win at the All England Club and let all England rejoice for the first time in 76 years?

Of course not.

Thirty years ago, I thought we'd seen the best tennis could give. Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe gave us such sustained excellence as to turn your heart to cat gut. In the 11-year span from 1974 to 1984, that trio won 26 of the 44 majors played. Preposterous.

But step back from the TV and look where we are now. Forget tennis. This may be the greatest Big Three in the history of any sport. Beginning with Federer's first major win at Wimbledon in 2003, Federer (16), Nadal (11) and Djokovic (five) have won 32 of the last 36 majors. And The Rule of Three shows no sign of abdicating, even with Federer coming up on his 31st birthday.

It's a trivalry like no other, three legends stuck in a revolving door. Federer is tennis' Zeus, of course, and has a winning record against Djokovic but not Nadal. Nadal has a winning record against the other two. Then again, over the last two years, Djokovic is 13-4 against the other two. If Murray snuck in and won this Wimbledon, would he even know where to stand?

Which brings us to the question: Who is the greatest of the three?

Glad you asked.

If you say it will eventually be the youngest, Djokovic, 25, you love the world's best return game, sick backhands and fun. The Djoker does impressions of everybody but the Queen. This is a guy who celebrated his win over Nadal at last year's Wimbledon by eating grass.

You're also a front-runner. The Serbian is a four-star "buy." He's won four of the past six majors. He's No. 1 in the world. Do you realize what a colossal achievement that is? To be ahead of Federer, arguably the greatest player ever? To be ahead of Nadal, a ball-gobbling cyborg who wins 88 percent of his Grand Slam matches?

The only problem is ... Djokovic has five majors and can win only three more before he turns 26. That would be eight. Federer had 11 majors before he turned 26. Nadal had 10. He's not going to pass either of them.

So that rules out Djokovic.

[+] EnlargeRick Reilly
Susan Mullane/US PresswireEven with one of the big three out, Andy Murray still must worry about the other two.
If you pick the strongest of the three, Nadal, 26, you are probably a woman, or proudly Spanish, or somebody who just loves to watch a genius in a headband not named LeBron.

He is not only the greatest clay player in history, he is the most intimidating to play against, a physical freak torn from the front of an Abercrombie & Fitch bag. His legs have been known to make entire hair salons swoon.

The only problem is ... even though Nadal may have the body of a Greek statue, he's coming apart like the Greek economy. His knees ache, his back hurts, his body betrays him at every turn. He cramped up at last year's U.S. Open for nine straight minutes -- in the interview room. The press watched him lay on the carpet, writhing in agony, while trainers kneaded him. It was the most ever said in a news conference without uttering a single word. That body will not hold up much longer.

So that rules out Nadal.

That leaves Federer, the choice of those who love brilliance, shotmaking and white blazers over tennis shorts at award ceremonies.

They love the kind of footwork nobody's seen this side of Chris Brown. They love a guy who will fill his jet with competitors, then dispatch them one-by-one at the tournament when they land.

The Fed is responsible. You can count on him. He's the greatest winner in tennis history. He's had more fun on grass than Keith Richards, winning Wimbledon six times, and it might not even be his best surface.

Federer is not done. He beat Nadal this season. He beat Djokovic in the French semis in 2011. McEnroe is picking him to win this Wimbledon, which would bounce him back to No. 1 in the world. You can stop writing the obit, please.

The other two will never catch Federer's 16 majors with good reason -- they have to crawl over each other to do it.

And yes, none of The Three Kings of Tennis are American. Neither is, most likely, the car you drive or the TV you watch. You can Skype with an uncle in Tokyo now as easily as one in Topeka. Everybody's local now. All three of these men are worth your devotion, U.S. passport or no U.S. passport.

You take greatness where you find it. It's here. Bathe in it.

Except you, Andy Murray. You just sue your parents.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com