WIMBLEDON, England -- The first 72 hours of Wimbledon represented the last 72 hours of a piece of a dynasty. But the twin shocks of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer leaving a tournament before Dustin Brown did not end an era.
They've combined for 29 Grand Slams, 45 Masters 1000 titles and a million more memories. That neither escaped the first week was unprecedented, and the comments of both implied that they and the rest of the tennis world must brace for and adjust to the new reality that their total dominance has ended.
The shock was certainly real, but all the Nadal and Federer losses did was confirm another truth that has been true for two years, but needed the exclamation point that the past few days at Wimbledon provided: It is Novak Djokovic's time to continue the golden age.
He has been, for the past two years, the best and most consistent player in the world. He does not have double-digit Grand Slams and will not be considered in the all-time Nadal or Federer category until he does, but Djokovic has six majors, has won three straight Australian Opens and has appeared in 10 straight Grand Slam semifinals and 16 straight quarterfinals.
Djokovic, whether Federer and Nadal fans care to admit, has been the biggest obstacle on tour to overcome, and it is his enormous specter that has chilled the spines of fans in both camps and has dealt Federer and Nadal some of their bitterest defeats.
He's the name they search for when draws are announced, to determine whether he will have to be confronted in the semifinal or the final.
He famously ended Federer's dream at the US Open in 2010 and, again, in 2011.
In 2011-12, Djokovic beat Nadal seven straight times, all in finals, three times in Grand Slam finals. He is the only player Nadal dreads on clay, perhaps even fears, for his old patterns and successful conventions do not work so well against Djokovic's two-handed backhand and inside-out forehand. When he does beat Djokovic now, as he did in their epic semifinal at Roland Garros earlier this month, it is not because of superior ability, but through remarkable, hellish effort and the good fortunes produced from unrelenting fight.
Andy Murray made the final here last year and is the local favorite at Wimbledon, but as the transition away from the Federer and Nadal years continues, it is time for Djokovic, more than Murray, to be embraced as the worthy successor who will continue the golden age. That is why, after all, they have been called the Big Three. Once it was Federer who stood in the way of the field. Then it was Nadal. Djokovic is now the standard.
He already has a rival in Murray, who could make his fourth straight Slam final (disregarding the French Open, where he withdrew a week before the event with a bad back). Those results don't even include his victory over Federer in the gold-medal match at the London Olympics last year.
However, the argument for Murray as a worthy heir to Federer and Nadal suffers from three drawbacks: the first is that he has but one major, the same number as Juan Martin del Potro and one fewer than Lleyton Hewitt.
The second is that he may not be a top-10 player on clay. Murray has never won a title on the surface and has never even made a final at the Masters 1000 or Grand Slam level.
The third is that Murray hasn't captured the public's imagination.
He lacks the elegance and grace of Federer, the fierce Úlan of Nadal and the contrast of Djokovic. Being great and being a showstopper are not the same thing. If they were, Murray-Djokovic could well have replaced Federer-Nadal as the second phase of the golden age. But Murray, both in game and temperament, lacks the charisma of a leading man. His battles with Djokovic are terrifically dreary feats of incredible stamina, best evidenced by the 54-shot baseline rally in the US Open final last year. Murray, unfortunately, lacks the intangible of presence.
The best matchup in men's tennis right now is a Nadal-Djokovic final. Their French Open semifinal was the match of the year, epic on so many levels. The problem, of course, is that Nadal's health has not allowed him to consistently hold up his end of the combat. And so, it has been left to Djokovic to step into the breach.
It should, of course, be noted that Federer and Nadal are still dangerous major champions. They have simply reached a crossroads. Federer with age, Nadal with injury.
Nadal is a favorite only at Roland Garros. Federer is unlikely to be a favorite at any Slam. Yet, they are not to be dismissed. They may happen to be lions in winter -- but they are still lions.
In past defeats, however, neither player was willing to concede that their games had inexorably slipped, defeated by the combination of time and age. Neither admitted that younger, improving players were closing the canyon-sized gap that used to exist between them and their mortal opponents. When Nadal left the game in 2009 to recover from his knee injury, he said he would return and said the same last year, after Lukas Rosol beat him here in the second round.
When Federer lost to Nadal at the Australian, to Djokovic at the French and to Tomas Berdych at the US Open, he never conceded an inch to time.
This week, though, was different. After losing to Steve Darcis, Nadal expressed deep concern about his physical ability to bend and cut and move on grass. When Sergiy Stakhovsky stunned Federer in the second round, his postmatch disposition revealed a legend almost ready to admit his vulnerabilities.
"There was a time where some players didn't believe they could beat the top guys," Federer said. "So maybe there's a little bit of a thing happening at the moment. I'm happy about that, that players believe they can beat the best on the biggest courts in the biggest matches."
That sentence was the clearest sign yet that Federer is beginning to accept a changing of the guard.
That leaves Djokovic, whose superb balance, defense, will and fury make him a compelling, if not yet beloved, figure on center stage. He has an opportunity, beginning now, to make his championship charge. He can strive toward a greater major count, but should also strive for a place in the hearts and minds of tennis fans during a transitional time.
Despite controversies this year where he has lost his composure, Djokovic is the one who possesses the charisma to be tennis' next leading man and has worked admirably to comport himself as a lasting champion.
The golden era isn't over. Injuries and time are merely forcing it to groom a new face.