London: For almost a decade it seemed Roger Federer was guest of honour on finals day at nearly every Grand Slam event, but over the past 12 months Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal have conspired to strike him off the guest list.
Between winning his first major at Wimbledon in 2003 and a record 16th Slam at the Australian Open in 2010, Federer failed to reach the showpiece match in one of the big four tournaments just five times and contested an astonishing 22 finals.
So regular were his appearances in the finals that, when he was absent, it felt a little like attending a Madonna concert where the Queen of Pop had failed to show up.
Unfortunately for Federer, considered the most gifted player to have swung a tennis racket, his run of success has dried up and he is not happy being just one of the crowd.
Wimbledon, US Open and Australian Open champion Djokovic and Nadal have split the last nine major trophies between them and they have also contested the last four Slam finals.
Federer feels it is time someone gatecrashed their party and winning a record-equalling seventh Wimbledon crown would be a good start.
“It’s my time of the year now,” said Federer who was kitted out in a collared, long-sleeved cream jumper complete with purple trim and a green ‘RF’ logo embossed on the upper right arm.
“I fancy my chances here and at the US Open. It’s exciting times ahead,” he told reporters at Wimbledon on Saturday.
“A seventh would be amazing. That would be tying Pete (Sampras) which I think would be absolutely fantastic. I am dreaming of the title. There’s no denying that,” he added.
The rivalry between the top three has electrified not just the tennis community but the whole sporting world.
It seems each time one of the trio reaches a final, a host of records are on the line.
Over the next 42 days, not only will they will be chasing a Wimbledon crown but the number one ranking is also up for grabs, as is the Olympic gold medal when the All England Club hosts the tennis event during the London Games.
Djokovic is a bona fide member of the top-three club now but he admitted that had it not been for the Federer-Nadal rivalry, he might not have been the player he is today.
“Their rivalry is one of the most respected rivalries in the history of our sport, if not the biggest rivalry,” Djokovic, who will begin the defence of his crown against Juan Carlos Ferrero on Monday, said.
“They’re two great champions, two tennis players that made the history of this sport. Every time you a see a Federer/Nadal match, everybody is excited. Even I’m excited to see it.
“Playing against both of them made me a better player. They also made me work harder.”
It is no wonder that Nadal, who has already bagged 11 majors, relishes the challenge of playing in this era.
“I feel very lucky to be part of these two rivalries. It’s something that brings special motivation to my game, the motivation to keep improving my tennis,” said Nadal who won a record seventh French Open title two weeks ago.
“If you are not able to improve your level you are dead in this very competitive world of tennis.”
Shifting focus to the women’s half, Maria Sharapova heads to the less alien setting of Wimbledon’s grass a clear favourite having completed the career Grand Slam and regained her place at the pinnacle of the rankings.
Having washed the red dust of French Open out of her long blonde hair, she waves goodbye to her least favourite surface — on which she once described herself as a “cow on ice” — and says hello to Centre Court where she feels much more at home.
The Russian arrives as the No.1 seed and world No.1 having managed to keep her long limbs in check to win her first French Open title.
In doing so, Sharapova proved that she is head and shoulders above the current crop of women players.
Those who would be expected to challenge her at Wimbledon, such as four-times champion Serena Williams and last year’s winner Petra Kvitova, have all looked distinctly second best in the run-up to this year’s event.
Williams suffered a humiliating first-round exit in Paris at the hands of Virginie Razzano, while Kvitova was convincingly swatted aside by Sharapova in a one-sided semi-final, before being beaten in the first round at the Eastbourne International.
“I can’t wait to step on it (the grass) and start working and getting ready for Wimbledon,” Sharapova told reporters after hoisting the Suzanne Lenglen Cup.
“Everyone wants to beat a Grand Slam champion and beat the No.1 so when I step out on court I am going to start working towards improving.”