It's been a summer of farewells and long-awaited resolutions. After Marvel's Avengers wrapped up its Infinity storyline and The Big Bang Theory ended its 12-year journey, the biggest of them all " Game of Thrones " reached its frantically-followed conclusion last week. And notwithstanding the quality of GoT's eighth and final season, there didn't seem to be a soul on earth that wasn't curious about who would end up on the throne.
There's a throne up for grabs in men's tennis too. And just like all those movie series and TV shows, the race to the tennis throne is entering its last act " with every single fan hooked on to the slightest of developments and deviations from the script.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have been jostling for supremacy " and the title of Greatest Of All Time (or GOAT) " for more than a decade now. Forget for the moment that Rod Laver and Pancho Gonzalez could have won more Slams if they hadn't been barred from competing after turning pro, or that Bjorn Borg had a borderline superhuman winning percentage. In terms of match-to-match and career-long excellence that tick all the boxes of tennis as we know it, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are almost unequivocally the three greatest players ever.
With the careers of the three men now entering the home stretch, it's getting increasingly intriguing which of them will end up as the unanimous king. Their unique situation makes every new Grand Slam event they play that much more significant " you never know what result at a Major tilts the scales in favor of one particular player.
Will anything that happens at the upcoming French Open tilt the scales one way or another? Much to the breathless delight of both the fans and the neutrals, that is almost certainly going to be the case.
The best odds for lifting the Coupe des Mousquetaires still lie within this elite group, so it is likely that one of them will increase his Slam tally by the end of the tournament. Nadal of course is the favorite, followed by Djokovic. And while Federer doesn't look like a serious challenger for the trophy, we've learned by now never to rule him out.
An increase in the Slam tally will mean considerably different things for each of the three men, not least because of where they are playing.
Federer is at the top of the pecking order right now by virtue of his record 20 Slams. But since this is Paris and clay, he doesn't have as much at stake as the other two.
A loss at a tournament that the Swiss hasn't even played the last three years will do little to affect his legacy. A win for Federer would likely seal the GOAT debate for the time being, but it might not be wise to dwell too long on that hypothesis considering how unlikely it is for him to win seven best-of-five matches on clay at the age of 37.
The real contest, as it has been for much of the last year and a half, is between Nadal and Djokovic. Nadal trails Federer by three Majors, and Djokovic is a further two Slams behind. Taking into account the fact that at 32-years-old each, they are both much younger than the Swiss, it can be assumed that every Major they win from here on out is a loud voice of dissent against the claim of the incumbent ruler.
It goes without saying that Nadal has plenty at stake this French Open. Roland Garros is his tournament; it is the territory he has marked out for himself through years of dedicated service. A loss here would suggest that his grip over his last bastion is slipping, and that his assault on the record books may be losing intensity.
Unfortunately for the Spaniard, while he has a lot to lose in Paris this year, he doesn't have much to gain. He's done just about everything that's humanly possible here, and has already won 11 Roland Garros titles. Will winning a 12th really add much to his legacy?
Sure, it would take his overall Slam tally to 18, just two shy of Federer's mark. But considering the furious pace at which Djokovic is racking up the numbers everywhere outside Paris, Nadal's real bounties at this stage of his career lie at the other three Slams.
That brings us to the man who's responsible for making this such an epic three-horse race from the regulation duopoly that it used to be. Djokovic is the best player on the planet right now, and also a perpetual thorn in the flesh of both Federer and Nadal.
The Serb has won the last three Slams and has been a member of the exclusive Career Slam club since 2016. Those two things combined make this year's French Open arguably the most statistically significant tournament of his career, as he continues his march to meta-human levels.
A win at Roland Garros would make Djokovic just the third man in history and the first in the Open Era to achieve a double Career Slam, i.e. winning each of the four Majors at least twice. More importantly, it would give the Serb his second 'Nole Slam' or non-Calendar Grand Slam; he first held all the four Slams simultaneously in 2016.
A non-calendar Grand Slam is every bit as staggering a feat as a Calendar Grand Slam, irrespective of what the sticklers for technicalities say. And pertinently, it is a feat that neither Federer nor Nadal has accomplished.
But here's Djokovic, on the cusp of achieving it for the second time. Another Nole Slam, especially after that period of on-court struggle and personal turmoil in 2017 when it briefly looked like he would never win a Major again, would put Djokovic in truly rarefied air. It would establish a unique legacy for the Serb as the true and most dominant master of all surfaces.
In short, a Djokovic win in Paris would bring the GOAT race a lot closer to its resolution than it has been over the last decade and a half. But with Nadal seemingly back at his best, the task won't be easy " it never really is for the members of this elite club. Whatever they do, they always have to fight off a player who could legitimately be called the greatest of all time. That's what makes this battle so very special.
Of course, it is entirely possible that none of the Big 3 triumphs at this year's French Open, with someone like Dominic Thiem or Stefanos Tsitsipas playing spoilsport. But would any fan of epic sagas like that? An anticlimax isn't quite the most enjoyable conclusion, as millions of people who disappointedly watched Bran Stark ascend to the throne would readily attest.