Tennis’ Big Four is No More

4 May

The so-called “Big Four” of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray has dominated men’s tennis over the last decade, but their grip on the game now looks increasingly perilous. Before we can turn the page and assess the players who could fill the void wrought by the decentralization of men’s tennis, it becomes necessary to show that the Big Four era has truly drawn to a close. That’s what this piece seeks to do.

Before diving into this analysis, a word of caution is in order. The Big Four remain very much center points of men’s tennis. Nadal and Djokovic are ranked one and 2, respectively, and a resurgent Federer has ridden hot play throughout 2014 to the number four position. Murray has had a dreadful start to his 2014 campaign, but the Scot will likely gain momentum as the tour shifts to his preferred surfaces on grass and hard court in the second half of the year.

Still, signs of the Big Four’s loosening grip on tennis preeminence are clear to see.

First and foremost was Swiss star and world number three Stanislas Wawrinka’s remarkable run to the Australian Open title in January, during which he battled demons to dismiss Djokovic in an epic five-set encounter in the quarter-finals, and then followed-up this performance by playing brilliant tennis and overcoming nerves to down an injured Rafa in the championship match.

Despite a run to the final in Miami, Nadal has continued to look vulnerable this spring, losing in back-to-back weeks on clay for the first time in years in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. The Spaniard has 4,000 points to defend over the next few weeks as the European clay-court swing reaches crescendo, but it’s pride and belief in his ability to remain number one that will dominate Rafa’s focus in the coming months. This defensive posture will prove unfamiliar, and potentially unsettling, for a player so used to pummeling all challengers on the dirt.

Djokovic, for his part, looked poised to regain the top spot before a wrist injury hindered his ascent. After losing to Stani in Melbourne, Djokovic willed his way to victory on the North American hard courts in Indian Wells and Miami. Seeking a fifth consecutive Masters Series title, dating back to Shanghai last fall, Djokovic suffered a wrist injury on the clay in Monte Carlo and bowed-out to Fed in the semi-finals. Djoker will need to pull himself together quickly to complete the career grand slam by winning his first French Open title next month. And with he and his fiancee expecting their first child at the end of 2014, one wonders whether tennis will have the Serb’s full focus as the year enters the final stretch.

Federer has looked better than almost anyone else during this year. The dip in his play in 2013 was nowhere near as significant as most pundits suggested. But he did have something to prove after bowing-out in the second and fourth rounds of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, respectively, and seeing his ranking dip to eight, its lowest level in more than a decade. So far, in 2014, the Swiss has more than answered the call, surging to the semis in Melbourne, beating Djoker and Tomas Berdych en route to the title in Dubai, dropping a third-set tie-break to the Serb in the final in Indian Wells, and then narrowly falling to countryman Wawrinka in the Monte Carlo Masters Series championship, a match in which he was three points from victory.

Despite this resurgence, it remains – though it pains me to say this – a near-certainty that Fed will prove unable to regain his former dominance over the men’s game. The competition is too strong, Federer has lost a couple of steps, and his objectives have changed, from outright and unsparing domination to efficiency and putting himself in the best position to win one more major. That’s certainly possible, and, given the question marks surrounding Rafa and Djokovic, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Swiss even regained the top ranking for a brief period. But again, the dominance of yesterday will not return.

Andy Murray probably never should have been included in the Big Four grouping in the first place. Despite boundless talent, his career to date has been characterized by consistently disappointing play in the latter stages of majors – with the obvious exceptions of Wimbledon in 2013 and the U.S. Open in 2012 – and unremarkable results in Masters Series events. Murray is one of those rare players who can both beat, and lose, to anyone on any given day.

What separates him from the Big Four’s other three is that Murray seems to lack the maniacal will to win and hatred of losing that drives Fed, Rafa, and Djoker to come up with the goods time after time against guys like Ferrer, Berdych, and Del Potro, even when they’re not at the top of their game. Some even question Murray’s devotion to tennis, noting what often appears a visceral disinterest whilst on-court. Whether true or not, the terms of the Murray equation – at best, equal talent to the game’s other elite players + lower will to win – do not sum to tennis dominance.

Plus, last year, in becoming the first British man in 77 years to win Wimbledon, Murray achieved the biggest thing that his country and, arguably, the broader tennis universe ever demanded of him. One couldn’t blame him for now kicking it into cruise control and riding out the remainder of his career as a consistently top-seven player who banks an eight-digit annual salary off of prize money and endorsements, before sailing into decades of retirement with his beautiful soon-to-be-wife. The motivation to make an assault on tennis – as opposed to British tennis – immortality simply doesn’t appear to exist for Murray.

Now, you could argue that the Big Four’s dominance has never been about one of its members dominating the game. Indeed, one could contend what makes this group elite is that when one or more of its members slip up, the other players kick in to high gear, to sustain the collective’s tennis stranglehold. But, Big Four defenders have never laid out compelling criterion for what constitute the entry and exit requirements of this divine commune.

For most of its existence, especially in recent months, the group has been more of a “feel” than an objective category of players. But, with one of its players in danger of dropping out of the top ten and there existing a good chance that Big Four members will only win half of this year’s majors, the game is truly up. Men’s tennis has changed, has decentralized, and students of the game need to stop clinging to an analytical framework that has all but lost meaning.

If the Big Four is no more, and none of its players capable of independently monopolizing tennis glory, then who will step in to fill the void? Stay tuned. We’ll explore that question in a future piece.

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