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Is There Still A Big Four in Tennis?

Did last year's US Open final mean the end for the much heralded 'Big Four'?

5Dec

This year’s US Open was the first time in nine years that a Grand Slam final didn’t include a member of ‘The Big Four’, a term that’s commonly used to describe the collective dominance of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray over the past decade. It was a chain of events met with bewilderment by those in betting circles, with a senior representative at William Hill stating; ‘A final between these two was incomprehensible and nobody backed these two to go all the way and meet’.

To put this into perspective, there have been 39 Grand Slam tournaments contested since the 2005 Australian Open final – the last time a Grand Slam wasn’t graced with the presence of a Big Four member – in that time, 36 of them have been won by either Murray, Federer, Nadal or Djokovic – an incredible statistic considering the wealth of talent present on the ATP tour.

Despite these dominant statistics, there has been an air of optimism surrounding the chasing pack since the start of this year. Giles Simon, a former Top 10 player, said; ‘It was tough to win one [a tournament] because in the last four years the big four just won them every time and it was like no one had a real opportunity to make a difference there. I think this time will be over soon’. Simon’s words came to fruition perhaps earlier than he had anticipated when Stanislas Wawrinka beat Rafael Nadal to take the Australian Open crown – the first man to win a Grand Slam since Juan Martin Del Potro won the 2009 US Open.

The difference between Del Potro’s victory and Wawrinka’s was that Del Potro’s did very little to dent the confidence of the ‘Big Four’. Wawrinka’s however, seemingly has, and can perhaps be seen as the catalyst for this new found confidence that we are now seeing from players not considered
to be part of the world elite.

But was 2014 just an off year for the Big Four? Nadal’s season has been plagued with an on going back injury, which saw him almost pull out of the Australian Open final when he lost to Wawrinka. Whilst Andy Murray’s poor season can perhaps be put down to back surgery and complacency after he had won Wimbledon.

In reality, the apparent break up of the Big Four has had very little to do with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – they both have had win percentages in excess over 83% over the past couple of years, with Nadal winning three majors and Djokovic two. But it’s Andy Murray and Roger Federer whose form threatens to destroy the Big Four’s dominance.

In 2013, Roger Federer had a win percentage of 72.58% - the first time since 2007 he had dropped below 80%. He also only won 1 calendar title, precipitating a drop to 7th in the world ranking, his lowest in 11 years. To compound this even further, his Grand Slam record was also really poor by his high standards, with a second round exit at Wimbledon being the nadir.

Murray’s year in 2014 was even more catastrophic. He won a mere 70.83% of his matches, down from 85.42% the year before, the best in his career. Although dodging an early exit in the Grand Slams, Murray only managed to make it past the Quarterfinal’s at the French Open, a tournament completely dominated by Nadal.

With Federer lacking in 2013 and Murray in 2014, it has meant that there has been an opening at the semifinal stage of many of the Grand Slams occurring over the past two years. Since Wimbledon 2012, there have only been two occasions where at least three out of the four members of the Big Four have been present at the semifinal stage whereas prior to the US Open in 2012, ten consecutive Grand Slams had been contested by at least three of them, with the outsider being gobbled up on each and every occasion.

When David Ferrer beat Jo-Wilfred Tsonga to get to the French Open final in 2013 it was the first time that someone outside the Big Four had contested a final since Tomas Berdych’s appearance at Wimbledon in 2010. At the time, there were no echoes signifying that the Big Four was coming to an end, why would there have been? Andy Murray didn’t enter the competition and Federer was having his 2013 dip. Ferrer, in effect, had a clear route to the final. Not only that, he was beaten so emphatically by Nadal in the final that it was hard to see Ferrer actually ever having a Grand Slam title to his name.

But looking back at the data, Ferrer’s appearance in the final could well have been a catalyst for players such as Tsonga, Dimitrov and Cilic to go further into the Grand Slams. It could have suckered some of the confidence from Murray and Federer, which would have once seen them make it to the Semifinals without expending much energy.

So do we actually have a Big Two now? The data would certainly point to that. Nadal and Djokovic’s imperious form, especially in the Grand Slams, continues to put them head and shoulders above the rest of the field, including Murray and Federer. Combined, they’ve won nine of the last twelve Grand Slams and both have a win rate of over 85% on average over the past few years. In truth, 2012 was probably the last year where there was truly a Big Four with all the big guns competing for and winning top competitions. Since then, there’s been a Big Three with Murray and Federer dropping out of that group in the years in which their form has dipped.

I honestly think that it’s insulting on the part of players like Dimitrov, Cilic, and Nishikori to persist with the notion of the Big Four, as the defenses of both Murray and Federer are far from impenetrable these days. Some will point to the fact that Nishikori beat Djokovic en route to the US Open final, but I think it’s shortsighted to denounce him just because of that.

Unless something were to change drastically, I think we are in for a couple of seasons of Nadal/Djokovic domination, with the Big Four downsizing to a Big Two.

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