For the last decade plus, there has been a “Big Four” in men’s tennis. These four, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal, have dominated the scene. Between 2005 and 2014, all but one of the Grand Slams were won by a member of the Big Four. In that time span, no one held a candle to these players. At the beginning of 2014, this trend started to change. That year, a mere two of four Slams were won by non-Big Four members. Stan Wawrinka broke through with his first, and Marin Cilic also won his first, although Stan has won two more since, while Cilic has not reached a Slam final. 2014 looked more like a blip on the radar, but could it have signaled something deeper like the beginning of the end?
A return to “normalcy”
In 2015 and 2016, Djokovic and Murray won six of eight Slams and the last three World Tour Finals. Things looked like they had returned to normal despite two Wawrinka Slams sprinkled in. While Nadal and Federer were not the ones winning Slams at the time, the fact is that the ones winning everything were still members of the Big Four. Even then, the only competitor to break through was Stan Wawrinka, but he is younger than only Federer in that group. Even in their late 20’s and early 30’s, the Big Four remains a force to be reckoned with.
The point here is that: is the next generation of players really all that bad? Or is the current, older generation so good that they have yet to be supplanted ten years later? I believe that it is the second of those two conclusions. Yes, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov are no “Big Four” players, but with the current situation, a breakthrough looks unlikely for anyone.
2017 will be a different year for sure. Different in that someone else might make a run at a title? Maybe, but really it is different in that it will be the first year that all members of the Big Four will be over 30. As shown in the past, each player’s 30’s has been a much different decade. Once unstoppable masters have faded to nothingness, retired, or been oft-injured. Few can say otherwise. Andre Agassi for one, enjoyed his 30’s, Federer has for the most part enjoyed his 30’s despite the large drop in success. There is no doubt players can still be great, but the commitment, the training, injuries, and family obligations all catch up to them at some point. For every beginning there is an end.
Despite their waning success, the Big Four will dominate
At every phase of the Big Four, one player has peaked at a time. First was Federer, then Nadal, then Murray. Each has had a resurgence of some sort whether it be Nadal’s 2013, Federer’s 2017, Djokovic’still 2015, and Murray’s 2016. This proves that after a downturn, any one of these players can take over.
Now, about their age. Despite them all being 30 or older next year, I truly think the word “thirty” has changed. Twenty years ago turning thirty meant a player was old. These days? Not so much. With improved medicine, training procedures, and diets, 30 is not what it once was. I would say that 30 is the new 25. A look at the top 10 currently also supports this notion: the average age of the top ten in 2002 was 24.5 years, and in 2015 it was 28.6 years. That number will only increase while the Big Four still compose four members of the top ten.
This Australian Open Grigor Dimitrov got very, very close against Nadal. If someone were to break the trend, it would be him. On the other hand, he only faced one Big Four member. To win a tournament, often one will have to beat two of them. He still has not done that, and that has been the trend for the past twelve years.
At some point, the Big Four will become the Big Three as Federer is now 35. Despite winning the Australian Open, I truly believe it is his last Slam- a Swan song of sorts, though it does not preclude him from winning more. When he is gone, the remaining three will battle it out for more Slams and a chance to catch Federer (at least for two of them.)
When all four finally retire, tennis will never be the same. The sport will have new faces at the top, but four players this good all at the same time? Maybe we see another Federer, but not a Nadal, Djokovic and Murray to accompany him. It might be a long long time before we see something like that again.
If I was to be honest, it looks like the facade might have cracked, but the structure is very much still intact. I see members of the Big Four continuing to win the majority of Slams for four more years. Any less than that will be surprising. How long do you think they can keep it up?