I’ve never been a big fan of the ‘Big Four’ narrative in men’s tennis. From its earliest rumblings in late 2008, it was based on the premise that Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray had ascended to a level where they could play with the same consistency and quality that Federer and Nadal had embodied since 2005. Such a proclamation just seemed premature when you looked at the ’08 Wimbledon or ’09 AO finals, and saw Rafa and Roger take the game into the stratosphere.
Things started to change in 2010. Whether it was injury or difficulty adapting to an aging body, Federer wasn’t his usual self, and Murray and Djokovic both made slam finals. Still, it wasn’t until 2012 that for me, the Big Four was truly something to be believed. Murray broke through for his first major at Flushing Meadows, supplimenting Djokovic’s superb 3-major season the year before. Where before we merely hoped each man was capable of winning a slam (and going through the others to do it), now the certainty of their performances made it seemed impossible for anyone else to do likewise.
And yet here we are in April 2014, and it appears their reign is already over. For all their past accomplishments, the Big Four have failed to maintain even a modicum of their footing – Djokovic currently has no slams to his name, Murray is ranked 8th (despite a Wimbledon title), while Federer isn’t even the highest-ranked player from his own country. Their shortcomings have left Rafa Nadal essentially on an island by himself, but as we found in Melbourne and Miami, even he’s not without concerns.
For Nadal, Djokovic and Federer, the longest campaign of their season is about to get underway in Monaco, while Murray will join the fray in Madrid. So now’s as good a time as any take a look at what happened from January-through-March, and see if we can figure out where the Big Four are at, and where they’re headed.
First the obvious – Novak Djokovic is hot shit right now. An Indian Wells-Miami double that saw him beat every other member of the Big Four at some point over those three weeks is mighty impressive. He’s once again hitting his backhand and serve with confidence, which was missing in Australia, and he still only lost to eventual champion Stan Wawrinka in an epic five-setter. The transition from hard court to clay means he’ll have to make some adjustments to the way he’s hitting the ball, but that should do little to lessen his confidence when he rides into Monaco the reigning champion.
For Federer, I think it’s fair to say he’s looking about as good as a 32-year-old can get right now. The reality is that at his age, he had to choose whether to push through in Miami and pay for it later in the season, or take it down a gear after great successes in Dubai and Indian Wells and take whatever the Miami draw gave him. This is by no means a knock against Kei Nishikori, who played a dogged final two sets to beat him there, but the reality is he was never going all the way in that tournament, and the first person of significance to play to their capabilities would beat him. He’s back in the top four, his job now is maintaining that through Wimbledon.
It’s weird that Nadal wouldn’t be closer to the top here because he’s the one who had the most success in Australia (reaching the final) and just finished runner-up in Miami. Where the knocks come from is how bad he’s looked in those two finals. He was simply being pushed around the court, and regularly found himself playing meek, ultra-defensive tennis. Frankly he hasn’t played like a number one in quite some time. However, this is Rafael Nadal we’re talking about, so he can almost sleepwalk to the final in several clay court tournaments to get his reps up before Paris.
Then there’s Murray, whose start to the season has been downright turrible. Coming off a back injury that kept him out of the post-US Open swing last year, he’s been less of a heavy hitter and more of a punching bag, losing convincingly to Federer in Melbourne, Djokovic in Miami and professional facial hair-curator Fabio Fognini in Davis Cup play. As if that wasn’t enough, Ivan Lendl – one of the few coaches on the tour who actually makes a difference – has left him for greener pastures (i.e. the golf course). All round, things aren’t looking too great for Andy.
For Federer and Djokovic, things are as good as they could be. One is 32 and has obvious limitations on the amount of high-level tennis he can play, the other remains unimpeded, being at 26 in his physical prime. The real concerns are Murray and Nadal. Both have question marks hovering over them that may not just linger for the forseeable future, but the rest of their careers. Murray, with his back problems simply hasn’t been the same player since Wimbledon last year. And perhaps he knows this, which played a part in his split with Ivan Lendl in March – there would be nothing more robotic and uncompromising (and thus, Lendl-like) than him simply saying ‘you can’t win, I have no use for you’, if that is indeed the case.
Nadal’s case is just… Nadal. Since 2009 it seems he has firmly embarked himself upon a cycle of great success followed by abrupt physical decline. For as well as Stan Wawrinka played in Melbourne, this was certainly the case there. By the second set Rafa was essentially pushing his serves over the net, only to regroup a tad and take the third, but was helpless once Wawrinka overcame his nerves. Turning 28 before May is done, it may be fair to ask if the next injury to derail his career will also be his last.
For as solid as David Ferrer has been the past five-or-so years, I don’t think anyone ever really considered him a serious contender at the majors, and for those same five-or-so years, he was as close as we got – that was until Stan Wawrinka broke through in Australia. At 28, he’s probably not going to be threatening for too many more runs to the final, but it does serve as an indicator that maybe we could see a few other names etched on the winners’ trophy. So does anyone in particular come to mind?
The most likely candidate is Tomas Berdych, who has consistently been making the second week of slams for several years now. He had a fine run to the final in Dubai, losing in three sets to Federer, and he certainly has the tools to take it to anyone on court. However, he often lacks the fitness – mental and physical – required to grind out best-of-five sets matches against the top players. Still, he’s the most likely candidate.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is possibly the most mystifying thing to come out of France since the battle of Dien Bien-Phu. He’s the epitome of Frenchiness, and for that reason I can’t see him ever winning a major at his advanced age (turns 29 in two days, if you can believe it). I can see him getting to a final if the draw falls his way, but unless he’s facing the equally-French Gael Monfils across the net, he’s got no chance.
I’m just gonna lump all the “next generation” (very sarcastic airquotes) guys together here. Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori, etc all have a feasible chance of breaking through, although as I’ve said before, it would more likely be a one-off than an indicator of something greater, considering their ages. I hope that’s not the case, as it’s probable such a slew of first time winners is really just mediocrity disguised as parity (something that deserves an article of its own). If you’re looking for a young guy with the potential to make some serious noise, keep an eye out for Czech Jiri Vesely, who pushed Murray to three sets in California, and could announce himself in a big way against any of the big four.
First Federer, who at this point is really a novel outsider to win the French. Expect him to make at least one final as he’ll no doubt make a serious push, he’s obviously intent on making noise if he’s playing Monte Carlo for the first time in three years, but just enjoy whatever he gives us, Wimbledon is the ultimate goal here.
Murray only has two jobs here, neither of which is to win clay court titles. The first is to stay healthy, which will likely cut into his performances, and the second is to find a coach. Hopefully the latter is the reason he’s not in Monte Carlo, because he should be camped out on Andre Agassi’s doorstep until the all-timer says yes. Now that’s a partnership I’d like to see.
The reality is, for all the instability we’ve seen at the top, there’s still only two contenders for the French Open crown: Nadal and Djokovic. One has the resume, the other has the form. I’m a bit concerned Nadal won’t be able to stay healthy throughout – and if so, he may very well pay for it again at Wimbledon – but, I’m not expecting any drastic drop-off either. Still, if you asked me to pick right now, I’m leaning towards Djokovic taking the French when it’s all said and done. He should have won last year. He’s playing the best. And maybe Boris will have some tips about conquering Paris that actually relate to tennis and not picking up models.
The yearly sojourn from Monte Carlo to Paris in the Big Four era has traditionally been a time for them to assert their dominance. 2014’s edition begins with more questions than we’ve had in a very long time. Let’s just hope we find some answers.