The headlines on ESPN were momentous. In his first full year back from chronic left knee problems and on the strength of a stellar year of play and reaching the finals of the China Open, Rafael Nadal had reclaimed the No. 1 ranking in men’s tennis from the clutches of Novak Djokovic, who had held the ranking in his stead.
Quite naturally, Nadal’s opponent in the China Open final was (you guessed it) Djokovic, who clobbered a stunned Nadal 6-3, 6-4. You can’t make this kind of stuff up.
A quick consultation of the ATP rankings reveals a number of startling facts. Firstly, Roger Federer, holder of the most Grand Slam titles in history, is ranked a measly seventh behind individuals such as David Ferrer, Juan Martin Del Potro and Tomas Berdych. To a guy who grew up watching Federer play almost unbeatable tennis from 10 B.N. (before Nadal) to about 2 A.N. (after Nadal), this is a shocking turn of events.
The romantic in me weeps at Federer’s decline; however, the “aged” Federer is still almost a shoo-in to reach the semis at every tournament he plays in, which would be the best case for most tennis players. The fact that we think that this is somehow a disgrace speaks to the impossibly high standards Federer has set for himself more than his purported decline.
The other scary fact is this: Of the top 100, only five players hold Grand Slam titles at all: Nadal (No. 1), Djokovic (No. 2), Murray (No. 3), Del Potro (No. 5), and Federer (No. 7), with Del Potro only having a single U.S. Open title to his name. In fact, Del Potro is the only player other than the Big Four (Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, Federer) to have won a men’s grand slam singles title after 2005. That’s utterly terrifying. To put it another way, of the last 35 majors, 34 have gone to the Big Four (cut to the rest of the ATP top 100 sobbing quietly into their towels).
As a result of the sheer dominance by these four players, the number of truly outstanding tennis matches between them over the last few years cannot be counted with two or even four pairs of hands. Take your mind back through the depths of time and the amazing tennis moments contained therein; I will bet you dollars to donuts that the great tennis moments featured (with more than 90 percent confidence) one of the Big Four in some capacity. In fact, I’m even willing to bet that many of the greatest moments featured two members of the Big Four butting heads in a no-holds-barred cage match. (I will pause for a moment to let readers wipe the drool off their mouths.)
The simple law of tennis is this: When you pit two outstanding players against one another, fireworks may be produced. The Big Four corollary to this statement is the following: When you match members of the Big Four against each other, fireworks will be produced, without fail.
In general, when members of the Big Four play anyone outside of their elite clique, the results are bloody but predictable: They never seem to lose. Excepting Federer’s recent decline in form, any one of the Big Four losing to anyone outside the Big Four is cause for the universe (or Twitterverse, which is what we are slowly becoming these days) to explode.
However, when members of the Big Four play each other, chaos ensues. For a time, it seemed like Federer owned Nadal, to the point that Nadal would always come ever so close to beating his arch-nemesis before eventually faltering. Then Nadal proceeded to own Federer, turning the previous situation on its head. All of a sudden, Djokovic showed up to the scene and began his reign of terror, appearing to totally and utterly own both Nadal and Federer.
As if this chaos wasn’t enough, Murray emerged from under the weight of the expectations of his entire country to win both Olympic gold and the first Wimbledon title by a British citizen in 77 years, taking down Djokovic’s aura of impenetrability in the process. On any given day, it seems any of the four can and will beat another—a far cry from Federer slaughtering his opponents for a period of nearly 10 years. Parity is the watchword inside the Big Four enclave. Outside this zone, times are pretty tough.
Thus, as this calendar year draws to a close, although the rankings have shuffled a bit, the picture that tennis paints remains as clear as mud. To borrow a famous catchphrase, the haves and the have-nots have clearly drawn lines in the sand. Let the battle commence.
Vignesh Venkataraman once retrieved a towel used by Roger Federer during a match. Ten years later, he still sleeps with it under his pillow. Tell him why that’s more than a little weird at viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu.