By Matthew Laird
In an interview with the U.S. Tennis Association at the beginning of the 2012 Australian Open, Andy Roddick said that there was ‘a significant divide’ between the top four players and the rest of the field. While his injury and subsequent retirement against Lleyton Hewitt must have made that divide feel even wider, the American was only the most recent in a long line of players and commentators to observe that the big four – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray – are playing on a different level than their opponents. It’s been a common refrain over the course of the last year, and it should come as no surprise that we’ve been hearing it more and more frequently.
In 2011, nobody outside of the top four players made a Grand Slam final, and all of them made at least one. While Novak Djokovic’s meteoric rise was the dominant storyline last year, it was easy to ignore the fact that in two of the four majors last year, all four semifinal spots were occupied exclusively by the big four. It took a knee injury to Nadal in Australia and a stunning, unprecedented five-set comeback against Federer at Wimbledon to keep that from happening in all four of tennis’s most elite tournaments. With that in mind, I think a closer look at the big four’s performances in Grand Slam tournaments is warranted. Everyone would agree that they’ve been dominant, but just how dominant?
The first Grand Slam tournament in which all four participated was Wimbledon in 2005, just about six and a half years ago. Federer was 23, Nadal was 19, and Djokovic and Murray were both 18. Since then, there have been 26 Grand Slam tournaments played, not including the in-progress 2012 Australian Open. The most obvious and mind-boggling statistic to come out of that span is the fact that of those 26 tournaments, 25 of them have been won by one of the big four. The only exception was Juan Martin Del Potro’s victory over Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open. And since Murray is still winless in three tries at this level, that means that the last 26 Grand Slams have been split amongst four players.
For context, the previous 26 Grand Slams – which extended from the 1999 Australian Open through the 2005 French Open – were split amongst fourteen players. That’s more than three times as many winners over the same period. In the six and a half years before that, stretching between Wimbledon in 1992 and the U.S. Open in 1998, there were thirteen different winners, and it was during that time that the great Pete Sampras racked up ten of his trophies. It was always an impressive accomplishment, but it does seem like it was easier to win one of these major titles before these four champions made the prospect vastly more difficult.
It’s not just that the current big four is consistently winners these tournaments, either. Increasingly, they’re the only ones even making it to the late stages of these events. In the last 26 Grand Slams, 41 out of the 52 players who made it to the final were one of these four. Again, if you take the most successful four players from the previous six and a half years, they only represented 20 out of the 52 spots. Those four players were Andre Agassi with seven appearances in Grand Slam finals, Pete Sampras with five, and then any two out of Federer, Marat Safin, and Lleyton Hewitt, who each made four.
The numbers remain just as impressive even if you look at who’s making it to the semifinals of these tournaments. There were spots for 104 players in the semifinals, and 60 of those spots were taken up by either Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, or Murray. In 26 tries, Federer made at least the semifinals 23 times, Nadal made 16, Djokovic made 13, and Murray made 8. Nadal and Murray were forced to withdraw from two of those tournaments, as well. After those four players, only Roddick (5), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Nikolay Davydenko (3 each) made the semifinals more than twice in nearly seven years of trying. This is how brutal the highest level of the men’s game has become, when so few players outside of the top four even get the chance to try for a major title.
Here’s another perspective on how dominant these players have been on tennis’s biggest stages and on all four surfaces, as well. Since the big four appeared on the scene, their combined record at Grand Slam tournaments against everyone else is 438-40. That means that at the four majors, the current crop of top players have won their matches against everyone who is currently ranked five or lower more than 90% of the time. That is an unprecedented level of dominance, to put it mildly. Honestly, it’s difficult to come up with enough superlatives to describe how well the top four fare against everyone else.
With their impressive records against the other players quite clear, it’s interesting to look at how the members of the big four stack up against each other in Grand Slams. Against the other three members of this elite group, only one actually has a winning record at this level. Nadal is 17-6 against Federer, Djokovic, and Murray combined. Federer is almost even, with 9 wins and 10 losses. Djokovic is 7-10, but 5 of those wins came just last year, as the current world number one beat Federer in two semifinals, Nadal in two finals, and Murray in a final, as well. So keep that in mind when you consider Murray’s unimpressive 2-9 record, with both of those wins coming against Nadal. It’s entirely possible that Murray could manage to turn that around in much the same way.
Over the last half decade or so, it’s been one of these four players who has separated himself from the other three and gone on a tear, breaking all kinds of records in the process. Djokovic was following in Nadal and Federer’s footsteps when he put together one of the best years in tennis history in 2011. There are no guarantees about what’s going to happen in 2012. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to see Djokovic continue his rich run of form, winning multiple grand slams for the second year in a row. But I don’t think it would be a shock to see Federer or Nadal accomplish the same feat, either. I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility to expect Murray to fulfill his potential and put together a year like his compatriots in the top four have all done in the past.
The only thing that would surprise me is if somebody outside of this group manages to put together a serious challenge to their vice-like grip on the top tier of men’s tennis. It could happen, but I don’t see anyone who’s ready to dislodge one of the big four from their position.
Matthew Laird is a freelance writer and editor currently living in California.