Tennis' "Big Four"
In terms of popularity, the men’s singles game is the pinnacle of professional tennis, and it has produced some of the greatest tennis players of all time. In recent years, however, it has been through an uncharacteristic period of dominance by a small number of players. These players have come to be known as the “Big Four”, and have completely dominated men’s tennis from the early 2000s to the time of writing this hub in 2016.
Those players are Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray.
What are the "Big Four"?
The run of Big Four dominance could be thought to have started in 2003, when Federer claimed his first Wimbledon title, but it would be 2004 when he went on to win all but one of the four Grand Slam tournaments that the dominance really began. It was 2005 before we started to see the next of the Big Four, Rafael Nadal, on the big stage, claiming his first grand slam at the French Open.
Technically, the Big Four were really the Big Two at this stage, and would remain so until 2008 when Novak Djokovic took his maiden Slam at the Australian Open. It would be another four years before Andy Murray joined the others with a Grand Slam victory at Wimbledon, but he was very much part of the group in terms of tournament victories, and would often go for long stretches where the only players to defeat him were other members of the Big Four.
Such was the Big Four’s dominance that they occupied the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th ranking places every year between 2008 and 2013, and between 2006 and 2013, only one grand slam event was not won by one of them. Big Four players have also claimed Olympic gold in the men’s singles tennis event at the last three Olympics (2008, 2012, 2016), and won 95 out of a possible 117 ATP Masters 1000 events.
Who are the Big Four?
Federer was the first of the Big Four to emerge as a top player in the game, winning his first grand slam in 2003 and reaching the number one ranking spot the following year. Federer holds a number of records in the men’s singles game, such as most weeks as the number one ranked player (302), as well as winning more Grand Slam tournaments than any other player (17).
Federer is often named in “greatest of all time” discussions, and is a firm favourite at Wimbledon, where he has reached the final ten times and won it a record equalling seven times. Federer is also one of a small number of players in the Open Era to achieve the “Career Slam” by winning all four Grand Slam events. He also holds a record six World Tour Finals titles, as well as being the only man to win five consecutive US Open titles.
Nadal was hot on the heels of Federer, and between the 2005 Wimbledon Championship and the 2008 US Open, he was only player besides Federer to win any Grand Slam tournaments. Nadal has won fourteen Grand Slam titles in all—the second highest amount of any player along with Pete Sampras—and has also won a Career Slam.
Nadal is also mentioned regularly in conversations over the greatest players of all time, though his title of “King of Clay” is a less contentious one, with the majority opinion agreeing that he is the best clay court player of all time. This opinion is reinforced by the fact that nine of his fourteen Grand Slam titles, nine have come on the clay of Rolland Garros. Nadal’s other accolades include a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics and record run of eight consecutive titles at the Monte Carlo Masters tournament, also on clay.
It was 2008 before Djokovic really threw his hat into the arena as a fully fledged member of the Big Four with an Australian Open title, and 2011 before he would consolidate hist status and begin staking his own claim to greatness with a dominant year that saw him take three Grand Slams, five Masters, and reach the number one ranking spot for the first time.
Like Federer and Nadal, Djokovic is considered a contender in the greatest of all time conversation. Though he came into the fray later, he has been utterly dominant in recent years, not just over the rest of the tour, but over the other members of the Big Four. His current haul of twelve Grand Slam titles puts him fourth on the list of most Grand Slam victories, with Pete Sampras being the only non-Big Four player ahead of him on that list. Among Djokovic’s many achievements he has achieved a Career Slam and he is the only player to have won eight of the nine Masters 1000 events.
It is only in recent years that Murray has been considered an official member of the Big Four, with many considering it more of a “Big Three plus One”. There was no doubt that these four players were dominant over the rest of the tour, but there was a large disparity between Murray and the other three. Indeed, it would often be Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic that would end Murray’s tournament runs, and for a while he was thought of as the best player never to win a Grand Slam.
That ended in 2012 when Murray followed up a historic Olympic gold medal in London with his maiden Grand Slam title at the US Open. He would then go on to win Wimbledon the following year, and has since added another Olympic gold and a second Wimbledon crown to his trophy cabinet. Though Murray is the least decorated of the Big Four, he has had many historic victories, such as being the first British man since 1936 to win a Grand Slam, the first ever player to win two gold medals in Olympic singles, and was instrumental in Great Britain winning the Davis Cup for the first time since 1936. Unlike the other members of the Big Four, Murray does not have a Career Slam, but he is one of a small number of players to reach the final of every slam, and has appeared in eleven Grand Slam finals. With the exception of the 2016 Wimbledon final, all of Murray's Grand Slam finals have been against Big Four players.
Other Players of Note
Though the Big Four’s dominance is indisputable, there are other players are worthy of mention, if for no other reason than being able to accomplish great things despite playing during the Big Four’s reign.
Juan Martín Del Potro
Del Potro achieved the seemingly impossible at the time; winning a Grand Slam event during the height of the Big Four’s dominance. In fact he was the only player outside of the Big Four to win a Grand Slam between the 2005 French Open and 2013 US Open when he took the 2009 US Open crown. He also holds an Olympic bronze (2012) and silver (2016) medal.
Del Potro is largely seen as an unfortunate loss in terms of potential (though through no fault of his own). His US Open victory signalled a readiness to step up to the very top and threaten the Big Four’s stranglehold on the tennis world, however multiple wrist injuries have kept him out of the game for long periods, and he has thus far been unable to capitalise on his ability.
An argument could be made that, in 2016, there is in fact a “Big Three”, consisting of Djokovic, Murray, and Wawrinka. Wawrinka has claimed no less than three Grand Slam victories—equalling Murray's slam haul—and is the only player outside of the Big Four to win multiple slams during their reign.
Though undoubtedly talented, Wawrinka toiled away in relative obscurity under the shadow of the Big Four until 2014 when he defeated Rafael Nadal for the Australian Open title. He has since gone on to claim the 2015 French Open and 2016 US Open, consolidating a late flourish in his career, though his success outside of Grand Slams has been limited.
Though Marin Cilic has never really threatened the Big Four’s hold on the game overall, he is the only active player not already mentioned in this hub to have won a Grand Slam. His victory in the 2014 US Open is also notable for being the only Grand Slam final since the 2005 Australian Open to not feature a member of the Big Four, and was thought to herald the beginning of a new era.
That era has not yet come, however, with Djokovic, Murray, and Wawrinka taking every slam since, and Nadal still winning Masters events despite his injury woes.
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So is it the End?
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As the 2016 tour winds to a close, it’s clear that not only are Djokovic and Murray a cut above the rest of the tour, but that Murray is finally closing the gulf between Djokovic and himself. Wawrinka has established himself as a consistent performer at Grand Slam events, but his performance throughout the year still leaves him a significant way behind Murray in the rankings.
Federer and Nadal, hampered by injury, have dropped away from the top. And with Federer’s advanced age (for a tennis player, that is), and Nadal’s frequent injuries, one could be forgiven for thinking their time at the very top of the game may be over. It could well be the “Big Four” is finally over, but there is most certainly still a large gulf between the top two or three players and the rest of the tour.
© 2016 John Bullock