I suspect we’re approaching the end of the “Big Four” era, when four players — Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal — dominated the ATP Tour for the better part of a decade. Look at this chart, and then the bottom of this chart, and wonder why anyone else bothered playing professional tennis in this period.
They’re still kicking around, happy to have a place on court as they cruise ever deeper into their thirties, and perfectly happy to wipe the court with preternaturally talented 25-year-olds whenever a big tournament rolls around. Their run at the top of the rankings has gone on so long you can find an equal number of breathless columns arguing that they saved tennis and ruined it forever. They didn’t, of course, they just defined it.
We’ve set some odds on the Big Four, partly as a way of appreciating their iron grip on the sport, but mostly as a way of not having to think about the Mets.
Andy Murray is having a tough stint as world no. 1, and it doesn’t appear it will get better any time soon. After struggling with form at the beginning of the season, Murray picked up a painful-looking hip injury that severely limited him at Wimbledon. We haven’t been told exactly what’s wrong with Murray’s hip, except that it’s been bothering him for the better part of a decade, and isn’t liable to get considerably worse. It’s just something that he’s been dealing with. Now he’s in rehab, the kind that demands funny wetsuits and pools.
Murray is going to incorporate the US Open into his rehab (which is also what my physiotherapist recommended) but don’t expect him to be at full force. For a player whose success has always hinged on defensive play and exceptional court coverage, a lower-body injury is very bad news. For a while now we’ve been wondering what’s wrong with the world no. 1, and a mobility-limiting hip injury makes a lot of sense.
Even before his injury became a bigger problem, it was a bit of a mystery why Murray had never been more successful at the Australian or the French Open. His game matches up well with the demands of hard courts, and someone with his mobility and defensive acumen should be more successful on clay. The real reason, in all likelihood, is that Murray’s career is happening at the same time as some very good hard-court and clay players. Once the slightly older Nadals and Djokovics of the world start to tire and falter, Murray should be ready to pick up right where they left off. How the timelines of their decline and his health align will dictate his career slam total.
In the longer term, Murray is the youngest of the “Big Four” and the one with the most unrealized potential. With only three slams, and no career grand slam (he’s still missing both the French and Australian), Murray has the most to prove. He’s apt to.l be the last of the Big Four to be competitive on tour, mostly because of his age, and also because the others could quite happily retire tomorrow and spend their days polishing their many trophies.
- Odds Murray wins 5 career slams: 4/1
- Odds Murray wins 10 career slams: 8/1
- Odds Murray completes the career grand slam: 3/1
When Rafael Nadal won his tenth French Open and completed what the Spanish press called “La Decima,” the whole affair lacked a certain amount of drama. In the same way that watching a bulldozer flatten a family bungalow sounds awesome but in the end lacks tension, Nadal’s once-annual tear through the Roland Garros draw doesn’t make for great television. At no point did anyone seem capable of taking even a set off him. At no point did he struggle, or falter, or in any way show vulnerability. You knew how this movie was going to end before it started, and every scene was a reminder of the inevitable finale.
Is Nadal going to win another French Open? Yes. Barring some bizarre catastrophe, if he finds himself even mostly healthy and within driving distance of Paris in the summer of 2018, he’ll be the favorite to win and add another title to his staggering resume.
As far as the other slams? The hard-court tournaments are still with Nadal’s reach — he came a heartbreaking fifth set from winning the Australian Open this year. He’s in good shape and will be a major threat at the US Open, and will likely be equally fit in time for next year’s Australian Open.
- Odds Nadal wins another French Open: 3/7
- Odds Nadal surpasses Roger Federer in number of slam titles: 13/7
- Odds Nadal finishes the 2017 season as world no. 1: 2/3
Roger Federer has reinvented his game more times than anyone can count, and keeps finding new ways to win in each new era of tennis. He changed rackets at 32 years old to adjust to the modern game. He changed his backhand and baseline strategy at 35 to accommodate a drop in stamina and his decades-long troubles playing Rafael Nadal.
The reinvention project worked out. Federer beat Nadal in the Australian Open final to win his first slam since 2012. After skipping the French Open to rest up for Wimbledon, he put together a dominating performance in London, cruising to his seventh title without dropping a set. Now he’s very nearly 36 and the favorite to win the US Open for an impressive sixth time. With Djokovic out and Murray winged, the draw really opens up for Federer and Nadal, with Federer having the visible advantage this year.
Changing everything bought Federer some time, but it’s obvious that the clock is ticking. If he’s to push much further into the uncharted territory of 20+ slam wins, he’ll need to put up those results quickly. He’s the favorite at Flushing Meadows, will probably be listed near the top to defend his Australian Open title in 2018, and from there: who knows? Maybe he’ll be a member of European Parliament, or something.
- Odds Federer wins 20 slams: 3/2
- Odds Federer wins 10 Wimbledon titles: 10/1
- Odds Federer finishes the 2017 season as world no. 1: 7/3
For a while there Novak Djokovic was the most dominant player tennis had seen since Bush-era Roger Federer. He held all the slam titles at the same time, broke the record for rankings points, and became the first player to earn $100 million in prize money. That was just over a year ago.
Since then, Nole fell out of the second round in a tournament he has won six times (Aussie Open), didn’t make it past the quarterfinals of any other slam, fired his entire coaching staff, picked up a repetitive-use elbow injury that doesn’t seem compatible with playing professional tennis, and lost kind of a lot of weight. All of a sudden, his 12 titles and challenge to Federer’s best-ever throne don’t seem so inevitable.
Djokovic and Murray are both taking notes out of Federer’s playbook. Murray is limiting his play to rehab lingering injuries and come out strong in 2018, while Djokovic is skipping the US Open entirely and putting down the racket for the foreseeable future. Once he’s healthy again, he’ll be among the favorites to win every hard-court slam for the foreseeable future.
- Odds Djokovic wins 15 slams: 2/3
- Odds Djokovic wins 10 Australian Open titles: 5/1