Roger Federer is the last member of the big four remaining in the Wimbledon draw. The other three players who have reached the semifinal stage are a former Wimbledon finalist, a former U.S. Open champion, and the man who has, two years in a row, dispatched the world no. 1 at Wimbledon. This has not prevented some fans from returning to the ‘weak era’ argument; one that asserts Federer’s years of dominance were due to lack of competition. While that argument is easily refuted, it does point to the unique achievements of the big four and the level of competition they have offered each other during the period when all four have been at their best. The skill these men possess, and the consistency with which they have interchangeably dominated the game, is unrivaled in tennis history. Since Federer first became world number one in 2004, no one outside of these four has managed to attain the top ranking. Only one grand slam final since 2005 has failed to feature one of them.
The division commented upon within the big four is usually between Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, all double-digit grand slam champions, and Murray who, despite regularly reaching semis and finals at majors, has not triumphed anywhere near as often. However, particularly in light of Federer and Nadal’s domination in 2017, some fans and commentators have begun to ask a different question: how much was Djokovic and Murray’s rise a result of a drop off from the Swiss and the Spaniard.
The heights attained by Djokovic are hard to argue against. At his peak, he turned in two of the most exceptional seasons in the history of the sport. His run of match wins to start his 2011 campaign, and the ruthlessness with which he mopped up big titles – grand slams and masters 1000s – in 2015, are all-time-great achievements. 2011 was also the year Roger Federer turned 30, and the first year since 2003 he did not win a grand slam. Rafael Nadal, for his part, tore through 2010 winning the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. But with an energy sapping play style based on grueling baseline rallies, through most of 2011, Nadal had energy reserves that allowed him to bully his way to the finals of tournaments, but he regularly came up short against Djokovic.
2015 was similar; if anything more dramatic. Djokovic’s main competition was the 33-going-on-34 Federer, the only player to beat him more than once all year. Nadal, for his part, was a shadow of his former self. Barely registering at the grand slams, he fell limply to the Serb in the quarterfinals of the French Open.
Andy Murray’s greatest run of form came in the latter half of 2016 when neither Federer or Nadal were playing, both sidelined with significant injuries. Murray won almost every match he played after falling to Djokovic in the final of the French Open. He became the first male player to defend a gold medal, claimed his second Wimbledon title, and powered his way to a maiden victory at the World Tour Finals, clinching the world number one ranking.
The absence of peak Federer and Nadal certainly did not hurt Djokovic and Murray’s standout periods of play. However, it did not help them any more than it helped other players. Djokovic and Murray still had to beat tough opponents, including, on occasion, depleted versions of Federer and Nadal, on their way to titles. The domination that Djokovic displayed in 2011 and 2015 was complete. To win so much so consistently took incredible physical stamina, finely tuned natural talent, and unshakable mental strength.
Murray’s second half of 2016 was similar. Whatever ailments plagued the other members of the big four, Murray stayed mentally tough and capitalized on every opportunity. A perfect example is the 2016 Wimbledon final. This was the first time Murray was not facing Federer or Djokovic in the final. The man he was competing against, Milos Raonic, was the in-form grass court player of the moment. Raonic had battled hard against Murray in the semifinals of that year’s Australian Open, narrowly lost the finals of Queens to him, and had just recorded the biggest win of his life against Roger Federer. Under the pressure of expectation at his home slam, Murray stayed calm and clinically dispatched the big serving Canadian in three sets; a testament to his prowess as a returner, his clear mental state at the time, and his unquestionable tenacity.
The bottom line is that Djokovic and Murray are two players who, early in their careers, had to find ways to win big titles in an era dominated by two of the greatest players in the history of tennis. Federer and Nadal stand alone – one as possibly the greatest of all time, and the other as indisputably the greatest clay court player of all time. That both Djokovic and Murray honed their games to such a degree that they were not only competitive with Federer and Nadal, but also could regularly beat them, is a testament to their natural talents, respective work ethics, and mental fortitude. The total domination of any member of the big four has been dependent to some degree on the levels of the other three. Djokovic and Murray might have had a harder time if Federer had remained at his 2006 level, or Nadal in his 2010 form, but we cannot assume that they wouldn’t have found a way to push even those versions of Federer and Nadal if given time to figure out their games. The periods when Djokovic and Murray have dominated, it has been mostly due to their own respective abilities as players more so than their two great rivals’ failings. In some ways, that is what we have had the joy of watching for the last ten years: four great champions adjusting and adapting their play in a battle for supremacy.