Rarely in the history of tennis has the top of the men’s game been so dominated by four players as at the present. In the 1960’s, we had the era of Laver/Newcombe/Roche, in the 1970’s/80’s we had Borg/McEnroe/Connors, followed by the eras of Becker/Edberg/Cash and of Sampras/Agassi – groups of two or three. One has to go back to the 1920’s to see a comparable grouping of four dominating players in the French quartet of Cochet, Lacoste, Borotra and Brugnon. Even then, however, it was the American Bill Tilden, who was the dominant force in the men’s game. Of the current ‘quartet’ of Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray, some argued up until recently that Murray was not quite of the same calibre as the other three. His performance at Wimbledon and his victory at the Olympics put any such doubts to rest, however.
A measure of the quality at the top of the men’s game is the fact that the Last 4 ‘big tournaments’ in 2012 (the three Grand Slams and the Olympics) have all been won by one of the four members of tennis’s ‘Top Quartet’. This, on paper at least, should suggest a healthy state of competition in the run-up to the US Open at the end of the month.
To add further spice to this competitive contest, even within this tight group of four, the balance of advantage has shifted like a pendulum over the last year. After Djokovic’s epic victory against Nadal in January in the Australian Open final, Djokovic was the supremo, his recent impressive record putting him atop the game. Then came the French Open final, when Nadal on his favourite surface gained sweet revenge for January. Amidst suggestions that we might have seen the best of Federer, he rebounds to beat Djokovic in the semis of Wimbledon on his way to beating Murray in the final. In almost a brazen attempt to upset the formbook, Murray rebounded back from his Wimbledon defeat to beat Federer in the Olympic final, after an equally impressive victory over Djokovic in the semis. Each of the ‘Big Four’ has one major victory apiece in 2012, making for thrilling prospects at Flushing Meadows.
Of the four, Federer has by far the most impressive record at Flushing Meadow, winning five consecutive finals there between 2004 and 2008, although that last one was four years ago. As the oldest of the four, Federer may not have the same stamina as he had, but his displays at this year’s Wimbledon show that it is still hard to keep a good man down. Djokovic is the current holder of the title, obviously anxious to retain it and to rebound back to a level of form he appears to have lost in recent months. Doubts remain over Nadal’s fitness (winner in 2010) and Murray, on a high after the Olympics, is currently experiencing knee injury problems which he is deliberately nursing to allow him to play at the US Open. He has already appeared in a US Open final (in 2008), so is no stranger to the heights of Flushing Meadows.
Such is the dominance of the ‘Top Quartet’, that no-one is seriously rating the chances of other contenders. Del Potro has, in fact, won there before and Tsonga and Ferrer could potentially provide an upset or two, but the feeling is that the title will fall to one of the top four. American hopes might rest on a final swansong on home turf for Andy Roddick, but the dizzy heights of tennis seem to be in the past for him.
What happens, we may well ask, when the quartet eventually breaks up? Will age eventually force Federer’s exit from the group? Will sustained injuries to Nadal halt his rise? Will Murray secure his position with a Grand Slam win in the near future? Who lies on the horizon as the next superstar to carry the game onto the next generation?
With the exception of Federer, the remaining three have some longevity and no obvious heir exists outside the group at the moment. One of the more interesting questions is whether the Australians and in particular, the Americans can provide any of the top stars of the future, or whether the Europeans will continue their dominance of recent years. On paper, with all their resources, talent and traditions, one would expect Australia and the US to rebound on the world stage to reassert past glories, but only time will tell.
Having no single individual dominating the game is clearly healthy for the sport as a whole and recent form has shown how the baton can shift among the top four with relative ease.
As far as this year’s US Open is concerned, my money is on a Djokovic v Federer final and although my heart is with Federer, my head goes with a Djokovic rejuvenated and emboldened after his recent drop in form. Whoever is the victor, will be well-placed for the Masters event at the O2 arena in London in November. Whatever the outcome at Flushing Meadows, let’s hope for some great tennis.