Things may be perking up in the world of tennis, at least on the men’s side.
There’s been enough shifting going on in the men’s U.S. Open draw–and even before that, in earlier tournaments–that folks are starting to ask whether or not the era of the “Big 4” is coming to an end. The New York Times led into the Open with a long rumination on whether we’ve come to the end of days, at least as far as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray are concerned. This space too has speculated on occasion on whether we’ll ever see anything truly great from Nadal or Federer again. So we’ve been building towards this point for a while now; the question is, are we really there yet?
Gael Monfils: is the time ripe for a Big 4 overthrow?
The answer is, yes, it’s finally here — if someone new actually breaks through and wins the U.S. Open.
Note that there are two components to that equation: one, someone who has never won a Grand Slam event has to win the tournament, and two, that tournament has to be the currently running U.S. Open.
Component one is pretty simple to get. Someone like Kei Nishikori or Gael Monfils has to have a breakthrough and win a first Slam title in order for the current regime to start looking shaky. We’ve seen the occasional win by Stan Wawrinka and others of his ilk come and go without impacting the choke hold that the big guns have had on the game; it follows then that another win by the Stanimal will on be another blip on Djokovic’s radar.
“…if Nishikori or Monfils actually does the deed and knocks off The Djoker … then the prospects for an end to the Big 4 era will be well and truly satisfied..”
At the moment, it is Djokovic to whom this argument boils down–and not simply because he’s the only one of the Big 4 left standing right now. If he comes out the next two matches and melts his upcoming opponents with inspired play (which has so far been lacking from his effort this tournament, though not entirely by his fault), then it’s safe to assume that we’ll be waiting another year before asking this question again.
That’s because the second component of our equation–that a sea change result must occur at the U.S. Open–limits the chances of seeing a real breakthrough to the here and now. We’ll only get a meaningful victory if it happens in New York, because the other Grand Slam events, though weighty in their own rights, tend to lend themselves to quirky results.
The French Open’s clay courts have a habit of producing one-off champs (Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa, Michael Chang). You’re not going to get a tennis trust-buster winning at Roland Garros. Indeed, if Nadal–who looked pretty good in his matches before getting bounced by Lucas Pouille in the fourth round–is going to make noise again in a Slam event, it will most likely be the French. He might go from card-carrying Big 4 member to a semi-insurgent who rises up once a year to grab another occasional championship before slipping back into injury and rest layoffs. And by definition, such a performance by Nadal would be a win for the current old-guard.
Wimbledon has a lot going for it; it’s the pinnacle, to be sure, and anyone who wins it deserves respect. But again, a strange surface–the now rarely used grass–makes the Championships a poor choice for a measuring stick. Plus, it’s been over a decade since anyone other than the Big 4 has won there anyway (and it took Murray forever to make his own breakthrough there).
The Australian Open would seem to be a comparable choice to the U.S. Open. They use hard courts in Melbourne, and it’s not like back in the day when few people would bother making the long flight to get there. Still, the Aussie too has had a habit of regularity lately; it’s been Djokovic’s personal playground for a while now (five out of the last six). In contrast, New York has been Djokovic’s kryptonite, relatively speaking (he’s lost three of the last six finals in Arthur Ashe Stadium, while taking two championships).
So if Nishikori or Monfils actually does the deed and knocks off The Djoker, at the U.S. Open, with Nadal and Murray long gone and Federer a mere ghost at this point, then yes, the prospects for an end to the Big 4 era will be well and truly satisfied.
Of course, you could have said the same thing two years ago, when Marin Cilic straight-setted Nishikori in the Open final–but there wasn’t as much negative swirl going around the top players then. That looks like a fluke now (especially as Cilic hasn’t gone past a quarterfinal in any Slam even since then). A similar result this weekend–perhaps even if it is Wawrinka grabbing a third Slam title–will have a lot more significance for the game going forward.
(By the way: all of this applies to the women’s draw, too. Just substitute “Serena Williams”–who often looked shaky against Simona Halap–for “Big 4,” “Pliskova” for “Monfils/Nishikori,” and maybe “Kerber” for “Wawrinka,” and you have pretty much the same situation.)
So, am I willing to bet on anyone other than Djokovic? Not really. But for the first time in a while, I see the odds starting the get much closer to even on that play.