(November 5, 2012) PHILADELPHIA - Ever since 2003 when Roger Federer burst onto the tennis scene and began an era of domination, which now extends to the so-called “Big Four” of Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, and Novak Djokovic, the tennis world has questioned how long it can go on.
As the 2012 tennis season wraps up, with just the World Tour Finals left, that question remains unanswered. Each of the Big Four captured one Slam title apiece this year.
“At some stage, things will change. It’s not a question of if, it’s when,” John McEnroe said at a Philadelphia stop on the PowerShares Series Tour. “But it’s hard to say when exactly that will be. Obviously Nadal’s health is an issue, and Roger’s not getting any younger. I suspect that you’ll see these guys hopefully around for a couple more years.”
Jim Courier expressed admiration for the way the Big Four have sustained their success, winning an astonishing 30 of the last 31 Majors.
“I think what the top four have done has been unprecedented as far as the level of consistency they’ve shown, and the level of dominance they’ve shown over the field,” Courier said.
“I just don’t know how they can keep it up. Honestly, the physical taxation that the game takes from them, the mental toll it takes, all the sponsorship requirements, all the pressure that’s on them to perform every week. I’m in awe of their consistency.”
The second tier of players stands separated from the top four by a Grand Canyon-like gulf. The three strongest contenders, Juan Martin del Potro (the only non-Big Four man to win a Slam since 2005), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Tomas Berdych, struggle to earn wins over the Big Four. In 2012 against Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray, Tsonga was 0-7, del Potro was 2-8, and Berdych was 2-7.
“You’ve got guys like del Potro, Tsonga, Berdych, Ferrer,” Patrick Rafter said. “Roger’s not playing like he was five years ago, that’s just a simple fact. He’s still putting himself in contention to win Grand Slams, but he’s not going to be as dominant as he was. And Nadal is having problems as well. You can see Djokovic and Murray certainly hanging around, but Nadal’s a big question mark, and Roger’s slowing down, but I think he’ll still be around in the mix. There’s definitely room for the new guys coming up.”
But Courier was reluctant to write off a few more years of Big Four domination.
“We haven’t seen any cracks in that façade, really,” Courier said. “It’s been again a year where the Big Four won all the Majors, and this year it’s been a true split. So I think it’s even more interesting from that standpoint. Who’s going to wrestle control the way Novak did in 2011? This year was more up for grabs, and Murray certainly has become a bigger part of the competition.”
McEnroe feels that del Potro is the most promising non-Big Four contender to win a Major in 2013.
“If I had to pick one guy that would win a Major if he remains healthy, it would probably be del Potro,” McEnroe said. “He’s won one, so it wouldn’t be a total shock. He’s put himself back in the position to do that. There’s a handful of guys who could do it, and someone’s going to do it, but he’d be the one guy I’d have to pick over anyone else.”
Courier agreed with McEnroe’s sentiment on the Argentinian.
“I love del Potro’s game,” Courier said. “I think he’s one of the few guys who really has the weaponry to stand up against those top four guys on a consistent basis. He needs some good fortune with his health, that’s been a problem for him. If he can stay healthy, I think he certainly has the tools to be in that conversation.”
Amy Fetherolf is the founder of the tennis news site Drop Shot Dispatch and a co-founder of the new tennis site The Changeover. Follow her on twitter at @AmyFetherolf.