Sunday, January 19, 2014

Return of the Big Four

At its peak in 2011, the Big Four of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer owned the ATP World Tour. In 2011, the four players combined to win all four slams, all nine 1000 events, the year-end Finals, along with eight other titles, and Nadal was part of the Davis Cup Champion team.

The four players didn't just win the events - they dominated them. Both finalists at all four slams were members of the Big Four. In fact, only three players ranked below four even reached the semifinals, and only four reached a final at a 1000 event. However, since Nadal lost to Lukas Rosol in the second round of Wimbledon in 2012, the members of the Big Four have not all been at their best at the same time.

After that loss, Nadal was out for seven months and didn't make his return until after the Australian Open. As soon as Nadal returned, Federer instantly began to struggle, starting with a loss in Rotterdam to Julien Benneteau. Federer's struggles continued all the way through to the US Open where he lost to Tommy Robredo.

After the US Open, Murray announced his season would end with back surgery, and Federer almost instantly began to improve. He reached the final in Basel, and semifinals of Bercy and the year-end Finals, beating Richard Gasquet and Juan Martin del Potro twice in the process.

Now, at the Australian Open, Murray is back from his injury, Nadal's knee issues seem to be a thing of the past, Djokovic is extrememly motivated, and Federer appears to be back to a high quality of tennis. So is the Big Four back?

From what we have seen at the Australian Open through one week, the answer would be a resounding yes! Not a single one of the four has so much as dropped  set on their straight-forward paths to the second week. With Del Potro falling out of the tournament in the first round, it would be surprising if anyone outside the Big Four reaches a final, let alone win one.

However, there is still one major hurdle before I am ready to say that the Big Four is truly back, and that is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. During 2011, it wouldn't be surprising to see all four reach the semifinals. However, that's impossible in Melbourne this year since Murray and Federer are both in the same quarter. So the best the Big Four can do is make sure that none of them lose to anybody outside the Big Four. Although Djokovic will face Stanislas Wawrinka and potentially Tomas Berdych or David Ferrer, Tsonga appears to be the biggest threat in this tournament to disrupt the Big Four's dominance.

So what is unofficially on the line tonight when Federer goes toe-to-toe with Tsonga is Federer's spot in the Big Four. Can the Big Four all dominate the sport at once the way they did in 2011? Or are Tsonga, Berdych, Del Potro, Wawrinka, and Ferrer too good to be second tier players?

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