The Big Four, After Four Matches

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WIMBLEDON, England—We don’t tend to take stock of the movers and shakers at a Grand Slam tournament until the end of its first week, not its first round. But with Rafael Nadal losing his opener, an audible needed to be called. (And while I’m bandying non-tennis terminology, I wish I had a couple of mulligans when it comes to my “expert” picks on the men’s side.)

Before the second round gets underway, let’s score the Big Four in four categories:

1. Performance

Obviously, the lone loser comes in last place here. It wasn’t even a “good” loss for Nadal—he didn’t push Steve Darcis to five sets (or even four), and gave away plenty of points on his own. Rafa was a shell of himself Monday, making an already disappointing first-round exit that much more concerning.

As for the three victors, it’s tough to deny Federer first place even though they all advanced in straights. The defending champ’s high-flying form persisted throughout his 6-3, 6-2, 6-0 drubbing of Victor Hanescu, while both Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray encountered at least minor patches of resistance. Having not been broken, Djokovic gets the edge, but Murray—broken just once—should hardly feel slighted. And considering what happened to Nadal, even a five-set struggle would have been OK, had Murray still prevailed, though maybe not to the local papers.

1. Roger Federer
2. Novak Djokovic
3. Andy Murray
4. Rafael Nadal

2. Dress

How deeply can we distinguish mostly all-white attire? This exercise would be easier if I was judging the clothing choices of the top four women, whose ensembles vary much more, but like many things involving this quartet, the differences come down to the details.

I’d normally pan Nadal’s look, with its lone mark of individuality an Ohio State scarlet-and-grey semi-circle around the neck, as childish. Extend the colors around the entire outfit, for one, and continue that scheme elsewhere (the arms, perhaps?). But compared to everyone else, Nadal’s shirt is actually rather lively. So we’ll be grading on a curve here.

The blandest look of all goes to Murray—feel free to insert your own joke. His adidas set looks no more proper than an undershirt and boxer shorts, the less said about it the better. Federer’s Nike outfit is only a modest improvement, however. The collar helps, but there’s not much more to it. It’s too bad Roger dropped gold from his Wimbledon fashion, which he wore from 2007-2010—it was his version of Tiger Woods’ traditional Sunday red, and as the gold standard at this event, it made sense. As for his flair, this year’s entrance jacket? We’re only comparing strawberries to strawberries here.

That leaves Djokovic, whose sartorial instincts win out. Uniqlo, Djokovic’s clothing sponsor as of last year, hasn’t altered the world No. 1’s look that often, but that’s OK for this fortnight. His polo pops with what appears to be a brown border to his collar, the zipper adds an athletic touch to an otherwise classic style, and the red company emblem appears elevated with its placement. Also: Love the “DN” branding on the sleeve.

1. Novak Djokovic
2. Rafael Nadal
3. Roger Federer
4. Andy Murray

3. Press Conference

This might go against the journalist’s credo, but I’m not a fan of invasive questions. However, the state of Nadal’s knees was fair game and something that needed to be asked about, having watched the superstar earthbound for most of his match.

And so, like Darcis, the horde of ink-stained wretches fired away at Rafa. He gave a better effort in the interview room than on Court No. 1, repeatedly doling credit on Darcis and insisting that this was neither the time of place to discuss his injury. Some exchanges were testy, and good on Nadal for making them so. After saying he didn’t want to dive into the topic the first and second time of asking, why would reporters feel he would want to on the third and fourth instance?

And whatever your thoughts on the matter are, Nadal’s presser beats this one, from the 2011 U.S. Open, by a mile:

Djokovic, Federer, and Murray had to deal with some inane questioning of their own. Federer’s final answer needed to satisfy someone who pressed him on the issue of a champion not returning to defending his title at Wimbledon, should relations between the tournament and the players be frosty enough. Before Federer provided a thorough, somewhat politically correct response, the exchange went:

Q. Can you imagine the situation where you, as defending champion, would skip the tournament for whatever the issue was?

ROGER FEDERER: Why are you asking me the question?

Q. Well, it happened here at Wimbledon.

ROGER FEDERER: Right, years ago.

I truly feel bad for these players, who must be forced to answer the same question over and over and over again. Djokovic was reminded of his late coach, Jelena Gencic, and when the Serb’s answer wasn’t somehow satisfactory enough, the questioner was practically in arms after his follow-up was denied.

As for Murray, he answered a question he’ll be asked at least 10 times per victory during The Championships:

Q. You've said previously that you're now relaxed with the idea that it's possible you'll never win Wimbledon. Realistically the expectations are even higher this year, get higher every year. Is that difficult for you, knowing the weight of expectation behind you?

ANDY MURRAY: I put a lot of pressure on myself. I expect a lot of myself. So the other stuff that kind of goes with it, I mean, it doesn't really matter. It matters what's going on in my head, what I'm feeling while I'm on the court. And I think I've done a good job of putting that other stuff to the back of my head and just concentrate on what's going on out there.

I mean, look, that's going to be there for the rest of my career, something that, you know, all players at the top of the game have to deal with.

Give it a rest, folks. Everyone handled themselves well overall, though I must give Nadal the nod.

1. Rafael Nadal
2. Novak Djokovic
3. Roger Federer
4. Andy Murray

4. Future

So what’s next for the Big Four? For Nadal, we don’t know—but I do know he’s back in Spain; his publicist, Benito Pérez-Barbadillo, was overheard saying so today in the press center.

Federer and Murray play their second-rounders before Djokovic, who will face Bobby Reynolds on Thursday. The Serb and the American have never faced each other, but it’s almost impossible to imagine Reynolds threatening Djokovic whatsoever. The world No. 156 got back to .500 on the season—2-2—with his win over compatriot Steve Johnson on Tuesday. He’ll almost certainly be looking to return to .500 in a couple of days.

I can’t be as confident of a second-round waltz for Federer and Murray, who face Sergiy Stakhovsky and Yen-Hsun Lu, respectively, on Wednesday. But as hard as it was to imagine one member of the Big Four out before round one wrapped up, it’s harder to imagine two gone before the first week concludes. Both favorites should find their way through.

It's worth noting, though, that Lu will be trying to add another A-list Andy to his collection of Wimbledon scalps, having beat Andy Roddick here in 2010. He's also beaten Murray before, way back in the 2008 Olympic Games. Federer owns a 1-0 record over Stakhovsky, a creative player whose cunning will likely be surpassed by that shown by his Swiss adversary.

But although Djokovic benefits more in the immediate future, the long-term ramifications of Nadal’s early exit improve Murray’s and Federer’s title prospects in a more substantial way. I give the edge to Federer, who could have collided with Nadal in the quarterfinals, though I’ve heard compelling arguments for Murray, who has lost his four matches against Nadal at the majors, all in semifinals—the round they could have met at this event.

1. Roger Federer
2. Andy Murray
3. Novak Djokovic
4. Rafael Nadal

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