Uncomfortable Questions: The Little Four

Friday, June 21, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Today I’ll post the last in my series of “uncomfortable questions” leading up to Wimbledon; these are questions meant to make some partisans squirm, and perhaps make us re-think the conventional wisdom as the centerpiece of the summer tournament schedule approaches. Today, I ask:

Are the Big Four really that good, or are the “Little Four”—David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Juan Martin del Potro—overrated?

To some degree, this is a chicken-or-egg question, similar to the debate over the relative strength (or weakness) of any given era in tennis. Is a dominant player(s) that good, or is everyone else that weak?

Over the past few years, with the startling records accumulated by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and the more recent play of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, most of us have tended to embrace the idea that this is a very special time in tennis, that the main flaw of the handful of players ranked immediately below them is that they happen to have been born in the same era as what has become a “Big Four.”

My feeling is that the reality is slightly different. Sure, we live in what might be called a “golden era” in tennis, but that doesn’t mean Ferrer, Tsonga, et al would be winning major titles left and right if only they had fewer obstacles in their paths. Would Tsonga or Berdych have three or four majors salted away if only Nadal and Djokovic were in the mix? Maybe, maybe not. For the record is about the shortcomings of the also-rans even more than the very real, towering strengths of the top four.

Let’s start with this, because it’s so relevant to Wimbledon: I can think of only one clear instance of a player being denied a title he almost certainly would have won were it not for one individual. That was Andy Roddick, who lost to Federer at Wimbledon four times—three times in the final. Had Federer not won the French Open title in 2009 (after Nadal was conveniently cleared out of his path by Robin Soderling), I would say the same of Roger at Roland Garros. The record seems pretty clear on that. We have nothing nearly as supportable, statistically or rationally, when it comes to the “Little Four” and their frustrated ambitions.

Also, it isn’t like the Big Four rolled into the game simultaneously and took it over. There really was no “Big Four” until about the beginning of 2010, when Murray made his second Grand Slam final in Melbourne. At the time, he had just one U.S. Open final and a single Masters 1000 title to his name. That, by the way, was almost two years to the day after Tsonga played his first major final.

Federer and Nadal were the trailblazers, but Tsonga at one time was more or less neck-and-neck with Djokovic, and del Potro appeared to be on the cusp of shunting Federer to the sidelines when he overpowered the Swiss in the 2009 U.S. Open final—long before any Big Four talk began to swirl around, with Murray filling it out. There was no quartet creating a four-sided wall around glory back then; what really happened had as much to do with the Little Four’s inability to build on what success they experienced as with the resurgence of Federer, or the maturation of Murray, and the further development of Djokovic. Neither Tsonga nor del Potro was able to back up his claim to a spot at the top, and ultimately both men allowed others to elbow them out of the way.

So let’s look at the flaws that have kept the members of the Little Four from cracking the Grand Slam code. In Ferrer’s case, it might look like the culprit is Nadal; were it not for him, some think, the world No. 4 would be at the very least a French Open champion. But I’m not so sure about that.

Ferrer simply seems to have a huge mental block when it comes to big matches, with the best example being the way he lost that Miami Masters final in April from match-point up to Murray. I don’t think Ferrer was intimidated by Murray’s membership in the Big Four; he was cowed by the pressure of the occasion, and he would have felt it against any quality player in that final. It’s a pity that a player as gritty as Ferrer has an inferiority complex, but that appears to be the case.

Berdych, ranked No. 6, has won eight ATP titles—but he’s lost in 10 finals, and not always to one of tennis’ four aces. Berdych, long known as a head-case prone to choking, reached the Wimbledon final in 2010 following back-to-back wins over Federer and Djokovic. But he was picked apart in straight sets in that final by Nadal, in one of those disappointing performances that you put down to first-time finalist jitters, or the near universal penchant for choking.

What’s more distressing in Berdych’s case is that he wasn’t able to build on that performance. Since then, he’s lost at majors to, among others, Michael Llodra (then No.35), then-No. 140 Stephane Robert, Janko Tisparevic, and Ernests Gulbis. Just a few weeks ago, he lost in the first round at Roland Garros to No. 81 Gael Monfils. Sure, Monfils is a Top 10 talent, but he’s struggled to play Top 100-worthy tennis recently. Berdych is just too moody and too prone to anxiety attacks to claim he’s the victim of some extraordinary interlude in tennis history.

The other day, Tsonga’s coach Roger Rasheed made an interesting observation: “I know he’s 28 years old but I think the age of Jo is very irrelevant, purely because he missed three years of tennis, [at] 19, 20, 21. He played five weeks each of those years. . . So he’s a 24-25 year-old in my mind as a schooled tennis player. He plays very natural with a lot of flair and now we’re just sort of shoring up his weapons. I’m just giving him a little more security in certain areas or just some understanding of a few different ways to go about his business at times.”

That’s certainly a valid point of view, as well as a thoughtful and humane one. But it doesn’t really make much difference in the big picture, and it also fails to adequately explain why Tsonga was unable to back up that apparent breakthrough at the Australian Open in 2008. And that’s one of the real indicators of a player’s character. Great and even merely good players tend to build on what major or incremental breakthroughs they achieve, never backsliding too far, even if they have trouble clearing the higher bar on a consistent basis, or raising it much higher.

And what do we make of del Potro, the gentle giant who remains the only player among the Little Four to actually have won a major? He missed most of 2010 with a wrist injury that required surgery, and after re-establishing himself in the Top 15 with surprising ease, he suddenly lurched to a halt. Del Potro missed the recent French Open with injury, and while he’s run into Big Four in five of the nine Grand Slam events since his return, he’s taken some puzzling losses as well. You tell me how del Potro loses to Ferrer in three easy sets on Wimbledon grass, as he did in the fourth round last year.

Del Potro seems stuck, unable to find the inspiration, or a game anything like the one that powered his run at that unforgettable 2009 Open. Big as he is—6’6”, with broad shoulders—he doesn’t open up the court the way he once did with shots that probe the lines. He seems less explosive. He’s only 24, but at times seems to be coloring by the numbers instead of letting it rip and punishing rivals with the product of his great reach and natural power.

There’s still time for all these men to put a few more pieces of the puzzle together and win big, but it’s become pretty clear that for each one, the big problem isn’t one or more of the Big Four, but himself.

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