INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Roger Federer was thrashed by a player ranked outside the Top 20 in the main stadium here. A few hours later, Rafael Nadal was beaten just as badly by a brash young upstart. The previous month, the two greats had been expected to reach the final of the Australian Open, but each had been straight-setted in the semis. Now, at Indian Wells, Roger and Rafa had been straight-setted again in the same round. Each man was left searching for answers to his slump in the press room afterward.
All of which prompted me, in my wrap-up that day, to ponder the cruel acceleration of the aging process in tennis, and to wonder if Federer and Nadal, at age 27 and 22, respectively, were about to go from being the best of their generation to “perennial semifinalists.” Other writers around me used the term “end of an era.”
That was March 2008. Four months later, Federer and Nadal played the greatest tennis match of all time. They would continue to trade the No. 1 ranking back and forth, uninterrupted, for three more years. Since that day, they’ve won 15 major titles between them.
By now, you may see my point in beginning with this history lesson. With Nadal’s losses in Melbourne and Indian Wells, Djokovic’s recent struggles in big matches, Federer’s age, Murray’s back, and the rise of Stan Wawrinka, it’s apparently time to write the Big 4's death certificate again. Even their name sounds outdated: Nadal and Djokovic are No. 1 and No. 2, but Murray is No. 6 and Federer is No. 8. Call them the Big 1268.
Yet despite all of this, so far I haven’t seen anyone write the words “end of an era." If Roger and Rafa and their cohorts have taught us anything, it’s not to speak such ominous words when we’re talking about men’s tennis. This era has outlasted far too many predicted “ends” already. And that includes the men outside the Big 4. As Federer said earlier this week, this generation has advanced into its 30s more gracefully than previous ones. See the inspired play of 35-year-olds Radek Stepanek and Tommy Haas this week.
In place of “end of an era,” we now employ a more tentative phrase: “Cracks in the Big 4.” It’s not all that helpful, because any loss by any of them in any tournament can be interpreted as a “crack.” As we’ve seen, no matter what their struggles are, they put them aside at the most important tournaments. Wawrinka’s major title was just the second by a player outside the Big 4 since 2005. Last year Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray won all four Slams, all eight Masters events, and the World Tour Finals between them. The rankings show that there have been cracks, but the Slams and Masters show that they've been hairline at best.
Will Wawrinka’s win change that? Has he broken the Big 4 spell? Juan Martin del Potro is among those who seem to think so, even though his similarly startling title at the 2009 U.S. Open turned out to be a blip rather than a trend. Here’s a look at the individual states of the guys we still know as the Big 4:
Rafael Nadal: On the one hand, he has lost to two players this season, Wawrinka and Alexandr Dolgopolov, who had never taken a set from him in the past. He lost a ton of ranking points by not defending his title in Indian Wells. And just when he seems to have conquered his knee problems, he now has a back problem—he’ll always be injury prone. Rafa has never been No. 1 two years in a row, so a slump might seem to be in order.
On the other hand, Nadal has won two of the four tournaments he’s entered this year. As of today, he’s 4,025 points ahead of No. 2 Djokovic in the rankings, and 8,500 points ahead of No. 3 Wawrinka—that’s a lot. And while he has plenty of those points to defend in the coming months, he always has plenty of points to defend in the clay season, and he has always defended them. Rafa will be 28 in June; that has actually begun to sound young to me in tennis years. He’s not going to have a second straight 10-title season, but are you going to bet against him at the French Open? As long as he’s on the tour, his persistence and mental clarity alone will make him a force.
Novak Djokovic: The Serb’s issues seem a little thornier, because they appear to be mental, and they appear to affect him in the most important moments. He says he didn’t like the way he approached big matches the last couple of years, so he brought in Boris Becker. But that didn’t keep Novak from uncharacteristically squandering a fifth-set lead to Wawrinka in Melbourne; and the longer he takes to win a title with Becker, the more irritating that story that will become for him. But even if Djokovic never gets back to No. 1 or repeats his 2011, he’s still a level above 99 percent of his opponents; no one makes it look as easy against lower-ranked players. At 27, with his good health and fitness, he’s likely to go deep at majors and remain high in the rankings for at least five more years. The Djoker may not dominate, but even if he struggles a bit this season, it will be a struggle—for major titles rather than semifinal appearances—any player would like to have.
Andy Murray: His back surgery last season, and his somewhat tentative recovery, may make Murray the biggest question mark in the immediate future. He certainly hasn’t used his Wimbledon title from last summer as a platform to jump higher. If anything, the achievement of that lifetime goal, along with his subsequent surgery, marked the end of one part of his career and the start of another. We’ll see where this one takes him.
Roger Federer: He’s the lowest-ranked of the Big 4 at the moment, but he may be the only one among them who appears to be better off in 2014 than he was in 2013. Or at least that’s what he says: The back is better, he likes his new coach, he has a win over Djokovic this season, and he still loves the tour. I think there are still doubts in his mind, and there will still be head-scratching shanks and unwatchable losses, but an 18th Grand Slam title seems more likely now than it did at the U.S. Open last summer.
In a sense, this week Federer put his finger on the main reason why the era of the Big 4 probably won’t wane this year: The lifespan of all male tennis players has gotten longer, so why shouldn’t the lifespan of its dominant players be extended? In the case of the Big 4, it already has; no small group of men in the Open era has been so good for so long. Part of that is the professionalism of the players, part of it is the regularity, and relative sanity, of the Masters and Slam schedules; those are both fairly recent developments. As Federer said this weekend, the tour makes for an enjoyable life now. That’s not something we heard often, or ever, from past champions like John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, neither of whom won a major after age 25.
There will be more wins like Wawrinka’s; it’s not going to be another five years before we see a new face hoisting a major trophy. If you’re going to claim that the era of the Big 4 is over because they've stopped winning every single big event, than it’s probably going to be over soon.
But if you’re going to do the more logical thing and say that their era is still alive when they’re still at the top of the rankings, and, collectively, they’re still winning more than half of the tour’s majors and Masters, I’d say these four players are going to big for a while longer. That’s what I should have written six years ago.