Why tennis fans are OK with the domination of the Big Four

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Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have combined to win 32 Grand Slam titles. (AP)

If you follow the NBA, you are no doubt painfully aware that this year’s playoffs have been a total bust. It’s been a soul-deadening slog of blowout games and one-sided series, all leading to an outcome that was inevitable from the start of the season: a rematch in the finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. No, neither team has actually reached the finals yet—the Warriors went up two games to none on Tuesday night in their semifinal series against the San Antonio Spurs (blowing out the Spurs by 36 points), and the Cavs defeated the Boston Celtics in the series opener on Wednesday night. But barring a miracle or a season-ending injury to Steph Curry or LeBron James, it is going to be the Warriors vs. the Cavs: The Sequel, which is the final everyone expected. The anticlimactic nature of this year’s NBA playoffs has sparked a lot of grousing among commentators and fans. Writing in The Ringer last week, Jason Concepcion noted that the NBA has a long history of dominant franchises and that while teams like the Lakers of the 1980s and the Bulls of the 1990s are worshipped now, competitive imbalance is not so much fun at the time it is happening. Or as Concepcion put it, “Hegemony kind of sucks in real time.”

Over the last decade or so, men’s tennis has experienced hegemony, in the form of the Big Four, to a degree seldom seen in any sport. And yet, as I think almost all tennis fans would agree, it kinda hasn’t sucked; in fact, it has been pretty awesome. On Tuesday night, as my teenage son, an avid basketball player and fan (I tried and failed to make him a tennis player), was periodically updating me on the Warriors-Spurs beatdown, I found myself wondering why tennis fans are okay with hegemony while basketball fans (at least those whose teams aren’t contenders) are clearly not. Are basketball people just bellyachers? Are tennis people glass-half-full types? Possibly, but I think there are other factors in play. For one thing, tennis fandom is all about the players, whereas in basketball fans are primarily loyal to teams. Also, the Big Four rivalry has encompassed enough contrasts and has included enough reversals of fortune to keep things interesting even if the same four guys have done most of the winning.

To be sure, there have been some anticlimactic stretches during the reign of the Big Four. In fact, we are currently experiencing one: with Rafael Nadal once again destroying everyone on clay, the French Open is shaping up to be as predictable as the NBA playoffs (fortunately, it will take only two weeks to get to the final of the French, whereas it will have taken 31 weeks to reach the inevitable Warriors-Cavaliers showdown). And if we never experience another Andy Murray-Novak Djokovic grand slam final, I don’t think any of us will feel particularly cheated. And it is also the case that there have been enough instances now of guys not named Federer, Nadal, Murray, or Djokovic breaking through to keep the men’s game from being entirely predictable. Stan Wawrinka has won three majors, Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro have each claimed one.

But a more important factor in staving off boredom has been the stylistic differences among members of the Big Four, their distinct personalities, and the ever-shifting storyline. Just take Federer and Nadal. One plays like Baryshnikov, the other like a raging bull. One has a regal bearing but is also given to emotional displays (Federer has done a lot of crying over the years), the other exudes humility and wears a smile in victory or defeat. Djokovic and Murray are much more combustive on court than either Federer or Nadal, nor are they quite as gifted, which has given their matches against Federer and Nadal a bit of a nature vs. nurture dimension. More importantly, there has been constant churn among the Big Four. Federer was king in the mid-2000s, then Nadal usurped him at Wimbledon and became first among near-equals. He was eventually overtaken by Djokovic, who appeared to give way to Murray last summer, but Murray has since faltered and now a resurgent Federer and a resurgent Nadal are back on top (even if the rankings don’t yet reflect this latest twist).

The other reason that we tennis fans are fine with a few players dominating the game is that it has almost always been thus and we’re accustomed to it, and also because we naturally gravitate to the most visible and successful players. There are any number of players we might enjoy watching, but we are inevitably drawn to the Federers and Nadals, and they tend to command our loyalty. Lots of people love to watch Gael Monfils, for instance, but for most of them, Monfils is a second- or third-favorite; after one or two of the Big Four. The way it works in tennis is that we attach ourselves to a superstar, he retains our allegiance until the end of his career (even as we admire and enjoy other, lower-ranked players), and then we shift our loyalty to a different superstar.

Basketball is obviously different (ditto baseball, soccer, and football). It is a team sport, and one’s first loyalty is to the franchise. Sure, LeBron James has his supporters, and when he left Cleveland in 2010 to join the Miami Heat, some of them instantly switched their allegiance from the Cavaliers to the Heat. But most Cleveland fans, it’s fair to say, did not shift their loyalties to South Beach; instead, they viewed James as a betrayer and fervently wished that he’d choke on a Cubano. When James announced three years ago that he was returning to Cleveland, all was immediately forgiven. In basketball, the players are second to the city and the team. In tennis, there is no city or team; it is all about the player. That’s why hegemony is acceptable in tennis but has basketball fans feeling mutinous as the Warriors and the Cavaliers inch their way towards the inevitable final.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about Maria Sharapova’s comeback from her drug suspension. In the piece, I said that while it was understandable that tournament organizers in Stuttgart, Madrid, and Rome gave her wild-card entries into their main draws, the smart PR move on her part would have been to insist on playing the qualifiers for those events. On Tuesday, the French Tennis Federation announced that not only was it not giving Sharapova, a two-time titlist in Paris, a wild card into the main draw, it was also not extending her a wild-card entry into the qualifiers. In announcing the decision, the president of the French federation, Bernard Giudicelli, said that Sharapova had handled her 15-month suspension with “dignity and respect" but that a wild card could not be given for “a return from doping.”

If Stuttgart, Madrid, and Rome were guilty of showing Sharapova too much leniency, the French federation has gone too far in the opposite direction. I admire its willingness to stand on principle, and this steadfastness is all the more admirable coming just a day after Roger Federer announced that he would be skipping the French this year. With no Federer and no Serena Williams, the tournament would have benefited from Sharapova’s star power.

But to deny her the chance to play the qualifiers seems unduly harsh. She is a two-time former champion, and as I wrote a few weeks ago, the fact that the drug that got her suspended had only been banned three weeks prior to her drug test should be considered a somewhat mitigating circumstance, especially now that she’s done her time. Being forced to play the qualies of a major that she won twice would have been more than adequate additional punishment for her infraction. Keeping her out of the tournament entirely is piling on.

Originally published on TennisChannel.com. Read more articles by Michael Steinberger here


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