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 Even their name sounds outdated: Nadal and Djokovic are No. 1 and No. 2, but Murray is No. 6 and Federer is No. 8.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.