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Tebbutt: Never the same again?

Mar 27, 2018
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

The reign of tennis’ fabulous Big Four – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray – is over and the quartet will never, as a group, be dominant again.

It sometimes seemed unlikely their pre-eminence would ever end but then Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic – ranked No. 1 and No. 2 at the end of 2016 – were plagued by hip and elbow injuries in 2017 and both cut their years short after Wimbledon. They finished out of the top-10 at No. 16 and No. 12 respectively.

That ended almost ten years of group dominance – with allowances for Murray to dip as low as No. 12 in 2014 following back surgery in September 2013, and Roger Federer dropping to No. 17 in January 2017, after he had a left-knee operation in February 2016, and wound up taking off the rest of the season after Wimbledon. Rafael Nadal went as low as No. 10 in June 2015, but was never out of the top-10.

Big Four hegemony can arguably be traced back to September 15, 2008, the date Murray became the last one of them to get to No. 4 in the rankings after reaching the US Open final (lost to Federer). That makes it close to a decade and overall between them, they have won 51 Grand Slam titles – Federer (20), Nadal (16), Djokovic (12) and Murray (3). And it’s 51 of 59 Grand Slams dating back to Federer’s 2003 breakthrough at Wimbledon. From the 2012 US Open, when Murray became the final Big Four member to win a Grand Slam, the big boys have won 18 of the past 22 Grand Slams and only once failed to have at least one of them – the 2014 US Open with Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori – in the final.

The recent injury problems of all but Federer have cast dark shadows on the futures of Djokovic, Murray and maybe even Nadal. Even Federer’s losses to Juan Martin del Potro in the Indian Wells final and to Thanasi Kokkinakis in his opening match at the Miami Open last week suggest his amazing resurgence in 2017 and 2018 is still fated to be something of a last gasp.

Here’s a look at the Big Four and their respective current situations:

FEDERER: 36 years old and ranked No. 1 (will be No. 2 on April 2): Three of the last five Grand Slam titles for the incomparable Swiss seemed unlikely if not impossible at the beginning of 2017. Are the recent consecutive 7-6 in the third set losses to del Potro and Kokkinakis a sign of things to come? And can Federer come back successfully from the 11-week break he’s taking now until he plays Stuttgart on grass beginning June 11th?

Nadal in the 2017 Australian Open final and Cilic in this year’s Down Under championship match both pushed Federer to five sets. He gutsed out those two wins – but can he keep winning five-set nail-biters?

“I’m disappointed,” he said after the 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4) loss to 21-year-old Kokkinakis on Saturday. “I’m frustrated a little bit that I couldn’t find a way. It’s unfortunate how it goes. It’s pretty simple at the end of the day. You go back to the practice court or go on vacation, you really take a break, get away from it all. When you come back to the practice court to work, whatever it is, you do it at 100 percent.”

NADAL: 31 years old and ranked No. 2 (back to No. 1 on April 2). His right anterior hip (iliopsoas muscle) strain is a recurrence of what forced him to retire in the fifth set of the quarter-finals (Cilic) at the Australian Open in January. Both he and Federer have been amazing at returning after absences. Rafa is on the Spanish team named for a second-round World Group Davis Cup tie against Germany in Valencia from April 6-8. The Monte-Carlo Masters, which begins on April 9th and which he has won 10 times, will be a better indication of where he’s really at in terms of fitness. The absolute all-time greatest on clay, any slippage by him on the terre battue would be a bad omen. But, as with Federer, a lot could depend on whether a younger generation is capable of truly challenging him on his best surface.

Photo by: Mauricio Paiz

NOVAK DJOKOVIC: 30 years old and ranked No. 12. He’s the wild card of this elite group. How much has his elbow problem and a “small medical intervention” following this year’s Australian Open, as well as any personal issues off court, affected the remarkable equilibrium that made him nearly invincible at times in recent years? In 2011 he was indisputably a cut above even Federer and Nadal and he has won more Slams than either of them since that year.

“There’s a lot of people that support me, especially here,” he said Saturday after his woeful 6-3, 6-4 opening-round loss to Benoit Paire at the Miami Open – a match where he was completely out of sorts, a pale imitation of his old self. “I thank them for their great support. Unfortunately, I’m not at the level they would like to see me at and I would like to see myself at. But it is what it is. Life goes on.”

How it goes on seems like as much of a mystery to him as it does to the rest of us.

Photo by: Fred Mullane

MURRAY: 30 years old and ranked No. 29. He underwent right hip surgery on January 8 and was shown in videos Monday to be hitting balls, running and serving at the Mouratoglou Academy in the south of France. Milos Raonic had right hip surgery when he was 20, made a good recovery and was back playing in three months. Murray is 30 and has a lot more mileage on his body than Raonic did, so it may be tougher for him to get back to top form.

His targeted return was for the grass-court season starting in June – but the two-time Wimbledon champ could make it back earlier than that.

Few people are hoping for the disappearance of the Big Four but time waits for no one and gradually, or even swiftly, each one of them will leave the scene. These four men have been the most gentlemanly and generous guys at the very top of tennis in decades. It will be a very sad day when they’re gone.

Here’s the over/under on Grand Slams to be won by them as a group before their careers end – four.

But if Nadal and Federer hold serve and win their best tournaments – Roland Garros and Wimbledon respectively – this year, that number will probably have to be adjusted upwards.

HEATING UP IN MIAMI

Photo by: Mauricio Paiz

Milos Raonic and Denis Shapovalov have both made it to the round-of-16 at the Miami Open and will play Tuesday for a spot in the quarter-finals.

Raonic, seeded No. 20, faces No. 90-ranked Jeremy Chardy while Shapovalov will take on Borna Coric. The Croat defeated No. 8 seed Jack Sock 5-7, 7-6(4), 6-3 in a match interrupted by rain and that didn’t end until about 10:30 p.m. on Monday night. Shapovalov beat Sam Querrey 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 and that finished in the late afternoon.

The Raonic – Chardy match Tuesday is second after an 11 a.m. ET start on the Grandstand while Shapovalov – Coric is fourth in the main Stadium following an 11 a.m. start.

It may be slightly misleading that Raonic has a 6-0 head-to-head advantage against the 31-year-old Chardy. They have not played since 2015 and their last encounter was at the Miami Open. Raonic prevailed but the Frenchman made it very competitive – losing 6-1, 5-7, 7-6(3).

So far Raonic has scored a 6-3, 6-3 win over Swedish wild card Mikael Ymer and a 7-6(5), 6-3 victory over 13th seeded Diego Schwartzman to make the final 16.

Photo by: Mauricio Paiz

Entering Indian Wells three weeks ago, Raonic was ranked No. 38 and is already back up to about No. 23, no matter how he fares against Chardy. Having been as high as No. 3, his goals are lofty and the biggest one this week would be to win the tournament and return to the top-10. On paper, according to form, that would mean eventually having to beat No. 6 seed Juan Martin del Potro in the quarter-finals, No. 2 Marin Cilic in the semi-finals and No. 4 Alexander Zverev in the final.

“I think I’m doing things better and better with each match, feeling more and more comfortable,” he said after downing Schwartzman on Sunday. “I’m figuring out the rust as well as the body and I’m getting a better level out of myself.”

It only makes sense – Raonic played four matches in the first nine weeks of 2018. He has now played six (about to be seven) in the past three weeks.

Photo by: Mauricio Paiz

Shapovalov is into the Miami Open round-of-16 after Monday’s hard-fought victory over Querrey in two hours and 22 minutes.

The American had a slight edge in several different categories including first service points won – 62% to 58 %, second serve points won – 42% to 38%, and total points won – 110 to 106. But Shapovalov was amazingly opportunistic and steely-nerved, saving all seven break points he faced from 2-all in the final set to find a perilous path to victory.

He was 4/6 on break point chances while Querrey was just 4/12 overall. And maybe that was no accident because, despite being just 18 compared to his more experienced 30-year-old opponent, Shapovalov has converted on 46 percent of his break chances for the season so far – Querrey is only at 31 percent.

“I wasn’t putting a lot of first serves (only 43 percent for the match) in during the second and third set,” Shapovalov said Monday, “but I was just fighting for every point. I’m extremely happy with the way I handled myself today.”

On Tuesday in the Stadium, his matchup against No. 29 seed Coric is a rematch of their only previous meeting in Osijek, Croatia, last month when the 21-year-old Croat prevailed 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in the deciding match of a Davis Cup World Group first round. But that was on a clay court indoors in Europe, on Tuesday it will be on a hard court outdoors in North America. Shapovalov, who has become the darling of the Miami fans and autograph seekers, will hope that works in his favour.

After holding serve to 5-4 in the final set against Querrey, he had a visit from ATP trainer Stéphane Vivier and had tape applied below his right knee. He later pulled out of his second-round doubles match with partner Hyeon Chung of South Korea.

Photo by: Mauricio Paiz

Vasek Pospisil had a solid showing at the 2018 Miami Open – scoring straight-set wins over No. 79 Ivo Karlovic and No. 34 Andrey Rublev before bowing out 7-5, 7-6(4) to No. 2 seed Cilic. Pospisil’s ranking coming out of Miami will be about No. 75 – enough to get him directly into the main draw at Roland Garros. But he will need a few more decent results in the next month or two to assure himself of a spot in Wimbledon’s main draw.

ANDREESCU AND MARINO IN JAPAN

Bianca Andreescu and Rebecca Marino are back on tour this week playing a $25,000 ITF Pro Circuit event in Kofu, Japan.

The No. 196-ranked Andreescu is seeded eighth and will face a 20-year-old Japanese wild card with no ranking, Ari Matsumoto, in the first round.

Marino, whose ranking is No. 624 after winning three and playing in four low-level ITF events in Turkey in January and February, has already won her way through qualifying – edging No. 336-ranked Momoko Kobori of Japan 2-6, 6-2, 6-3 in the final round. Her opponent in round one of the main draw will be 35-year-old, No. 203-ranked Junri Namigata of Japan.

In the previous four tournaments Marino played, the event champion received 12 WTA ranking points. By comparison, the winner in Kofu will get 50.

There are $25,000 ITF tournaments in the following weeks in Kashiwa and Osaka that Andreescu and Marino are expected to play.

Andreescu, 17, and possibly Marino, 27, would be candidates to represent Canada when it plays a Fed Cup World Group II playoff against Ukraine at STADE IGA in Montreal the weekend of April 21-22.

FOR THE SENIOR SET

Jimmy Connors, who won eight Grand Slams and more tournaments than anyone (109), is now 65 years old. Monday evening’s tweet above, possibly after a sip or two of vodka, says something about what a pleasant evening with his wife Patti is all about these days.

Feature Picture: Mauricio Paiz