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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Monday, January 30, 2023
Rushad Machhi

Column: End of the Big Four tennis reign

This past Saturday afternoon, when Marin Cilic rocketed a forehand winner down the line past a defeated Roger Federer to secure a spot in the U.S. Open men’s tennis final against Kei Nishikori, a stat popped onto the TV screen that made my jaw hit the floor.

The caption informed viewers that Monday’s final would be the first men’s Grand Slam final since the 2005 Australian Open to not feature Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic.

To put that year in perspective, the first iPhone would not be released for another two years, Barry Alvarez was still the head coach of the Badgers, and people still liked Alex Rodriguez.

To a whole generation of tennis fans, Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic, or more commonly known as the Big Four, defined the sport. They produced an unprecedented era of dominance where the four of them had won 36 out of the 38 Grand Slams since that 2005 Australian Open.

Sadly, those days appear to be coming to an end, marked by the first Big Four-less Grand Slam final in nearly a decade.

The 2014 U.S. Open was not the first indication of the decline of the Big Four. That actually started during this season’s first major when Stanislas Wawrinka shocked the world by defeating Nadal in the Australian Open final.

Wawrinka plays with a powerful style that has always given Nadal a tough time. Nadal still wins most of these matchups, but the most telling part of the match was when Nadal injured his back in the second set.

Nadal’s grueling defensive style puts a toll on his body, and it has really shown the past few years. Recurring injuries have forced Nadal to withdraw from at least one Grand Slam tournament each of the past three years, including this year’s U.S. Open.

Nadal is not the only member of the Big Four to suffer from the injury bug, as Murray went under the knife late last season to fix his nagging back. He has not played the same since, being eliminated in the quarterfinals in three of four majors this season and slipping all the way to No. 10 in the ATP rankings.

With Nadal having just turned 28 this past June and Murray turning 28 next spring, their relative young ages would point to a full recovery, but that is not the case in tennis. In most sports, the prime years of an athlete occur between the ages of 27 and 30. However, in tennis, most players start their prime at 24 and are on the tail end of their careers by 28.

This especially appears true with the legends of the sport. After their 28th birthdays, Pete Sampras only won three of his 14 majors, Jimmy Connors three of his eight and Federer two of his 17. Björn Borg and John McEnroe did not win any majors past the age of 26.

With Federer now 33, Nadal already at 28, and both Murray and Djokovic hitting the magic number next spring, age might be the biggest reason their dynasty has come to an end.

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While the Big Four has definitely approached the age of decline, someone still had to beat them, and it appears that a new and younger generation of worthy challengers has emerged.

Let’s first begin with the two U.S. Open finalists, Cilic and Nishikori. Both are under 26 and both finished off members of the Big Four (Nishikori against Djokovic, Cilic against Federer) in under five sets, with Cilic’s straight-sets victory looking especially dominant.

Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov and Ernests Gulbis all made the semifinals in a major this year as well, and none of them are older than 26. The emergence of these fresher legs only adds to the difficulty the Big Four will have in continuing their reign.

Of course, this does not mean members of the Big Four will not continue to win majors. While this year will mark the first year since 2003 that the Big Four did not win at least three of the four majors in a season, they still won two of them this year. Nadal won his astounding ninth French Open this year and still does not appear ready to give up his title as the “King of Clay.”

Djokovic won Wimbledon this year, and his match against Nishikori was actually much closer than it appeared, as he actually won more total points while losing in four sets.

However, with injuries, age, and a new talent pool emerging, this year’s U.S. Open can only signal the end of a period of dominance for the Big Four. With Cilic crushing Nishikori in straight sets Monday afternoon for his first major, a new day has begun in men’s tennis.

Is this really the end of the Big Four era? Or is it just a blip on the radar? Email machhi@wisc.edu to tell him your thoughts.

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