Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have defined the tennis landscape for the past ten years, but earlier this month they dropped out of the top four on the ATP singles rankings the first time in 13 years – which begs the question, what’s next for tennis after this golden era.
Together with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, Swiss skill and precision has shone alongside the bullish brute force of the Spaniard, making for the most dominant quartet rivalries in the history of the men’s game.
Drill a little deeper into the numbers however, and it is easy to see that it was Federer and Nadal who set the bar that both the Serb and the Scot would subsequently aspire too in recent years.
They are the only men to have finished six consecutive calendar years as the top two ranked players on the ATP Tour, which they did from 2005–10. Truly astonishing dominance, during which they recorded 211 consecutive weeks sharing the top two spots in the game from July 2005 to August 2009.
They played head-to-head a staggering 34 times in their career – most recently in the 2015 Swiss Indoors final after which Nadal has an overall lead of 23–11. On top of this, these racquet-wielding gladiators contested every French Open and Wimbledon final from 2006 to 2008.
Their titanic 2008 final on the hallowed grass of the All England Club is still lauded as the greatest match ever by many long-time tennis analysts, with Nadal’s win the following year not far behind.
The ‘Big Four’s’ statistics are just as impressive. Not only have they won 90% of the Major titles contested since 2005, but at least one of them has been present in 46 of the last 47 Grand Slam finals, while they have also won every Wimbledon Men’s Singles title between them since 2003.
This kind of dominance is hugely impressive and it is further proof of the fact that it is great rivalries that make and define the sporting narrative. Arsenal against Manchester United fueled the first decade of Premier League action, while Senna and Prost turned Formula One into a truly global sport. Then there’s tennis, where the great matches of Borg and McEnroe or Agassi and Sampras were no doubt a fillip to the careers of the young Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray.
With these four in place, over the past ten years the stars have truly aligned for tennis as never before. Four rivals, each of whom would probably have dominated any other era of tennis, have served up some of the greatest Grand Slam Finals of the open era.
We’ve become used to these four titans conjuring up extraordinary five set thrillers, epic 20 minute games within matches, allied with scarcely believable comebacks. We’ve probably rooted for and against all of them at different times and we’ve all got our favourite.
What now though for tennis, now that two of its biggest names are on the wane?
The self proclaimed ‘golden era’ is coming to an end, Djokovic and Murray have stepped forward as the dominant players in the game. A disorderly queue as long as Marin Cilic’s arm of younger rivals are ready to challenge them at every turn.
For fans of the game, we can only sit back and hope that this next generation will have been suitably inspired by what has come before, but can we really expect them to hit the heady heights and serve up vociferous rivalries in the post ‘Big Four’ era?
The ATP has been working on this transition for some time with its #NextGen campaign to help to promote the tennis stars of the future. A #NextGen dedicated tournament for the top eight players aged 21 or under in the ATP Tour rankings will launch in November next year. The qualifying will be similar to the ATP World Tour Finals, unless they qualify for the ATP WTF at the 02, which would be a nice problem to have.
Only time will tell, but uncovering who the next ‘big thing’ in men’s tennis will be, could be just as thrilling a journey over the next five years… #NextGEN