Tennis Thoughts: Can the Big Four Bounce Back?

Despite resurgent seasons from Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the other half of tennis’ Big Four had 2017’s to forget.

Updated: Dec. 1, 2017 • 10:57 AM ET

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer each had a resurgent 2017.

Even though Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer split the spoils of the Grand Slams and ended at the top of the rankings, respectively, the Big Four lost big in 2017. 


As much as fate favored Federer and Nadal this year, injury and plain-old bad play interfered to throw the entire Big Four, Nadal and Federer plus Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, under the bus. 


For more than a decade, these four men regularly had held the top four places. This year, however, Murray and Djokovic faced worthy foes and career-crushing injuries that forced them to end their seasons soon after Wimbledon. As a result, they ended the year ranked 16 and 12, respectively. The players who moved in and up now await their turns to prove that what they accomplished in 2017 wasn’t entirely due to the absence of the elite. 


Nadal (31 years old), Federer (36) and Stan Wawrinka, the outlier of the Big Four at 32 years old, are the oldest men in the ATP’s latest top 10 rankings. If Murray and Djokovic, both 30 years old, don’t fulfill their expected return to form early next year, however, the Golden Era of men’s tennis could come to a close.  


The 2017 story began in Melbourne at the Australian Open after Federer had returned from a seven-month injury time out. Murray, world No. 1 at the time, and Djokovic, No. 2, were highly favored to dominate the first Grand Slam of the year. But they stumbled with Murray losing to 50th ranked Misha Zverev in the first week and Djokovic having bombed out earlier to 117th ranked Denis Istomin. 


The draw aligned like stars in the heavens as Federer and Nadal advanced to the final Down Under, their first head-to-head final since the 2011 French Open. And like most of their previous eight meetings in major finals, Nadal was poised to win after taking a 3-1 lead in the fifth set. But that’s when the magic ignited, at least as far as Federer was concerned. His calm mind and rested soul worked overtime to produce one of the top matches of his career and 2017. Federer won his 18th Grand Slam, his first since Wimbledon 2012.


“I don’t think either one of us believed that we were going to be in the finals of Australia when we saw each other at your academy four or five months ago, and here we stand in the finals,” Federer said addressing Nadal and the Aussie crowed immediately after the match. “I’m happy for you. I would have been happy to lose too, to be honest. The comeback was perfect as it was.”


The tone for the year was set. It was perfection. The age-old rivalry had reignited tennis, especially with Serena and Venus Williams celebrating their one-two finish in women’s singles in Melbourne. But as much as Melbourne bode well for tennis, Murray’s and Djokovic’s performances began to slide.

Andy Murray may be looking to put 2017 behind him.

Murray lost to Wawrinka in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros and to Sam Querrey in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. Although the Scot didn’t retire in either of the five-set tussles, he lost the last two sets to Querrey in July, 6-1, 6-1, limping from point to point with an increasingly agitated hip. Several weeks later, Murray announced he was finished for the season with one title in hand from Dubai. You have to consider that in the back of his mind, a strong start to 2018 would rise on the horizon as it had for Federer.

Novak Djokovic is looking to claim another major title in 2018 after failing to do so in 2017.

Djokovic also struggled in 2017, as his game was spotty and he acted out. He sparred with chair umpires, duplicating unsportsmanlike behaviors that many thought had vanished with age. He lost twice to Aussie bad boy Nick Kyrgios, in Acapulco and Indian Wells, respectively. On Europe’s red clay in Monte Carlo, he lost to David Goffin for the first time in six meetings. Nadal easily defeated Djokovic in the semifinals of Madrid, as did Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros. Then, at Wimbledon, Tomas Berdych pulled the grass out from under the Serb’s feet in the quarterfinals, as their head-to-head record was so lopsided at the time (25-2), no one in their right betting mind would’ve put money on the Czech. 


Djokovic’s mind and body was bent, his elbow a chronic problem that many speculated would take him down (perhaps permanently). He called it a year before the U.S. Open began in late August. 


Wawrinka’s left knee was a mess, so he followed suit. Four other players had called it quits, too, not playing a match after Wimbledon. In all, seven of the top 20 had exited the game, including bright new stars Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori.


“Let’s see if it continues,” Paul Annacone, former coach and tennis analyst, told The New York Times. “I think it’s been one of those years, but if it goes into 2018, then I would start to go: What is happening? What are we doing? Is it the physicality? The heaviness of the balls? The length of the season?”


Without crystal balls, tennis is at a loss to predict what will happen in a couple months when the Australian Open gets underway. But we sure know what the withdrawals of all those top players did for the hungry up-starts and revivalists.


Grigor Dimitrov, tapped for years to excel into the top 10, ended the year at No. 3 after winning his first and biggest title of his career at the ATP World Tour Finals. He rose 14 spots for the year.


Alexander Zverev, the youngest member of the top 10 and probably the most gifted, according to Federer, ended the year at No. 4 with five titles tucked in his court bag. He beat Djokovic to win Rome and Federer to win Montreal, both Masters 1000 tournaments.


Thiem, at No. 5, rose three spots for the year, while Goffin ended up at No. 7, his first top 10 appearance.


And finally, American Jack Sock came out of nowhere in 2017. Ranked above 20 at the start of Paris, in November, he pulled off the win at the Rolex Masters to become the last person of the elite eight invited to London. He advanced to the semifinals there and now sits pretty at No. 9 in the ATP rankings. Finally, Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta, who replaced Nadal in London, claims the 10th spot.  


However, looking at one key stat from, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic had the highest win-loss percentages for the year, with Murray coming in eighth. That means when they play, they’ll probably win, which puts them at an advantage looking to next year. But only if injuries are contained.


The New York Times reported this week that “a record 43 players aged 30 or over finished in the top 100 this year.” If the Big Four can maintain their winning percentages and schedule time off, which is only pertinent for papa Federer being five years the elder, then their chances of a bounce-back are high in 2018.


Who will present the biggest challenges to the Big Four’s success in 2018? Here are three names to remember: Zverev, Thiem and Goffin. All three produced miraculous wins in 2017.


Goffin’s dismantling of Federer during the ATP World Tour Finals, when the Belgian said the day prior to their match that he had no idea how to beat Federer and hadn’t in their six matches, signaled change. Dimitrov taking down Goffin to win the biggest title of his career and the biggest title outside of Grand Slams, signaled change.


They’re both Federer fans. They both fashioned their style after Federer, as well. And who better to undermine the best but replicas who knew at the start of their careers what would win them matches.


Perhaps we have come full circle.

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