Did A Perfect Storm Lead to the Hegemony of the Big Four?
As the 2018 season ramps up, and notwithstanding the ATP year end finals, we all marvel at the year’s results from Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer. Here is a moment’s pause to consider their unprecedented reign at the top of the tennis world along with Djokovic and Murray and, perhaps to a great degree, how it came to pass.
A quick statement of historical fact: the domination of either the men’s or women’s field by such a small group as Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, and Murray has never happened before in the history of the game. Ever. Most of us are familiar with the numbers, but here’s a brief summary:
- Since 2004 no one outside the group has held the #1 men’s ranking, period, at any time during the year.
- Between them they’ve won 50 of the 56 singles titles at the Grand Slam tournaments since the group’s first Grand Slam title, Federer’s Wimbledon title in 2003.
- They’ve taken 3 out of 4 Olympic gold medals in singles since that first Grand Slam title.
- There have been 130 Masters tournaments played since Federer’s ’03 win at Wimbledon; the four have taken 101 of the titles.
- Since 2005 the Big Four have won 84% of the combined Grand Slam, Masters, and main tour ATP tournaments played.
How is this possible?
It is easy to say they are supremely talented. It’s accurate. We could leave it at that. There is nothing false about the statement.
At the same time there has been a convergence of changes in tennis – some organic, others with intentional goals – that have helped the Big Four make history this way. Like a hot house environment for creating new varieties of flowers, the world of pro tennis became fertile ground for an intensification of a particular style of play; advances in equipment led to stroke production changes, and when changes in playing conditions and tournament structures were added to that mix they all blossomed into modern tennis, and we got the junta we call the Big Four.
Racquet head size
Radical changes in equipment make their greatest impact via the young athletes who start out learning the game with the new gear; they are the ones best able to exploit the advantages afforded by the newness, having fewer habits to break that are based on the old tech.
As an example:
- the oversized racquet was introduced in 1975
- Pam Shriver was the first to use one in a Grand Slam tournament final, in 1978.
- Michael Chang, 3 years old in 1975, was the first to take a major title with an oversized frame, winning the French in 1989.
It took 14 years for the bigger head racquet to come of age in the pro game.
1997: Gustavo Kuertan introduces Luxilon polyester strings to the ATP in a big, big way, winning his first of 3 French Open titles. When asked what Lux did for his game, Guga answered, “Three French Open, one Masters Cup.”
The poly strings gave players the previously unheard of ability to swing hard, really hard, and keep the ball in play. The more successful a player’s technical adaptation to the strings the more the ball stayed in court when cracked explosively. The most obvious result?: the Nadal forehand and all its progeny (e.g., Sock, Edmund).
To see the converse, watch Eddie Dibbs’ forehand in this 1976 match against Cliff Drysdale. Dibbs’ forehand grip and swing don’t look odd or old-fashioned to the modern eye, but with a wood racquet and gut strings he didn’t have the option of repeatedly explosive forehands. The equipment didn’t make it possible. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to, or that it hadn’t been thought of, it just couldn’t be done. Yet.
1997: Federer is 16 years old, Nadal is 11, Djokovic and Murray are both 10; all young enough to take the raw clay of Kuertan’s strings’ potential and mold it into tennis’ new technical and tactical paradigm.
A Word About Details That Never Mattered Before
Once we mention racquet head speed it’s worth a moment’s pause to give credit to aerodynamics in racquet design. If one’s searching for the holy grail of ultimate swing speed, and who isn’t these days, fine tuning a racquet’s aero qualities begins to be worthwhile, ergo sticks like the Babolat Aero Drive model line. Maybe we could have swung 65 square inch head wood racquets fast enough to create spin, but with their tiny sweet spots we’d never have found it profitable. Once frames could be made narrow, and racquet throats open, aero became valuable.
The ATP tour changes the field of play, literally
This is the breakdown of tournament court surfaces between 1990 and 2017:
1990: hard 31 (37.8%) / clay 28 34.1%) / grass 5 (6.1%) / carpet 18 (22%)
2017: hard 39 (56.5%) / clay 22 (31.9%) / grass 8 (11.6%) / carpet 0 (0%)
Though this sampling of just two specific years of ATP results is far from an exhaustive survey, I believe that overall they support this argument:
- Racquet sports are more fundamentally defensive than the more pervasive, big time sporting contests. You have to score points in football of any type, basketball, hockey, and baseball; without scoring a point the best you can do is tie. In tennis, like all racquet sports, all you need to do is not miss, continually, and you will win.
- The reward for playing defensively increases as the conditions make it easier to get a ball back in play. After considering the weather, court surface is the most telling match condition, which is why clay courts have always benefitted defensive play the most, well before Open tennis. (This is not to say there is no offense on clay, but the points are longer, a clear sign that it’s harder to put the ball away.)
Conversely, faster courts benefit offensive play, which translates into shorter points characterized by more point-ending shotmaking.
Combined with the commonly acknowledged slowing of hard courts over the past 15 years, and similar changes in grass courts, the disappearance of quick courts like carpet means defensive play has gained in value at the expense of offense.
A comparison of two 128 mph Federer serves, one in 2001 and the other in 2008, illustrates that the 2008 serve arrives at the receiver 9 mph slower than its 2001 counterpart. Clearly the return, the defensive beginning to a point’s offensive opening of the serve, has become more easier, and therefore more important.
SIDE NOTE 2001: Did the ammunition get specialized, too?
Although the 2001 Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the International Tennis Federation (ITF) approved a previous experiment in tennis ball standards and made permanent 3 types of approved balls, there’s zero evidence the Type 3 balls have ever been used at professional tournaments
- Type 1, to speed up playing characteristics; standard tennis balls but made with shells of harder rubber than full standard Type 2 balls
- Type 2, fully standard tennis balls
- Type 3, to slow down playing characteristics; a ball 6% larger in diameter than Type 1 or Type 2 which leaves a racquet at the same speed as the other balls but slows down more quickly due to the increased friction caused by the greater surface area
The ITF was quoted as having created the Type 3 ball with the goal of “slowing the game down and reducing the dominance of big servers on fast surfaces.” Read more about this here, here, and here, but remember that there’s no online confirmation that balls at pro tournaments were ever switched to Type 3 standards.
2001: The top players get an extra layer of protection
In 2001 the major tournaments, i.e., those with 128 draws (irrespective of whether they were Grand Slam tourneys or not) began seeding 32 players rather than 16, which had been the previous standard. (This is changing back, to 16 seeds, in 2019.)
Functionally, this means a top 16 seed won’t see a player ranked 17-32 (inclusive) until the 3rd round, at the earliest. Before this, of course, a top seed might have met dangerous floaters ranked 17-32 in the first or second rounds. That’s a big deal, especially on any court that’s quick enough to give a shot at taking out a top player to a big hitter who’s in the zone.
Every player still has to beat whoever’s on the other side of the net, round by round. But if the structure of the draw keeps the 2nd tier players away from the 1st tier for an additional round or two, well, you have to believe that gives the players seeded 1-16 a better chance of finding their form in 128 draw tourneys.
Every year since 1968…..
Someone once taught me Rule #1: “More money is better.”
In 1969 Rod Laver became the first player to win $100,000 in prize money in one year.
Think about that.
What did that mean about how Laver and others, earning far less on the pro tour, were able to ply their trade, well after 1969? Many top pros were still being housed in private homes during major tournaments in the early 70s. Bringing coaches, significant others, physios, and others on tour with you simply wasn’t an option. Knowing how and when to change prize money from one country’s currency to another was a prized skill, if not an art, and that assumed you had prize money to begin with. And air travel? Well, let’s just say that first class never came into the conversation, let alone Net Jets.
As a result, pros of the past played more matches per year. They had to, they had to earn a living. We can argue that the style of play was or wasn’t more taxing, but more matches is more matches. Take a look at another 1990/2017 comparison and tell me you wouldn’t prefer the 2017 schedule.
1990 #1 Stefan Edberg singles matches played 85 / doubles 28 113 total matches
2017 #1 Rafa Nadal singles matches played 78 / doubles 2 80 total matches
Edberg played 9% more singles matches in 1990 than Nadal in 2017, and 33% more matches overall.
Increased prize money gave tennis’ top pros the ability to schedule their years more around their competitive needs than their financial concerns. Less tired translates into losing less.
It would be silly, or worse, to say Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray are great only because of of these changes in tennis, that without new racquets and techniques, slower courts and rule changes they’d have toiled namelessly in the middle ranks of tennis pros. Drop any one of them in any generation’s mix of champions – especially, given their ridiculous overall records, Federer or Nadal – and they would have been top-ranked players. Of that there can be no doubt.
The nature of these shifts in tennis, however, still makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts; take any one or two of these tennis evolutions on their own, say polyester strings, and the game would not have seen seismic change. Poly strings in wood racquets, for example, even in Vilas’ open throat wood-composite Head stick, would have never been a worthwhile advancement, and wouldn’t have changed the game they way they have in concert with the other evolutions. The earliest Prince racquet, in aluminum, was never a legitimate tool for the pros, it simply wasn’t up to the job. But it paved the way for Chang’s Prince Graphite, and we know what that led to…..
The Big Four would shine like super novas in any tennis era. At the same time there have to be reasons why this almost incomprehensible domination by a few players has come about for the only time in tennis’ history. Otherwise we have to say these four are simply far, far more talented than all who have come before and I, for one, am not ready to say that.
The fact is that the game has mutated, shifted so that playing defensively is, excuse the expression, easier. Bigger racquets with bigger sweetspots that let us control more balls in more extreme situations; strings, grips, and swing paths that allow for hellacious amounts of get-out-of-jail topspin compared to gut; slower courts. They all increase a player’s chance to get the ball back one more time, and if great gets aren’t what you see more than ever from the best players, points that no one seems to be able to finish, then you haven’t been watching. Do we really think the serve/return/volley, serve, serve, serve/return excesses of the early 90s, Eastern grips, and bumpy grass courts disappeared all by themselves?
The Big Four, none of whom are 3 or 4 shots per point specialists, have ruled tennis by exploiting their amazing talents. They’re astounding athletes. Yet we also see that in no small way their domination has been fueled by the increased access to defense; in their cases, phenomenal defense. They’ve been given the means to get one more ball back, again and again, more often, than ever before in tennis’ history. They’ve made the best of tennis’ perfect storm of evolutionary changes.
On the other hand, they could be aliens.
Thanks, as always, to my bounce-it-off-me editors, Rolo Tomassi and my long suffering wife, LB.