Did A Perfect Storm Lead to the Hegemony of the Big Four? - UBITENNIS
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Did A Perfect Storm Lead to the Hegemony of the Big Four?

skip schwarzman

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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.

Whew.

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.

Consider:

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.

The strings

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Consider:

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.

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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.

 

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Thanks, as always, to my bounce-it-off-me editors, Rolo Tomassi and my long suffering wife, LB.

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Nadal, Djokovic And Federer Excelled On Manic Monday And That Isn’t A Good Thing

Why the dominance of the trio at Wimbledon should be admired, but not celebrated.

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WIMBLEDON: On a day where all the fourth round matches took place at The All England Club there was an inevitability in the men’s draw.

 

Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic all proved why they are the top three seeds. Producing a display that overwhelmed and frustrated their opponents. The trio along with Andy Murray have won the past 16 Wimbledon titles. A true testament to their dominance in the sport. On the other hand, it is also a somewhat mixed situation for the world of men’s tennis.

“I wasn’t feeling so good about my strokes, my serve, my forehand, backhand, everything. I wasn’t feeling so good, I didn’t expect to be tight, to be maybe not ready, but not like this.” Matteo Berrettini said following his loss to Federer.
“I was saying to myself that it was normal, for me, it was my first time on Centre Court against him.”

The brick wall put up by the Big Three at The All England Club can only be compared with the Great Wall of China. A gigantic structure that requires a huge effort to conquer it. Yet it is possible to scale it and people have done before. So there is one question that arises. Is the Big Three too good or are their challengers on the court not good enough?

World No.1 Novak Djokovic shed some light on the situation shortly after his straight-sets win over Ugo Humbert. The only member of the Next Generation to reach the last 16 of the tournament. Djokovic has been a giant in the world of grand slam tennis within the past 12 months. Winning three titles and reaching the semi-finals at Roland Garros.

“I think we are working as hard as anybody really to be there. I think the experience we have helps confidence, everything that we have achieved in our careers obviously we carry onto the court, then most of the players feel that, feel the pressure.” He said.
“For us, it’s another match on the center stage that we’ve experienced so many times. I think that’s one of the reasons why we, I guess, feel comfortable being there and managing to play our best consistently.”

Experience certainly pays it part. 14 out of the 16 players to reach the fourth round are over the age of 27 and eight of those are over the age of 30. However, when the older guys of the tour has had a shot on Manic Monday in the past against the Big Three they fell short. What is it that they are doing wrong?

“I think the best guys now are fully engaged, they know exactly what to expect from the court and the conditions. That helps us to play better.” Explains Federer.
“I think with experience, that’s good. We haven’t dropped much energy in any way. It’s not like we’re coming in with an empty tank into the second week.’
“All these little things help us to then really thrive in these conditions. I don’t know what else it is.”

Fortunately, Federer and Co are human. Even if it is hard to believe when they illustrate such breathtaking tennis at times. Serena Williams describes Federer’s play as that similar to an elegant Ballerina. The way he moves around the court effortlessly and dictates the points.

One people aiming to rain on the parade of the big guns is Sam Querrey. A 31-year-old American who reached the semi-finals of the major back in 2017. Against Tennys Sandgren on Monday, he produced 25 aces and won 83% of his first service points on route to victory. Setting up a clash with Nadal. Somebody who he beat in their last meeting back in 2017, but trails their overall head-to-head 1-5.

“In order to kind of break that streak, it’s most likely beating Rafa, Federer, Djokovic. The mountain gets very steep from here to break that trend, but I’m going to do the best I can.” Said Querrey.
“I like playing here (at Wimbledon). I’m comfortable here. This seems to be the slam where you’ve got odd results, if you want to call them, over the, you know, last 25 years.”

In an era that is dominated by a selected group of players, there are both admiration and frustration among both players and fans. Their achievements have been incredible, but when will a fresh face live up to the hype on a consistent basis? Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas are all huge threats. Just not on a regular enough basis.

“I am not thinking about sending a message about the next generation, how they are coming or not. I know they’re good.” Nadal stated.
“I know there is going to be a day where they are going to be in front of us because they will play better than us or because we are leaving (the sport), we are not kids anymore. That’s all.”
“It is special what we achieved in the last 15 years. Something special, difficult to repeat I think, so many titles between three players. But sometimes these kinds of things happen.”

Men’s tennis is undoubtedly in the midst of a unique period with some of the greatest ever players taking to the court’s. However, is their dominance too much of a good thing?

Only time will tell when the trio retires and men’s tennis are left facing the prospect of trying to fill in their shoes. A task that is as exciting as it is terrifying for the next contingent of players.

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Wimbledon: Where The Young Guns Of Men’s Tennis Failed To Deliver

The grass promised to be a surface where shocks could occur. Instead, the future stars of the sport endured a nightmare.

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photo by Roberto Dell'Olivo

WIMBLEDON: There was a sense of optimism that this year’s Wimbledon Championships would see the younger protagonists of the men’s tour finally have their breakthrough. In reality, it was a tournament filled with disappointment for almost all of them.

 

Heading into the second week of the grass-court major only two players left are under the age of 25. Ugo Humbert at the age of 23 and Matteo Barratini at 21. It is a sharp contrast to the women’s draw, which has been shaken by the rise of 15-year-old Cori Gauff. Two-time French open finalist Dominic Thiem, multiple Masters champion Alexander Zverev and Australian Open semi-finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas all fell at the first hurdle.

“I lost my first rounds ’99, 2000, had a run in 2001, then lost first round again 2002. I don’t know if it was because of lack of experience.” Federer reflected about the misfortunes of his younger rivals.
“The panic can set in quickly on this surface. I don’t know if that’s got something to do, and if age calms the nerves there. I’m not sure. I think also it’s maybe a moment in time.”

John McEnroe had previously tipped Tsitsipas to have a deep run at The All England Club. Commenting about the Next Generation earlier this week, the former world No.1 told BBC TV he ‘was still waiting for them to come.’ To a certain extent, he is correct. Although they have previously shined on the ATP Tour winning titles. So what makes grand slams so much harder?

“We know how hard it is to beat Novak, how hard it is to beat Rafa here. Me, as well.” Federer explained. “I have a great record here. We obviously also have better draws because we’re seeded, and we’re away from the bigger seeds earlier.’
“Our path to the fourth round is definitely not as hard as maybe some of the younger guys on the tour, as well.”

Grand slams are played in a best-of-five format. Some would argue that the longer matches can take it tolls on the rising stars of the game. However, the likes of Boris Becker and Rafael Nadal has achieved major success before their 20th birthday. Furthermore, the development is sport science in recent years have been a massive boost for helping players develop.

So maybe the real problem for Zverev and Co is themselves. 18-year-old Felix Auger Allissme, who is the youngest player to break into the top 25 since Lleyton Hewitt back in 1999, fared better at Wimbledon. Reaching the third round before going out to Umbert.

“Pressure got to me, and… it got to a point where it was a bit embarrassing,” The Canadian said following his loss. “It was just tough. I just wasn’t finding ways. I think he just did what he had to do. It was solid.”

For Tsitsipas, he had another explanation for the series of below-par performances. Saying that all of the Next Gen contingent lack consistency on the tour. There are currently six played in the top 50 under the age of 21. Three have those have managed to reach multiple semi-finals of the ATP Tour so far this season – Tsitsipas (6), Auger-Aliassime (5) and Taylor Fritz (3).

“We’ve seen players my age, many years ago. I would like to name Rafa, Roger, seemed very mature and professional what they were doing. They had consistency from a young age. They always did well tournament by tournament without major drops or inconsistency.” The Greek explained.
“Something that we as the Next Gen players lack, including me as well, is this inconsistency week by week. It’s a week-by-week problem basically, that we cannot adjust to that.”

The younger stars of the sport will eventually win at grand slam level. The only thing to wonder if will that happen before the Big Four retire from the sport? Novak Djokovic was just 20 when he won his first title at the 2008 Australian Open. For him, he can relate to the misfortunes of his opponents.

“I remember how it was for me when I won my first slam in 2008. For a few years, I was No.3, No.4 in the world, which was great, but I wasn’t able to make that next step in the Slams and win Slams. I know how that feels.” Said Djokovic.
‘There is time. I understand that people want them to see a new winner of a Grand Slam. They don’t want to see three of us dominating the Slam titles. Eventually, it’s going to come, in about 25 years, then we’ll all be happy [smiling].’ he later joked.

Seven days into Wimbledon, Berrettini and Umbert are left flying the flag for the future generation of the men’s tennis. Both of those will play a member of the Big Four on Monday. Berrettini plays Federer and Umbert faces Federer. It remains to be seen if they can silence critics with a shock win.

Wimbledon fourth round players by age

Roger Federer SWI – 37
Fernando Verdasco ESP – 35
Rafael Nadal ESP – 33
Novak Djokovic SRB – 32
Roberto Bautista Agut ESP – 31
Mikhail Kukushkin KAZ – 31
Sam Querrey USA – 31
Joao Sousa POR – 30
Benoite Paire FRA – 30
Guido Pella ARG – 29
Kei Nishikori JPA – 29
Milos Raonic CAN – 28
David Goffin BEL – 28
Tennys Sandgren USA – 27
Matteo Berrettini ITA – 23
Ugo Humbert FRA – 21

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Bad Boy Nick Kyrgios Is Both Controversial And A Hit With Fans At Wimbledon

Like his career, Kyrgios’ first round win was anything but ordinary at The All England Club. Not that this is a bad thing for the sport.

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Nick Kyrgios of Australia is pictured in action during day four of ATP Fever-Tree Championships tennis tournament at Queen's Club in west London on June 19, 2019.

WIMBLEDON: In the era of the Big Four it takes somebody unique to be able to attract mass interest at a grand slam and Nick Kyrgios without a doubt fits into that category.

 

Known for his unpredictable behavior, the Australian has previously been sanctioned for throwing a chair, allegedly tanking and even lobbing his racket outside of the court. At the same time, he has scored high-profile wins over players such as Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

During his first round match at Wimbledon on Tuesday, Court Three was packed with fans wanting to see Kyrgios’ clash against compatriot Jordan Thompson. At one stage there was no room for any members of the media to enter. Shouts of ‘come on Nick’ erupted throughout the marathon encounter, which ended with Kyrgios prevailing 7-6(4), 3-6, 7-6(10), 0-6, 6-1. Setting up a potential blockbuster meeting with Rafael Nadal if he wins his first round match.

“It was incredibly tough,” Kyrgios said following his 213-minute clash. “I think coming into today, Tomo (Thompson) is probably one of the most in-form grass courters of the season. He made his first final in S’hertogenbosch. He’s obviously feeling pretty comfortable on the grass.”

The 24-year-old illustrated why he is one of the most popular characters in the sport during his first round match. At first, it looked as if the world No.43 would be crashing out in no time. Rushing between points and struggling to find any consistency in his play. However, as the match progressed, so did Kyrgios’ level and commitment. Much to the frustration of his opponent and the delight of the British crowd.

A series of failed tweener shots alongside serves exceeding the 130 mph benchmark pretty much summarised his performance. Playing around on the court, Kyrgios undoubtedly entertained everybody with his antics. Prompting laughter on numerous occasions.

“I just go out there, have fun, play the game how I want it to be played,” Kyrgios explained.
“At the end of the day, I know people are going to watch. They can say the way I play isn’t right or he’s classless for the sport, all that sort of stuff. They’re probably still going to be there watching. Doesn’t really make sense.”

It is hard to argue with Kyrgios’ statement when you look at the media back in his home country. Playing at the same time as women’s world No.1 Ash Barty, Channel Seven opted to broadcast live his match instead of hers.

The drama

Of course, it would not be a Kyrgios match if there wasn’t drama. After the second set, he took a medical time out for treatment on his hip/back region. Soon after his fragile temperament was exposed as he grew annoyed by members of the crowd.

“They’re bringing a camera the size of a tennis racket to the court and it’s sunny. Maybe the lens is shining in their eyes. I don’t know. You know?” He said to the umpire.

Following on from that a code violation for unsportsmanlike conduct came before a poor line called triggered him off once again.

“I’m playing for hundreds of thousands of dollars out here. Why is the linesman not getting fined? Tell me. Why?” He stated.

Despite those outbursts, Kyrgios still had the crowd fullying backing him. Further proof of his popularity. A 22-point tiebreaker in the third set revived his momentum on the court after prevailing on his eighth set point. Causing more anguish for Thompson. Fittingly the match ended in appropriate Kyrgios style with him getting bageled before racing through the decider. Something he admitted was a ‘tactic.’

Should Kyrgios face Nadal next, it is almost certain their clash will be played on Center Court. The Australian may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it is clear that he is a force in the sport.

“I think everyone just goes about their business the way they are. I think that the sport has a serious problem with that. I mean, just because I’m different, I go about it a different way, it causes a stir.” Said Kyrgios.
“I understand that people are different and people are going to play differently. If everyone was the same, it would be very boring, no?’
“I mean, I don’t think there’s a shortage of entertainers. I just think people go about it differently. Different perspectives. I don’t understand why it’s so hard for people to understand that.”

Love him or hate him, Kyrgios has zero plans of changing his ways.

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