The last 15 years has been an amazing time to be a tennis fan. The Big 4 of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have taken men’s tennis to new heights of popularity, skill and domination. The Big 4 have won 50 of the last 55 major titles dating back to the 2005 French Open. Since Federer reached world no. 1 on February 2, 2004, no one outside the Big 4 has reached world no. 1. That’s a combined total of 780 weeks (and counting) divided among these 4 guys. It is fair to say that these guys have defined men’s tennis over the past 15 years.
The Big 4 occupied the top 4 spots in the ATP rankings for the first time in 2008. That’s a fair way back. They’re all pretty old now, by tennis standards. It is not easy being at the top of such a physical sport into your 30s. The odds are against them, but these guys know how to put themselves through the grind. Over the last 4-5 years, they’ve all had moments where they’ve looked down and out, people have written them off. Today, Djokovic, Nadal and Federer are ranked 1, 2 and 3 in the world. Murray is planning to retire by this year’s Wimbledon.
Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have all had their comeback fairy tale. The challenges faced by the three were quite different in many ways. But there are a couple of things in common. Firstly, it seemed far from certain that they would make a comeback. In Federer and Nadal’s case, most people would have likely even bet against it. Secondly, they all made the comeback. And of course, by comeback I mean winning major titles. These guys have reached such incredible heights that anything less just does not qualify.
Federer is kind of the elder statesman of the Big 4, being 5 years older than Nadal and 6 years older than Djokovic and Murray. For many years, his numbers and achievements have been setting the benchmarks in tennis. So it was in a way fitting that he set the benchmark in this series of comebacks as well. It was swift, decisive and stunning.
Heading into the 2017 Australian Open, Federer had not won a major title since Wimbledon 2012, although he had always kept himself in contention. In February of 2016, Federer underwent a knee surgery. He came back to the tour, but was far from his best. He skipped the 2016 French Open, halting a record run of 65 consecutive Grand Slam participations. At Wimbledon, he incredibly made the semi-finals, despite clearly struggling physically. Following Wimbledon, he declared that he would take the rest of the season off in order to try and fully recover.
Before the start of the 2017 Australian Open, Federer had said that reaching the 3rd or 4th round at Melbourne would be a pretty good result. It was hard to argue. This was a 35 year old guy coming off a 6 month injury layoff. We all know what happened after that though. Federer fought his way through a brutally tough draw beating Berdych, Nishikori, Wawrinka and Nadal en route to winning his 18th slam title, almost 5 years after his 17th.
Of course, that was not the end of it. Federer would go on to win the sunshine double and then Wimbledon and finish 2017 with an incredible win-loss record of 52-5. In 2018, he would win his 6th Australian Open and also become the oldest world no. 1 in the history of the sport at 36.
Nadal also entered the 2017 Australian Open without much expectations. He had steadily declined since the 2014 French Open and hadn’t been past the quarter finals of a slam since then. He had struggled with form and fitness and had taken the last couple of months of the 2016 season off.
The runners-up showing at the Australian Open definitely set him on his road back to the top. He said he felt like he was ready to compete at a high level once again. But his favourite surface, clay, was yet to come. And boy, did Nadal “tear it up”. He romped through to his 5th Madrid title and unprecedented 10th titles at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Roland Garros with an air of invincibility and inevitability. He then won the US Open and finished 2017 as year-end no. 1. 2018 brought a mind-boggling 11th title at each of Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Roland Garros alongside an 8th title at Rome.
By winning the 2016 French Open, Djokovic became the first man since Rod Laver way back in 1969 to hold all 4 major trophies. And then he just seemed to fall off the top of a cliff. His results for the rest of 2016 and the first half of 2017 just were not up to his lofty standards. It was a tumultuous decline during which he split with his long time coach, Marian Vajda and fitness team. After Wimbledon 2017, he decided to take a 6 month break in order to fully recover from an elbow injury.
2018 did not start well either with an early exit from the Australian Open. Towards the end of January, he underwent a minor elbow surgery. In April, he reunited with Vajda and slowly started rediscovering his form. The real comeback was Wimbledon. He had played well at Queen’s, and was looking good heading into Wimbledon. At Wimbledon, he cruised through to the semi-finals, where he showed his trademark grit and fighting abilities to overcome Nadal in an epic. He proceeded to beat Kevin Anderson in the final to lift his 13th Grand Slam title. Was Djokovc back to his best? Oh yes – he proceeded to win Cincinnati, US Open and Shanghai and finish as the year end no. 1. Today, the reigning world no. 1 is the bookmaker’s favourite for a 7th Australian Open title.
All 3 of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have overcome adversity to rise again to the top of the men’s game. Each one is an inspirational story in its own right. These are the kinds of stories that will no doubt add to their significant legacy. These are the stories that we’ll be telling our children in years to come. Such awe-inspiring stories make us fans feel good too and make us wonder at the resilience and determination of these legends of the game.
Unfortunately, life isn’t always a fairy tale and happy endings are never a given. And Andy Murray’s latest press conference provided a stark reminder.
“Yeah, not great,” responded a tearful Murray when asked about his physical condition. “I’ve been in a lot of pain for about 20 months now. I’ve tried everything I could to get my hip feeling better. It hasn’t helped loads, I’m in a better place than I was six months ago, but I’m still in a lot of pain. It’s been tough.
“I can still play to a level, but not to a level that I’m happy at, but also it’s not just that. The pain is too much really. I don’t want to continue playing that way. In the middle of my training block back in December I spoke to my team, I told them that I can’t keep doing this, that I needed an end point, because I can’t keep playing with no idea when the pain will stop. I told them that I’ll try and get through this until Wimbledon. That’s where I would like to stop playing, but I’m also not certain I’m able to do that.”
Murray ended 2016 on top of the world, literally. He finished the year at world no. 1 on the back of a 25-match winning streak. He beat Djokovic in straight sets in his last match of the year to lift his first WTF title.
But 2017 was a bumpy ride right from the start. At Wimbledon, he was visibly limping, hindered by a hip problem. He still managed to fight his way to the quarter-final, where he lost in a five-setter to Sam Querrey. That would turn out to be his last match of the year. He made his way to New York, tried his best to get in shape for the US Open, but in the end had to withdraw.
In January 2018, he underwent a hip surgery. This has been followed by a continuous process of rehab and attempts to slowly ease back into the game. He played 12 matches throughout 2018. And they were difficult to watch. He was clearly struggling physically, and fighting through the pain and discomfort in trademark Murray fashion. But clearly, the pain is just too much.
Andy, just watched your conference. Please don’t stop trying. Keep fighting. I can imagine your pain and sadness. I hope you can overcome this. You deserve to retire on your own terms, whenever that happens. We love you @andy_murray and we want to see you happy and doing well. 🙏
— Juan M. del Potro (@delpotrojuan) January 11, 2019
Following the press conference, many players on tour have been expressing their support and admiration for Murray, one of the most popular guys in the locker room. But it looks like – unlike the 3 more illustrious members of the Big 4 – Murray is not destined to have his epic comeback.
Make no mistake, Murray did not lack any of the fighting qualities of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. This is a guy who has won Wimbledon with a back that needed surgery. Murray is the ultimate fighter, strongest in the face of adversity. Time and again, we have seen him produce his very best tennis when he is down. He has often not demonstrated the same killer instinct of Federer, Djokovic and Nadal – three of the greatest frontrunners in the game. But when the odds are stacked against him, that’s when he has usually been at his best. Perhaps, that’s the quality that he has had to develop the most throughout his career. He has been part of an era with 3 of the greatest players of all time. The odds have been stacked against him far too regularly, and he has required the ability to persevere through it. If it was only a battle of willpower, Murray would have been through hell and come out grunting and grimacing on the other side, willing to go again as soon as required. But this time, his body let him down. Surgery did not fix it. He did all the necessary rehab, and put in all the necessary effort. You know he has, it’s his thing, it’s what he does. But alas, it was not enough.
Sometimes I’ve wished that Murray would be the last of the Big 4 to decline or retire. He has played 11 Grand Slam finals, the first 10 of which have all been against either Federer or Djokovic. It would have been interesting to see him compete for maybe a season where Federer or Djokovic was not his final hurdle. Murray will no doubt leave behind a massive legacy when he does officially retire. But somehow it feels like his numbers don’t do him complete justice.
Murray’s press conference makes one realise there are more important things to life than tennis titles. “I have the option to have another operation, which is a little bit more severe than I’ve had before, which is having my hip resurfaced. It would allow me to have a better quality of life, to be free of pain. The reason to have that operation is not to return to professional sport, it’s just for a better quality of life, “ said Murray while fighting back tears. “There’s lots of little things. You guys obviously see me running around a tennis court and walking in between points and obviously I know it doesn’t look good, it doesn’t look comfortable. But there’s little things like day-to-day that are also a struggle. It would be nice to be able to do them without any pain. Putting shoes on, socks on, things like that…” It’s uncertain right now how many more times we’ll be able to see Murray on a match court. Perhaps the fairy tale comeback won’t be a part of his story. But I sure do wish he is able to lead a pain-free life soon. He deserves it.