Hegemony!

In 2011, the Big Four won 84 per cent of their maximum possible total of ranking points at the Masters and Grand Slams. Since then it has steadily fallen and came down to 66 in the aftermath of the 2014 U.S. Open. Yes, they are slipping. Their grip, though strong, is not a stranglehold anymore. But still they are not yet down and out, writes N. Sudarshan.

Men’s tennis isn’t as much a roulette as the women’s game is. For some time now, the Big Four have been ruling. But in the last two years a well-defined breakthrough brigade and an upcoming youngsters’pack have taken shape as well. In sport this is perhaps the most ideal of situations; of an emerging bunch keeping the big guns on their toes. It happens rarely and men’s tennis should be blessed for it.

In the women’s section, barring Serena Williams, the amount of flux is humungous. There is indeed novelty, but an overdose of it. For rivalries to build and evolve into competitive ones over years there needs to be some familiarity as well. Something similar to the men’s game might be tough to envisage, but a situation closer to it will do.

The past two weeks in Melbourne were a reiteration of the above two statements. The coterie of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray still have a strong grip. Djokovic took home his fifth Australian Open trophy following a 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-0 win over Andy Murray. And on the other hand, it was, yet again, Williams versus the rest as she captured her 19th Grand Slam singles title.

“I do believe there is a group of guys right there that can make a break again and can do special things,” Federer said ahead of the Australian Open. “But, I just think it’s too early to say just because Novak and Rafa (Nadal) lost in Doha that there is something on the horizon.

“I don’t read into any of those results. I think they are going to be tough to beat and favourites for the Australian Open.”

And the reigning oligarchs did show how it was done. The one from the breakthrough group, defending champion Stan Wawrinka, fell fighting against Djokovic in the semifinal. Those from the emerging group, Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic, were dusted off after routine challenges by Murray, Wawrinka and Djokovic respectively in the quarters.

It is widely accepted that the current era is tough for the upstarts. How tough it is, is borne out by this fact: The bunch of Nishikori, Dimitrov, Raonic and Marin Cilic, all aged between 23 and 27, won 24 per cent of their maximum possible total of ranking points at the Masters and Grand Slam events in 2014. (Source: TENNIS ABSTRACT). The Big Four, at about the same average age in 2010, won 68 per cent.

In fact, until the 2014 U.S. Open happened, Juan Martin del Potro was the only man who is now under 27 and had played in a Grand Slam final. Federer had 12 Grand Slam titles before turning 27.

Modern day tennis is a war of attrition; of one eating away slowly at the other. It causes wear and tear — example Nadal — and ultimately leads to slow destruction. The fight is often in the mind or between the mind of one and the body of the other. This was best captured by Djokovic after his victory over Murray, which made it four losses out of four in finals down under for the Scot.

“We’re going to have a lot of long rallies and a lot of exchanges,” said Djokovic. “It’s going to be physical, but also mental. I get the feeling that if I get to stay with him and kind of, you know, work, work, and not get too loose and frustrated with points and not allow him to get into a big lead, I feel like there’s a point where I feel that I have that edge, you know, maybe physically.”

Margins are really that short and windows that small. An opening comes and if let go of, will never return. It happened to Murray when, after leading 2-0 in the third set, he won just one more game.

Of added relevance is also how those at the top cope when they are not playing their A-games; or even their B-games. In the semifinal against defending champion Wawrinka, Djokovic had 27 winners to 49 unforced errors. He didn’t hit a single winner in the fourth set and more curiously had connected only a single backhand winner, his bread-and-butter shot, till the start of the fifth. But he went on to bagel Wawrinka in the fifth set and did the same to Murray two days later in the fourth set.

“I didn’t play at the level I intended before the match,” Djokovic said after beating Wawrinka. “I’m proud of the fighting spirit I had, but the level of performance was not where I wanted it to be.”

This is perhaps the most important of reasons as to why the bunch has been tough to dislodge. Even when they play their C-games, the errors are still far fewer and their mental disintegration still slower than the rest.

For long, Djokovic himself was not believed to have such abilities. He was said to possess “a goofy sense of humour,” as the magazine The New Yorker put it in 2013, and questions were asked whether “he can act like a champion?”

In his book, Serve to Win, Djokovic writes, “There were two men in the world who were the best — Federer and Nadal — and, to them, I was nothing but an occasional annoyance, one who might quit at any moment when the going got tough.”

But it is now Djokovic’s 384th straight week in the Top-4 of the ATP rankings. He is now the undisputed number one, holder of eight slams, of which five are in Melbourne making him to the Australian Open what Nadal is to the French.

Also, the rankings will now seem more familiar: Djokovic at No. 1, followed by Federer, Nadal and Murray.

“Making one run is always a bit easier than having to defend it,” Federer had said. His fellow-Swiss Wawrinka will experience the bitter truth. For not getting into the final of a tournament he won last time, he is now down to ninth.

In 2011, the Big Four won 84 per cent of their maximum possible total of ranking points at the Masters and Grand Slams. Since then it has steadily fallen and came down to 66 in the aftermath of the 2014 U.S. Open.

So, yes, they are slipping. Their grip, though strong, is not a stranglehold anymore. But still they are not yet down and out.