Empires fall, but never all at once. They fall piece by piece. The collapse takes years, leaving no way to point out what triggered it, only a stretched out epoch of decline.
As Djokovic, Nadal and Murray all bowed out of the Wimbledon 2017, a long-feared truth began to come into realization, the demise of the Men’s Tennis Empire, the era of the “Big Four”.
In the last 10 years, tennis fans have been blessed with some of the greatest players of the game.
In what will go down as the strongest era in the men’s tennis history, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael nadal and Andy Murray have battled it out for supremacy and played some scintillating tennis along the way.
2003-2013: Dominance of the Big 4
Between July 2003, when Roger Federer won his first major title, and September 2013, when Rafa Nadal won his 13th, men’s tennis contested 42 Grand Slam tournaments.
Thirty-eight of them were won by the same four players.
If you’re a tennis fan, you’ve seen these numbers parsed a thousand different ways; still, they remain astounding. Federer and Nadal alone combined for 30 of the 42.
Novak Djokovic took six, Andy Murray two. Of the four majors to slip through the Big Four’s grasp during that span, three came early in Federer’s prime, before Nadal had played a single clay-court tournament in Paris: Andy Roddick’s U.S. Open in 2003, Gaston Gaudio’s French in 2004, and Marat Safin’s Australian in 2005.
From May 2005 to the end of 2013 — a period of more than eight years — the only non–Big Four major winner was Juan Martin del Potro, who took the 2009 U.S. Open and threatened to crash through into the game’s top rank before his own body turned against him.
Also between 2010 and 2013, not only was every Grand Slam won by members of the Big Four, but also every runner up spot.
2014: Beginning of the Waning
But in 2014, what followed could possibly be seen as what set the decline into motion. 2014 saw something that was beginning to become unthinkable; players who weren’t part of the Big Four winning Grand Slam tournaments.
From the 2005 to the 2014 Australian Open, only one Grand Slam was won by a non-Big Four player.
In 2014, however, Stan Wawrinka defeated a struggling Nadal to take the Australian Open title, while the US Open final was contested entirely without a Big Four player’s involvement with Marin Cilic defeating Kei Nishikori.
The remaining slams were taken by Nadal (French Open) and Djokovic (Wimbledon).
2015-2016: Djokovic & Murray dominate
2015, quite like 2011, belonged to Novak Djokovic. Federer’s game had been on the decline for some time, Murray was recovering from a back injury and Nadal was suffering from injuries and poor form.
Djokovic took home all the Slams save for the French Open, which was won by Grand Slam surprise package, Stan Wawrinka. Djokovic also took six of the nine Masters events and the World Tour Finals for the fourth consecutive time.
2016 started much as 2015 ended. Murray’s renewed form took him to both the Australian Open and French Open finals, where he was beaten both times by Novak Djokovic.
The French Open victory gave Djokovic his Career Slam, and many expected his run of dominance to continue. That would not be the case, however.
Djokovic’s form began to drop off after the French Open, and a string of surprise defeats saw him struggle to win titles in the second half of the year.
Murray, meanwhile went from strength to strength, carrying momentum from his first French Open final into the grass court season where he would take the Wimbledon crown for the second time.
Murray also won Olympic gold in the men’s singles for a second time, becoming the first tennis player to do so, and finished out the season by winning the World Tour Finals for the first time, taking the number one ranking from Djokovic in the process.
The switch in rankings was particularly remarkable given that, after the French Open, Djokovic was over around 8,000 points clear of Murray.
Murray and Djokovic would split all but two of the Masters titles between them.
As Murray struggles to justify his Number 1 ranking, 2017 has been a delightful year of throwbacks.
The 2017 Australian Open final was the first final contested between the stalwarts Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer since the 2011 French Open final.
With Nadal grabbing the French Open and Federer winning the Australian Open and looking well on course to grabbing the Wimbledon title, we see glimpses of the old.
Also, youngsters like Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic and Dominic Thiem are performing consistently in the Grand Slam events, giving hope for the coming era to come of another dominion.
While the end of the Big 4 era was inevitable, tennis fans around the world are hoping for the large gulf between them and the rest of the tour to remain unconquered for as long as possible.