Everyone has his or her own dividing line for when to start — or stop — measuring anything under the sun.
In terms of measuring the extent to which the Big Four have dominated the ATP Masters 1000 tournaments, two dividing lines come to mind after Novak Djokovic defeated Roger Federer — again — in the Indian Wells final, collecting his 21st Masters title and his 50th career title.
One dividing line begins with the 2010 clay season and the Monte Carlo Masters. Beginning with that tournament, a Big Four member has won 40 of the past 44 Masters tournaments. That’s one way in which to frame tennis dominance, specifically through the prism of the Big Four.
The dividing line a number of tennis fans might instead choose is the one beginning with the 2011 Bercy (Paris) Masters: One of the Big Three — meaning the Big Four sans Andy Murray — has won 25 of the last 29 Masters 1000 championships. That, to me, is an even more accurate reflection of where men’s tennis has stood over the years.
Clearly, men’s tennis — though stirred up by the two surprise champions at last year’s hardcourt majors (Stan Wawrinka in Australia and Marin Cilic in the United States) — is more in a period of stasis than a time of upheaval. Notions of dramatic change did not take root in the California desert. Moreover, even modest changes did not occur. The simple reality of this tournament — seen through the eyes of Big Four party-crasher Milos Raonic — serves to underscore this reality.
Raonic is the man who prevented all four members of tennis’s ruling class from reuniting in a pair of main-event semifinals last Saturday. He shrugged off three match points against Rafael Nadal to dig out an impressive 4-6, 7-6 (10), 7-5 win over the mighty Mallorcan, the first such triumph in his career. That win made this tournament a successful one for the Canadian, who shows signs every now and then of being able to improve his game to the point that it can hang with the big dogs for longer stretches of time.
The problem for Raonic? It’s not so much his tennis. It’s that — as so many other residents of the ATP top 15 have experienced over the years — Federer was waiting for him in the semifinals, with Djokovic waiting in the wings in the final had Raonic been able to pull off another upset.
One of the Big Four, even two, might not reach the end stage of a significant tennis tournament, but you can certainly count on two of them being there. As the 25-of-29 stat shows, you can more specifically count on two members of the Big Three to be there. Djokovic, Federer and Nadal have displayed more staying power than Murray with the passage of time. As great a stretch as Murray enjoyed from July of 2012 through July of 2013, the past one and a half years since his Wimbledon title have belonged to the same trio which stood over men’s tennis since 2007, when Djokovic announced his presence as a player who was here to stay — at the Masters and the majors alike.
There’s one more specific fact to point out within the “25-of-29” statistic mentioned above: The four non-Big Three winners at the ATP’s Masters 1000 events since Bercy in 2011 have been equally distributed in two fundamental ways: First, these non-Big Three champions have not won a Masters 1000 event more than once in this stretch of 29 such tournaments. Murray, Wawrinka, David Ferrer, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have each won one and only one Masters 1000 event since Bercy of 2011.
Second — and I find this even more revealing — the four non-Big Three Masters winners over the past 29 tournaments have been equally distributed across seasons: Murray (2013 Miami) is the one player to bust up the Big Three’s Masters dominance in the Indian Wells-Miami swing. Wawrinka (2014 Monte Carlo) is the one player to break up the Big Three’s party in the clay portion of the Masters 1000 calendar over the past three-plus years. Tsonga (2014 Canada) is the one player to interrupt the tennis trinity’s reign in the North American summer swing. Ferrer (2012 Bercy) is the one player to deny the Big Three at a late-season Masters event in autumn.
The flow of the calendar and the rhythms of life on tour — not to mention injuries and Davis Cup commitments and all sorts of other factors (Federer and Djokovic watching their wives give birth to kids, for instance) — should lead to so many more lulls for athletes who, by virtue of going deep into so many tournaments, should get tired quite often. One should point out that in Miami, with Federer not participating and Nadal never having won the event, we could very realistically see a non-Big Three champion. It’s a point in time when Murray and the rest of the ATP Tour have a chance to do something big.
Indian Wells, though, brought us the same final as 2014. It brought about another compelling three-setter between Federer and Djokovic, with the Serbian superstar overcoming a rough patch of play — and a sequence in which he looked very uncomfortable on court — to prevail in a deciding set. The collapse at the end of the second set by Djokovic surely brought memories of the 2014 Wimbledon final flooding back into the minds of tennis fans and journalists everywhere. It might even have brought the event back into the mind of Novak Djokovic.
Since he overcame his fourth-set nightmare at Wimbledon, he was naturally able to overcome this as well.
Rafael Nadal is the overcomer of stress and strain on his body. Djokovic is better seen as the consummate overcomer of stress and strain on his mind. To some, that might seem to be an inconsequential distinction. To others, it might come across as an appropriately calibrated application of nuance.
There’s no nuance in this next statement: Novak Djokovic has mastered the arts of both professional tennis and competing in the cauldron of main-event pressure. More than Federer and Nadal, he is the current “it guy” in men’s tennis. All three, though, continue to reign over the kingdom they built.
Raonic came closer to the castle than Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov did. Bernard Tomic upset David Ferrer to show that his potential could be unlocked sooner than many were prepared to allow. (However, his balky body then betrayed him once again, tempering long-term expectations.) Yet, when everyone packed their bags and prepared to leave the American West for the tropical climate of Key Biscayne, no one busted through the castle gate.
The Game Of Thrones in men’s tennis is still shared by three men, and in that trio, Novak Djokovic’s prominence is currently unquestioned. We’ll see if he can sustain said prominence in Miami, before Rafa tries to make his foes hurt on the dirt of Europe.
Spring is coming… but change isn’t… on the ATP World Tour.