Every time the big four fills up all four spots in the semifinals, we hear the same trivia–how rarely the top four seeds all reach the semifinals; how often this particular group of four has done it, and so on. There’s no doubt that the current big four has dominated men’s tennis in a way that has rarely been seen before.
Words like “domination” aren’t very easy to quantify, which is why commentators fall back on those few bits of trivia. We can take a closer look to determine whether the current big four stands out as much as we think it does.
Last year, the big four played 251 tour-level matches (not counting Davis Cup) against everybody else. They won 228 of them, for a winning percentage of 90.8%. My database goes back to 1991, and there hasn’t been a year in that time frame where the top four players did any better.
(For today’s purposes, each year’s top four are defined as the four men at the top of the year-end rankings. All numbers exclude Davis Cup and go back to 1991.)
In fact, four of the five best W-L records have come since 2004. 2008 and 2009, when the current top four was already reigning, are ranked 3rd and 4th. (The second best season for the top four, by this measure, was 2005, when Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt complemented Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.)
What really matters are the majors, right? Last year, the big four played 82 matches against everybody else at the slams, and won 80 of them, for a jaw-dropping 97.6% winning percentage. You might guess that it, as well, is the best in the last 20 years.
In fact, the second and third best top-four slam performances came in 2007 and 2008–each one including Federer, Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. (In 2007, Nikolay Davydenko was the year-end number four.) Both of those years, the top four lost only four grand slam matches to others.
The majors give us a small (though important) sample; the masters series offers more tournaments with similar high-quality fields. Largely due to Andy Murray‘s dreadful March, this is where the 2011 foursome falters a bit. Their record against everybody else of 90-13 is “only” third-best of the last twenty years.
But wait–the top masters series record was in 2009, of course with the same top four. And the second-best masters series record was in 2005, when Federer and Nadal ruled the world.
Beating the rest of the top 10
It’s no shock when the top four cruise through the early rounds of tournaments. What makes the current top four special is the way they regularly shut everyone else out of the last rounds, defeating excellent players such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, and Juan Martin Del Potro.
Last year, the top four went 34-12 (73.9%) against the rest of the year-end top 10. That’s fourth-best of the last twenty years. The standout season, once again, was 2005, when Federer, Nadal, Roddick, and Hewitt went 30-4 (!) against the next six guys in the rankings. In both 2004 and 2006, the top four won exactly three-quarters of their matches against five through ten, just beating out last year’s top four.
To put these numbers in perspective, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the top four beat up on the next six. In 1991, the top four of Edberg, Courier, Becker, and Stich actually posted a losing record against guys ranked five through ten. In both 1996 and 2000, the record was an even .500.
The bigger picture
Of course, there’s more to domination than performance in a single year. Much of the current big four’s reputation stems from their longevity atop the rankings, and looking at single years ignores that.
But as we’ve seen, there’s no need to look at more than one season. The big four was, in 2011, one of the most dominating quartets of the last 20 years by several measures, and according to two such measures, they were the most successful top four in recent memory.
Why? (In brief)
Here are three theories that might explain why the big four has so distanced itself from the pack:
- These four guys are historically good.
- The rest of the field these days is not that good. Or, at least, they are overawed by the big four.
- Court speeds have become more uniform, meaning that top players win all year round, instead of a few specialists racking up big points for only a couple months.
The first two are possible. Certainly, Federer and Nadal are historically good, and Djokovic’s 2011 season was astounding. I doubt the rest of the pack is to blame–they seem plenty good to me, even if few of them are that good very much of the time.
I’m tempted by the third theory. As recently as 2003, there was almost always one clay-court specialist in the year-end top four–Juan Carlos Ferrero, Gustavo Kuerten, Sergei Bruguera. At the same time, guys like Pete Sampras, Pat Rafter, and Goran Ivanisevic rarely made a dent on clay.
Thus, no matter how many slams Sampras won, or how many clay titles Kuerten took, the top four just weren’t dominant year round. The idea that the same four players would reach the quarters, or even semis of every slam was borderline ridiculous. Now, it’s almost expected.
Of course, we can argue about the causes of this as well. Are the top four successful on all surfaces because the surfaces are more uniform? Because they are historically good? Because the game (or its equipment) has changed in such a way to make surface differences less meaningful? That’s a subject for another day.