28. Evolving challenges to Big Four hegemony

To some, Stan Wawrinka’s iconoclastic win at the Australian Open in January, followed by the tennis spring, measured in the outstanding performances of Cilic, Gulbis, Dimitrov and Dolgopolov, suggested that 2014 would be a line in the sand against Big Four dominance. Other factors contributed to this conclusion: Murray’s back injury and ongoing process to regain form; Federer’s ageing and injury-related form in 2013; even, perhaps, Rafa’s injury in the Australian Open final against Wawrinka. Wawrinka’s win in Monte Carlo, Gulbis edging past Federer at Roland Garros, and Dimitrov’s win over Murray at Wimbledon also gave succour to those suggesting that the old order had had its day.

However, if the spring, like more recent political springs, was tumultuous and full of expectation for revolution, the ensuing reality was different. Starting with Djokovic’s back to back wins in Indian Wells and Miami (against other Big Four opposition), the Big Four hegemony remained unbroken at Masters 1000 and grand slam tournaments through Wimbledon, with the exception of Monte Carlo. Both Roland Garros and Wimbledon finals would be contested only by members of the Big Four. In fact, the Big Two of the Big Four (Nadal, Djokovic) are as far ahead of the rest of the field now as they were in January (see below) – very much an established order.

ATP points January-June 2014 (Top 10 positions only)

Chart 2014 top 10

Evolution not revolution

No question, the spring and early summer have laid the foundations for future years. But those foundations  have been around for at least 12-18 months. Consider the recent histories of those who have challenged the Big Four this year.

Wawrinka threatened Djokovic twice over 5 sets in 2013 before taking his opportunity in Melbourne this year. Raonic wins 19% of return games in 2014, up from 16% in 2013 as he improves his game with Ljubicic and Piatti. In the last 12 months he also reached a Masters 1000 final. Dimitrov had wins against Djokovic and Murray on his CV before Wimbledon this year, and his 2014 title wins in Acapulco and Queens have been underscored by an ability to play his best when it mattered most. Gulbis’s entry into the top 10 started 15 months ago in Delray Beach.

What we have witnessed this year are gradual but inexorable developments in the men’s game. That the average age of the top 50 is older than ever before (see here) means change at the top is inevitably the result of a longer process. This year is part, but only part, of that process. Old orders are hard won, stubborn and resistant to change. It’s why when someone talks about the French revolution you don’t ask “which one”. For our continued enjoyment of Roland Garros in the spring, this is a good thing.

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