When you think about two athletes sweating off on a court across each other with thousands watching around, it looks like a page out of a Roman Colosseum Epic. There’s no bigger individual sport in the world. It’s physically taxing and mentally punishing. It takes every ounce of your gut and willpower to leave even the smallest mark on the biggest stages. Many players have tried only to see themselves fall short over and over again. Were they not any good? Did they miss something out of the coach’s manual? Were they technically unskilled? I don’t think so. Their only regret. They played in the era of Big 4.
Now you would say I have got my facts wrong or I have misunderstood something. I hear you and I am going to make a very divisive argument. When you say Big 4, I am looking at the Mt. Rushmore of Tennis and that doesn’t discriminate between the sexes in my opinion. Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Serena. No disrespect Andy but 23 grand slams are light years ahead of 3. Yeah, she doesn’t have the same competition towards her side of the game, but she stands as tall as these gentlemen when it comes to achieving everything it has to offer.
For the better part of this century, they have shown us dominance and consistency in individual sports rivaled by none. There are so many records that can crash your browser if you go looking for each of them. They have overall career victories which surpass the total matches played by many players out there. What sets them apart from the rest? The love of sport and their insatiable hunger to be better every day. When you are better than the others, there’s no other competition than yourself.
These players are not cut from the same cloth with each of them having a distinct playing style. They are talents who have worked hard and hard workers who became talented. You would have to really dot the Is and cross the Ts to find a weakness in their game. At their worst, they can pull out a pair of aces, and on their best, they win with a mere high card against a royal flush. They could make a grand slam fixture look like an exhibition match in their finest moment. Djokovic with his bulls-eye return. Nadal with his blazing fast topspin from behind the baseline. Serena with her explosive forehand and backhand. Federer with his 10 different versions of the same serve. This is just scratching the surface when it comes to all the tricks up their sleeves.
Even though their timelines aren’t a complete overlap, there’s a strange similarity when it comes to their rise to greatness. There’s a breakthrough victory, a purple patch to be followed only by a few slumps, to eventually overcome to rise again. Serena was the first grand slam winner amongst the group followed by Federer, Nadal, and the latest addition, Djokovic. But a lion doesn’t stop after tasting blood. Like every lion, they have marked their territories. Federer rules the grass court, Nadal is the king of clay, and Djoker reigns the hardcourt. But they would dare to dwell on the rival grounds every now and then to claim the hunt.
Now everyone has their pick of the bunch. One can argue for Federer’s skills and innate talent versus Nadal’s grit and passion versus Djokovic’s athleticism and agility vs Serena’s brute strength and aggression. Such complimentary geniuses who would focus on making their game an all-round display of perfection.
While the rivalry in the men’s tennis has shifted the balance of power on numerous occasions, women’s tennis could never challenge Serena’s upsurge. Do you think there wasn’t enough competition? Not completely true. Her biggest hurdle towards the start of her career was her own blood dominating the sport. Henin, Clijsters, Davenport, Sharapova, Azarenka. Yet she made sure no one even came close to her shadow in the long run. She has won a grand slam in three different decades and now striving in the fourth. Much is owed to her serve game which is unmatched by her fellow players and even the greatest players in the past. Clocking insane serve speeds and racking up aces during the game and tournament. A strong forehand and an equally great backhand combined with power and pinpoint accuracy. Still questioning her spot in the Big 4?
With men’s tennis, you never saw anything like Federer during 2003–10. 10 consecutive finals surpassing his idol Sampras in just a matter of 7 years. A multifaceted player with possibly all the shots in his playbook. One who made it look like a piece of cake and need not sweat it out even in the toughest conditions. A rollercoaster of a performance rivaling the likes of Laver, Borg, Sampras.
Yet a teenager making his mark on the clay court proved the biggest hurdle in his tracks. Remember the Battle of Surfaces. The craziest match ever with half grass court and half clay court for the bragging rights. Nadal’s victory in that match was a sign of his domination in the rivalry for coming years getting the better of Federer on maximum events. With Olympic Gold Medal to add to the Career Grand Slam, his resume was more than complete before he turned 25.
Who knew there would be a third wheel to this bittersweet relationship? A young Djokovic with his first victory in the 2008 Australian Open proved a force stronger for Fedal to overcome at the turn of the decade. He was viewed as a typical antagonist because no one loves a disruptor. But as a true competitor, he strived on the hate and became the most successful player of the decade. Even going on to become the first man to win all the 9 modern Masters 1000 tournaments, twice and to hold all the 4 slams at once after Rod Laver, Nole Slam. These three have faced each other in 22 finals, with Nadal taking the crown with 10 victories, followed by Djokovic’s 8 and Federer lurking in the shadows with 4.
2008 Wimbledon Final, a young Nadal breaking the defending champion Federer’s streak on a turf which seemed unsurmountable the previous year. Doing so, he announced the world that he is not a one-trick pony built only for clay. 2009 Australian Open Final, a teary Federer on the podium broken down by Nadal in the match, never seen before by the world. 2012 Australian Open Final, the marathon between Nadal and Djoker, clash of the willpower, passion, and stamina and putting your heart and soul out on the court. You would be splitting the hair if you tried to find the better player that night.
2014 Wimbledon Final, 5 setter battle between the Federer and Djoker, just a preview of the many battles to happen in the future. This marked the onset of his rule at no.1 spot to start the 2015 season, one of the greatest ever seasons in the recent memory.
2017 Australian Open Final, the one where Nadal and Federer met in a final after ages with Djokovic’s injury hiatus. Not as the top-seeded players but the “underdogs”. Everyone thought Federer could no longer add to his tally of 17 until he turned his so-called “weakness” into the strongest asset. The one-handed backend. The two gutted out to reclaim the throne and rekindle the rivalry with Federer picking a major silverware after 5 years.
2019 Wimbledon Final, Djoker’s comeback against the crowd’s favorite son, Federer. No one expected the greatest grass-court winner to drop 2 championship points, who on any other night could win those in his sleep. You simply don’t let the guard down against one of the best. Will not mention Roland Garros, because no one else wins that unless Nadal wishes otherwise. The guy is 93–2 overall in the tournament with 12 titles. If not for the upset by Soderling in 2009 and succumbing to an injury in 2016, Djokovic and Federer’s French Open dream would lay barren for ages.
Now Serena on the other hand never had such opposition to boast of, mainly because she kept everyone at bay. Yet she has been a part of few great finals and shone despite all the adversities. In the 1999 US Open Final, coming back from 3–5 down in the third set against Kim Clijsters and winning as a teenager in front of the home crowd. 2003 Australian Open, where she completed a career grand slam at the age of 21 and surpassed her sister in the grand slam victories to never look back.
2007 Australian Open where an unseeded Serena overcame a personal tragedy to stun the no.1 seed Sharapova in just over an hour. 2003 Wimbledon, competing and winning against her own blood in the finals, amongst a worthy competition from Davenport, Henin, and Clijsters. 2013 French Open where she broke a barrage of more than a decade by beating Sharapova in the finals having been knocked out for the first time in the first round of a grand slam at the same venue the previous year. 2012 US Open where she will have to rise from the ashes yet again against a formidable opponent Victoria Azarenka reminiscing of 1999 Final on the same court.
But nothing tops the 2017 Australian Open final where she was 8–9 weeks pregnant and won the final to win her 23rd title and surpass Steffi Graf’s open era record. Nothing beats the determination of a mother. Her daughter could proudly claim to be a part of the grand slam final even before she could hold a racquet.
Together, the Big 4 have been a part of 117 major finals and won 79 major titles. A total of 3998 career victories to achieve a whopping 341 career titles. These are just inconceivable numbers and speaks volume about the longevity and consistency of their game. But what has helped them sustain it for more than two decades?
Not only they consistently evolve their game but know how to switch gears during a game. We have seen players put everything in the initial sets of the game to run out of the gas towards the end of the game. But these legends know when to take the foot off the pedal and when to just take off into the stratosphere. There’s a whole generation of players who started, peaked, and declined without even leaving a trace in the history books. Why? Because they ran into a wall which kept getting taller and stronger the more you tried to break it down.
Sure they have seen slumps after a purple patch. Injuries, a decline of the form but they have always come back stronger from it. You could put dents on the wall but never tear it down. Because they enjoyed playing the sport to reinvent their game and strengthen their weaknesses. Federer could turn around his backhand to score winners rather than unforced errors helping him end a grand slam drought of 5 years in 2017. Nadal could strengthen his serve game helping him win those first-serve points to keep his claim on French Open and frequent final outings and trophies in other events. With an injury-ridden 2017 and Fedal back on the top, Djokovic found its way back to the top through hardship to reclaim the no.1 spot. Serena had to overcome multiple injuries and personal tragedy and yet she could achieve Serena Slam twice in her career 12 years apart.
A great player owes it as much to the competition as well. If not for Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic rivalry, neither of them would have reached the height they did and sustain the class. 2020 US Open saw a new winner, apart from the usual 3, in Thiem after US Open 2016. French Open is on the horizon with Nadal aiming to win it for a ridiculous 13th time and tie Federer’s record for 20 grand slams. We have a new crop of players making their run for the summit. Thiem, Zverev, Tsitsipas, Osaka. Federer is recovering from an injury and will return to the tour in 2021 aged 39. Djokovic and Nadal are trying to cut the lead at the top by adding to the grand slam titles. Serena hasn’t been able to win a major title in 3 years but still makes strides to reach the later stages of the tournament.
While the odds may not be in their favor, we have seen them defy it time and time again. We have loved them and supported them through all, been heartbroken at the defeat of our favorite at the hands of the other one, but admired the opponent in doing so. While there have been signs of promise from the youth, you can still not rule out the experience and the might of big 4. For we all know, the sun never sets on greatness.