Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal have established themselves as the Big Four of men’s tennis. Between them, they carved up the Grand Slam cake last year and took home eight of the nine Masters titles available. (Take a bow, David Ferrer at the Paris Masters.)
But the landscape is changing somewhat. In the last six months, we’ve seen how the tour looks with a Nadal-shaped hole in it and, at 31, Federer’s days as an elite force in the ATP are surely numbered.
That leaves us with just Murray and Djokovic of the current Fab Four. Both aged 25 (and born just a week apart), the two friends will be enjoying final Sundays for some time yet.
So, we’ve had tantalising peeks at how the tour might look without the quartet who’ve taken centre stage on the game’s great arenas in recent years. But who’s waiting in the wings? Who might the next Big Four be?
Of the current ‘Next Four’—Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – only del Potro is younger than Murray and Djokovic.
Berdych has been knocking on the door for some time, but success in the men’s game these days relies on beating not just one superstar, but two—and that’s something the big man from the Czech Republic has never quite managed.
Ferrer has beavered away in the backcourt his entire career, reliably beating those he should beat, but rarely taking out one of the leading lights. At 30, the little Spaniard isn’t one for the future.
Who's the most likely top-four candidate?
Tsonga will be 28 in April and his only successes in 2012 came at ATP 250 events in Doha and Metz. The genial Frenchman also failed to go beyond the quarterfinals in any of the nine Masters events and couldn’t find a way out of his round-robin group at the World Tour Finals.
Del Potro could be a different matter. Already a slam winner, the Argentinian is showing signs of getting back to the form that won him the US Open in 2009. At the London Olympics, he took Federer to that 19-17 deciding set, then neatly took out Djokovic for the bronze medal.
At 24, the seventh-ranked del Potro is young enough to be considered a key building block of Generation Next. But who might join him?
The ATP tour isn’t exactly awash with candidates. Everyone in the top 50 has celebrated their 21st birthday. The much-touted Milos Raonic finished the year ranked 13th, but the Maple Leaf Missile is heavily dependent on his serve and, in this age of outstanding defence, that’s a weapon that’s easily countered.
What about Bernard Tomic, who scored an interesting straight-sets win against Djokovic in the Hopman Cup this week? The Australian, ranked 52nd, is a prickly character, who’s suffered from tennis’ age-old mad-dad syndrome, has a legal battle raging in his homeland and won just 10 matches in the last six months of 2012.
Tomic’s application has often also been questioned, with frequent accusations of tanking levelled at the Australian. Indeed, in the first round of October’s Shanghai Rolex Masters, where he capitulated meekly to Florian Mayer, Tomic admitted to offering only 85 percent effort.
Remember Jerzy Janowicz? He’s the 22-year-old Polish guy with the looks of a Bond villain whose treetop serving took him to the final of the Paris Masters in November. Reading too much into that performance could be dangerous, as the Bercy event, coming just before the World Tour Finals, tends to be more unpredictable than the Greek economy.
Who else could step up to the plate? Grigor Dimitrov? We’ve been waiting for Baby Federer to take his first steps on tennis’ higher plateau for a few years now, but the lack of consistent results from the Bulgarian suggests we might be waiting a little longer yet.
One solid performer with top-10 potential is Kei Nishikori. Currently ranked 19th, four off his career high, the Japanese player won in Tokyo last year, but with only two titles to his name at the age of 23, the statistics are against him.
This paucity of genuine contenders at the sharp end of men’s tennis begs a fascinating question: Is this widely heralded greatest-ever era really that great, or are the Big Four just cleaning up in a relatively weak era? It’s a philosophical question to rival the chicken and egg.
It’s my guess that the next generation of champions will come from the current crop of juniors—maybe Italy’s Gianluigi Quinzi or Serbia’s Nikola Milojevic. If that’s the case, then the likes of Murray and Djokovic can smile and look forward to at least another four years of filling their boots with the game’s glittering prizes.