Is the Big 4 the Best Quartet in Tennis History?

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Is the Big 4 the Best Quartet in Tennis History?
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Stars from different eras included, from left, Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Rod Laver. Of that group, only Sampras was not part of a great quartet of players.

Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray have accounted for 35 Grand Slam singles titles, including the last 13 in a row.

If anyone other than those four wins the French Open, it will be a major surprise.

The so-called Big Four have so dominated men's tennis in recent years, it's reasonable to wonder whether there has ever been a group of four that's been as good.

While comparing individual players from different eras is challenging indeed, the difficulty increases significantly when comparing groups of players. There are few common issues to provide a basis for comparison among the groups, plus career paths of the players within each group seldom align perfectly. 

Acknowledging the difficulties, we forged ahead and subjectively selected four quartets that merit mention.

The foursome of Bill Tilden, Henri Cochet, Rene LaCoste and Jean Borotra controlled the game starting in the 1920s.

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Beginning in the late 1950s, Pancho Gonzales, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver were the preeminent figures.

Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl dominated the tennis scene beginning in the 1970s. (Connors and McEnroe are pictured at right, well after their playing days.)

The Big Four of Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Murray own men's tennis now.

We will compare them in four categories: Grand Slam success, Tennis Channel's all-time rankings compiled by a panel of experts, year-end rankings since 1973 and other considerations.

 

Grand Slam Success

Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray have combined to win 35 Grand Slam singles titles, one more than Borg, Connors, Lendl and McEnroe. 

Tilden, LaCoste, Cochet and Borotra took home 28 major titles, and Laver, Gonzales, Rosewall and Hoad won 25.

There are several qualifiers to those totals.

Only French players could compete in the French Championships until 1926, so French titles won before that don't count as Grand Slam titles. Also, many players of that era, including Tilden, seldom played in the Australian championships, taking away a number of possible major titles from this group.

The best years of Laver's group were spent as pros in an era when professionals could not play in the Grand Slam events. Only Laver and Rosewall were near their peak when the Open Era arrived in 1968. Laver was still a dominant force in 1969 when he beat John Newcombe in the Wimbledon finals (see video below) on his way to winning all four majors that year.

For a period during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Australian Open was a Grand Slam event in name only, and members of the Borg group seldom played that event during that time, robbing them of a number of possible titles.

Quite simply, the Federer group has had more opportunities, as Peter Bodo pointed out in his Tennis.com article comparing today's Big Four with the Borg group, which he calls the Original Big Four:

But this is the most astonishing and significant difference: Today’s Big Four have combined to miss just eight opportunities to win majors once they began to post results at that level. And Nadal is responsible for six of those DNPs (did not play). The original Big Four missed fully 66 Grand Slam opportunities, including a whopping 43 Australian Opens..

The Federer group figures to win several more major titles before its time is over. However, Murray is the low man on the major totem pole, having won just one major. (His win in the 2012 U.S. Open is pictured below.) All 15 other players being considered won at least two major titles, even though they had fewer opportunities.

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We also looked at runs of dominance, counting consecutive major titles won by any member of a given foursome. The Tilden and Federer groups seem to come out on top here.

The Laver group had no significant run of major titles because of its professional status.

If you exclude the Australian Open, the best run of major titles by the Borg group was 12 in a row and 17 out of 19.

The Tilden group accounted for seven consecutive major titles in the late 1920s. But if you eliminate the Australian Championship, in which many of those top players seldom participated, that group had a run of 20 straight Grand Slam titles.

That impressive run is virtually matched by the Federer quartet, which won each of the past 13 Grand Slam titles and 31 of the past 32. Only Juan Martin del Potro's U.S. Open victory in 2009 interrupted the run that began with Federer's victory in the 2004 Wimbledon tournament.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument for the Federer group is that it has produced both finalists for each of the past 10 Grand Slam events.

 

All-Time Singles Rankings

The Borg group wins this category, as all four members were ranked among the top 20 players in history (male and female) in the rankings released in 2012 by the Tennis Channel's panel of experts. (Among male players only, all four ranked in the top 12.)

The Tilden group had only one player (Tilden at No. 16) ranked in the top 35 (including players of both genders), putting it last among the four quartets.

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Distinguishing between the other two groups is difficult. Laver is ranked No. 2 overall while the other three in his group rank between 20 and 35. Federer is ranked No. 1 overall and Nadal No. 6, but Djokovic is No. 40 and Murray is the only one of the 16 players in this discussion who is unranked. Murray and Djokovic figure to improve their standing over the remainder of their careers, so we arbitrarily give the edge to that quartet over the Laver group.

 

Year-End Rankings

There is no accurate way to incorporate the many subjective rankings produced before the ATP rankings were compiled starting in 1973. As a result, the Tilden and Laver groups are excluded from this category.

Since we are considering the dominance of foursomes at a given point in time, we looked at periods when all four members of the two remaining groups were highly ranked by the ATP ratings.

Although three of the four members of the Borg group were ranked in the top four at the end of eight consecutive years from 1978 through 1985, in only one year (1981) did all four finish the season ranked in the top four. That's because Lendl's emergence as an elite player did not occur until Borg's final year, when Borg retired at his peak.

When Lendl beat top-seeded McEnroe in the 1982 U.S. Open semifinals (see video below) before losing to Connors in the finals, Borg was already out of the picture.

By contrast, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray have occupied the top four spots at the end of each of the past five years. Even though Nadal is currently No. 5, it's a good bet they'll all finish 2013 in the top four once again. Federer seems the most likely of the quartet to drop out of the top four after that, but who knows.

 

Other Considerations

The level of competition has a lot to do with a player's success.

The Tilden group had to deal with Bill Johnston, Vinnie Richards and Jacques Brugnon among others, while the Laver group had Pancho Segura, Frank Sedgman and Tony Trabert as competition in the early part of their run.

The Borg group competed against the likes of Guillermo Vilas, Mats Wilander and Yannick Noah, who combined to win 12 major titles.

Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt, who combined to win three major titles, were the only serious challengers when Federer and Nadal began their dominance, and del Potro and David Ferrer are the only players who seem capable of ending this group's run today. Ferrer has never reached a Grand Slam final, and del Potro has reached the semifinals of only one major besides his U.S. Open victory.

   Bodo, in his comparison of the Federer and Borg groups, looks at overall tournament results as well:

One area were today’s Big Four is unlikely to ever catch the original group is in total singles titles won (across all events). The most prolific champion of all is Connors, with 109 singles titles; his nearest challenger is Lendl, with 94. The original Big Four won a total of 344 titles.Today’s Big Four are unlikely to match that output. The leader is Federer, with 76 titles, trailed by Nadal with 54. But Djokovic and Murray fall off sharply; their 63 combined titles is still one shy of the least prolific man in the original quartet, Borg, who owns 64. But keep in mind that in the early years of the Open era, a less-organized game sometimes featured competitive tours and circuits that created more chances to play than today’s players are offered.

Here is a podcast of Bodo's additional thoughts on the comparison of the two Open Era groups.

 

Conclusions

The situations of the Laver and Tilden groups make comparisons to Open Era players almost impossible.

The Laver group is the most difficult to evaluate because of the division of pro and amateur players at the time, and its inability to play in many Grand Slam events. Success in the majors is the most important measure of greatness, and this group did not dominate the Grand Slam events as much as others did. In my mind, this group had the greatest collection of players, but the numbers don't add up.

The Tilden group suffers from a similar situation, because the Grand Slam regimen and participation were not as uniform as they are now. This foursome clearly dominated its era, which placed importance on Davis Cup competition as well. But the surprisingly low ranking of the quartet's players by the Tennis Channel hurts its standing.

What is the best quartet in men's tennis history?

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The only reasonable comparison is between the two groups of the Open Era. We break this tie with semantics, distinguishing between "great" and "dominant."

Since Murray has only won one major title, and each of the members of the Borg group won at least seven, mostly without the benefit of the Australian Open, the foursome of Borg, Connors, McEnroe and Lendl is deemed better than the Federer group. That assertion is strengthened by the fact that all four in the Borg group were ranked among the top 12 men players of all time.

However, the current run of success in Grand Slam events, as well as the consistency atop the rankings, make the foursome of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray the most dominant. The gap between them and the rest of men's tennis is the widest in the Open Era, and perhaps ever.

The current Big Four's level of greatness has yet to be determined. For now, the numbers say the Borg group ranks as the best quartet in history.

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