LONDON—The French had their era and their group. “Les Quatre Mousquetaires” (The Four Musketeers) were tennis champions in the late 1920s and ‘30s. The most famous was Rene LaCoste, nicknamed “The Crocodile,” a logo that went on his clothing line.
Australia took over in the 1950s and ‘60s with Frank Sedgman, John Newcombe, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, Lew Hoad and the man who may have been the finest ever, Rod Laver. That’s four plus two, but a justifiable exception.
Then it was the United States’ turn in the 1980s and ‘90s. Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, another foursome, were all Slam champs. Glory days for America.
Almost always four—like the number of Grand Slams and seasons of the year. It's a tidy, even number that resonates in sports. Aren’t there four golfing majors?
Doesn’t it take four victories to capture a World Series? Or an NBA Championship?
Once more, four is the number in men’s tennis. Now it's the Big Four or, if you choose, the Biggest Four. For the moment, however, we’re focusing on only two, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, and the 2014 Wimbledon final.
They’ll be facing each other Sunday. They are two, across the net and over time, who have been almost inseparable from the group, which includes Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. Only twice in the past 37 Slams, extending back nine years, has someone other than the Biggest Four won the title—Stan Wawrinka this year at Australia, Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open.
The funny thing about history is that we're not always aware of it when it’s happening.
Sure, there are Djokovic and Federer. There are so may shots, so many written and spoken words. Joy and agony, celebrations and condolences. "Great game," we say. And then, five years in the distance, or more accurately 20, we realize what it meant and where it ranked.
So, tennis fan or not, pay attention to these guys, to this final of contrasting personalities—the hyper “Djoker,” the controlled “Fed.” Understand what they bring to the table and to the court, a brilliance not easily matched.
Golf and tennis are different than other sports. There’s no team loyalty. If you’re a Red Sox or Bears or UCLA fan, it doesn’t matter who’s in the uniform. But when the greats—Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, Billie Jean King and Steffi Graf—depart, we’re left trying to find a new hero or heroine.
It’s been a great run for the Big Four, and it's not over yet.
“It was always going to be hard to get rid of all four guys at the same time,” said Federer after his semifinal win. “It was probably going, inevitably, to one guy, maybe two . . . I said before the tournament, it’s probably going to be one of the guys we expect in the finals.”
But it’s not one. It’s two. It’s half of the Big Four, the half that hasn’t won a title in the last two years. For Djokovic, then, the final is the time to show that this is his time. For Federer, it’s time to show that his time has not run out.
For Djokovic, who was runner-up to Nadal in the French Open last month, runner-up to Nadal in the U.S. Open last summer and runner-up to Murray at Wimbledon last summer, there’s a sense of frustration. He is thinking what others are thinking: There is pressure to win.
“Pressure is part of what we do,” he conceded. “You have to deal with it.”
Has anyone, at least in recent memory, dealt with pressure better than Federer? Eight previous Wimbledon finals, seven victories. Seventeen Grand Slams. And yet he’ll be 33 in a couple of weeks. Is this his last hurrah? He wasn’t supposed to be in the final this year, so declaring that Federer’s constituency is at an end is going into dangerous territory.
“He’s been looking very good,” said Djokovic of Federer, “very dominant in his matches. The key against him is trying to not allow him to dictate too much because he likes to be aggressive, likes to come to the net."
When Murray, Wimbledon winner last year, was beaten in the quarterfinals by Grigor Dimitrov, he was asked if he would watch the rest of the tournament on television. “No,” he responded immediately.
Then, after a pause, he said, “I mean, I’ll watch the final, probably. But yeah, there’s not one person in particular that I would like to win the tournament.”
Other than himself, certainly. But he’ll be as curious as anyone to see if Djokovic, who Murray has beaten twice in Slam finals, is able to defeat Federer. The potential is that there will be a match that is matchless, a match of history.
When any two of the Big Four are involved, the possibilities are enticing.
Art Spander, an award-winning columnist, has covered more than 50 Grand Slams in his career. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.