By Michael Stafford-Jones
- Roger Federer won a record-breaking eighth Wimbledon title without dropping a set
- Rafael Nadal won a historic tenth French Open title, also without losing a set
- Their easy triumphs highlight a lack of depth in men’s tennis
PARIS & LONDON – After Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal won the last two Grand Slams without losing a set, questions need to be asked about whether the rest of the ATP players are good enough to challenge them.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are phenomenal tennis players, undoubtedly two of the greatest of all time, but their record-breaking recent triumphs at Wimbledon and the French Open highlighted the startling truth about the lack of depth in men’s tennis. The issue is not that they won the tournaments because they are good enough to do that even against the very best opposition. The issue is that each of them won a Grand Slam without dropping a set. History tells us this should be a rare occurrence, so for it to happen twice in a row speaks volumes about the top-heaviness of the men’s tour.
Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic’s recent struggles with form, motivation and fitness have of course contributed to this situation, but someone outside the Big Four should have provided Federer and Nadal with a challenge. The fact that they were unable to is incredibly damning for the state of the men’s game, and there are plenty of players who have fallen well short of what is expected of them in the last two months.
Pretenders to the Throne
It was thrilling to watch Grigor Dimitrov go toe-to-toe with Nadal during their high-quality five-set encounter at this year’s Australian Open, but when he had the opportunity to produce another sparkling performance while the entire tennis world was watching him play Federer at Wimbledon, he failed miserably. The Bulgarian said afterwards that he was disappointed he could not play better, but did not seem to know why that was the case. That is not good enough for someone with as much talent as Dimitrov.
Dominic Thiem is another of the much-feted next generation, and he demonstrated how much ability he has with a breathtaking display to defeat Nadal 6-3 6-4 in Rome in May. However, when he faced the Spaniard in the French Open semi-final just three weeks later, he froze – much like Dimitrov did against Federer at Wimbledon – and lost in straight sets. Admittedly, Nadal was in top form at Roland Garros, but a player of the Austrian’s obvious talent should be able to win at least a set against anyone on clay, which is one of his best surfaces.
Those are the two most striking examples of the failings of the players outside the Big Four, but in theory almost anyone in the draw can raise their game against the best and at the very least make life difficult for them. When nobody does that, when nobody even takes a set off the eventual winners of a Grand Slam, it makes for a depressingly dull, exasperatingly predictable spectacle.
Is Big Four’s Dominance Harming the Sport?
In the last two majors and in 2017 as a whole (with the exception of an absolute classic between Federer and Nick Kyrgios in Miami), we have seen in men’s tennis the very same problem that has often plagued women’s tennis during the Serena Williams era: Total dominance by one player (Federer on grass and hard courts, Nadal on clay). That is why the men’s game desperately needs Murray and Djokovic to return to the ATP tour fully fit as soon as possible. When they do, we will almost certainly witness memorable matches once again, but it will only paper over the cracks, as there is a glaring absence of Grand Slam contenders outside the Big Four (with the exception of Stan Wawrinka).
The lack of alternative rivals is not a new phenomenon as only five of the last 57 majors have been won by someone other than one of the Big Four. But what is unique to the last two Grand Slams is the lack of a serious challenge from Murray or Djokovic. With those two struggling, there have no meetings between two Big Four players, and that has made Wimbledon and the French Open alarming to watch because it has left the rest of the draw exposed and they have not been up to the challenge.
Millions of people around the world were excited to see Federer win a record eighth title at the All England Club and millions more to watch Nadal win La Decima at Roland Garros, but that did not mean their fellow players needed to roll out the red carpet for them and invite them to waltz into the history books. It was embarrassing to watch.
Main Image Credit: Ella Ling/BPI/REX/Shutterstock
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