From short shorts-wearing chip-and-chargers to heavy spin-producing court sliders, one thing has always been present in men’s tennis — rivalries. Distinctive contrast between the games of John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg created audience-captivating tilts. The same goes for the battles between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. You can argue, though, that no adversaries belong in the same discussion as arguably the two best players ever, who still make fans’ head’s turn back and forth today.
Starting at the 2004 Australian Open, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal won a combined 17 of the next 20 Grand Slam men’s singles titles. They sat atop the world rankings for 387 consecutive weeks. One champion shed his man bun while the other added short sleeves to his wardrobe, but a constant through the years has been their jaw-dropping play. Their two-player reign over the tennis world gave birth to a rivalry that has produced arguably the greatest match of all time, in the 2008 Wimbledon final, and some of the highest-quality tennis the sport has ever seen. Federer and Nadal forced each other to evolve, bringing tennis’ level of competition to a whole new stratosphere. In a sport that needed a star, the world got two superheroes wielding tennis rackets. Call them the “Big Two.”
But at the 2008 Australian Open, the tug-of-war for control of tennis’ throne was interrupted. At the only major that Federer and Nadal failed to win that year, Novak Djokovic became the first man from Serbia to win a Grand Slam crown. It was his first audible knock at the castle door. After the victory, a reporter asked Djokovic in his press conference about the feeling of lifting the winner’s trophy.
“I didn’t feel anything at that moment,” he said. “I didn’t make difference about heavy or light or whatever. You know, I just looked at it and looked all those names on it and I thought to myself, ‘Jesus, my name is going to be in that trophy.’ “
It was as if Djokovic was in disbelief that his name belonged. The 20-year-old cracked open a door that Federer and Nadal had, for the most part, kept slammed shut for years. Later on in 2008, a 21-year-old Andy Murray reached his first major final at the US Open. Both the Scot and Djokovic had stuck a foot into what was Federer and Nadal’s realm, previously untouched. A classic rivalry became that much more enthralling with two players who could push the best of the best to be even better.
Their competition led to dominion over the men’s tour. The four players have made up 53 of the 64 Grand Slam finalists since 2008 and have won 42 combined majors since the start of 2004. Together, they have become widely recognized as the “Big Four.” Year after year each has taken a turn in the spotlight — dating back to 2008, any time one captured multiple majors in a season, they did not the following campaign – but none of them truly broke away to be alone as clearly, without a doubt, the best.
Novak Djokovic, victorious at the 2008 Australian Open. Ezra Shaw/Getty
Until now. Djokovic put together one of the best campaigns in tennis history in 2015 — he won three majors, the World Tour Finals and reached the French Open final, went 82-6 on the year and lifted a record six Masters 1000 trophies — and now, he has an opportunity to shatter the idea that the “Big Four” still exists.
In 2016, Djokovic can make the case that he is the “Big One” on the men’s tour. In fact, with his run of form it looks like the next attention-grabbing men’s tennis rivalry will be different than any of those in the past. Djokovic will be competing against himself to see just how quickly he can become peerless.
But what about the “Big Four?” They all are phenomenal players and this does not take away from what Federer, Nadal and Murray have shown on the court throughout their careers. Each is still capable of winning at the big tournaments. The thing is, it will take their top level to challenge Djokovic, and the World No. 1 has proven that today, even that may not be enough.
It is not simply about whether or not Djokovic can defeat his current rivals — he has beaten them a combined 68 times over the course of his career and went 15-4 against the trio last season — but rather who can ask tennis’ Goliath a question that he cannot answer.
When Serena Williams steps on the court, one can argue that she is the favorite no matter the opponent or the surface. Nobody will argue that she is the Women’s Tennis Association’s best player. You can find a group capable of testing her at their top level, but considering them in the same discussion is probably a stretch. Djokovic is heading in that sport-ruling direction. What can the rest of the “Big Four” or anyone else do about it?
At this moment, on the eve of the 2016 Australian Open, it seems like the answer is, well, nothing. Every time someone steps on the court to play Djokovic, it is as if a hamster is jumping inside its wheel. They can push as hard as they please, but they never seem to get anywhere for more than a brief moment. One can change their strategy and go in a different direction, but the result stays the same. Novak’s backhand is a brick wall — except that wall finds spots on the court that most humans cannot dream of finding. His return puts him in a position that a serve would, and his forehand is one of the most underappreciated weapons in tennis (mostly because of how great the rest of his game is). By the way, Djokovic’s movement on the court is among the best to ever pick up a racket. The only tiny hole, if it even is one, in the 28-year-old’s game is his overhead, and that is nitpicking. If you were to describe facing the man in one word, pick “frustrating.”
Novak Djokovic prepares for the 2016 Australian Open. David Crosling/epa/Corbis
Yet Djokovic’s 2015 was not simply about wins and losses. The now 10-time Slam winner answered some daunting questions asked of him. Take the French Open for example. As the top seed, a quarterfinal victory would seem ordinary. But nine-time Roland Garros titlist Nadal stood across the net. Djokovic had lost to the Spaniard six times previously at the French Open. If he had anything left to prove, it was that Djokovic could beat Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier — a feat only the retired Robin Soderling had ever accomplished.
Beating Nadal in Paris may possibly be the greatest task for any athlete.
“Playing him here and playing him in any other tournament in the world is completely different,” Djokovic said before facing Nadal. “Conditions are very suitable to his style of the game. He loves playing on Chatrier. We will see.”
Djokovic answered the bell, winning 7-5, 6-3, 6-1. Despite a stumble while up 4-0 in the first set, he dominated – it was as simple as that. He responded to all the questions that Nadal asked him with his play. Some will argue that Nadal was not at his very best, leaving his usually lethal lefty forehand short in the court, but no matter. Nobody was beating Djokovic that day.
“I had my moments,” Nadal said after the loss. “But in general, Novak [was] under control most of the time. So he was better than me. That’s it.”
Taking down Federer at the US Open last season may have been almost as tough. Behind his new “Sneak Attack By Roger” tactic — rushing in on service returns in a way only Federer could — the 17-time Slam winner played inspired tennis. He earned 23 break points against Djokovic with the entire crowd bursting at the seams to watch the Swiss win an 18th major title. Yet Federer only broke four times. The 34-year-old asked Djokovic if he could answer his vamped up style of pressuring play. The top seed responded with a 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 win. The Serbian made more unforced errors than he hit winners in the match and still came out victorious. When it was time to buckle down, Djokovic did. It may not have been the best answer that Djokovic could provide, but it still did the job, and that is what is scary.
“To say the least, it’s very impressive,” Federer said following the match, adding that there is no reason to think that Djokovic will stop winning the big tournaments. “Clearly he can win many of them. He already has a ton, so obviously he’s got to stay healthy and all that stuff and hungry, but obviously you would think he will win more after tonight.”
If Djokovic can manage to come anywhere close to performing as well as he did in 2015, professional tennis players will be in for a long season.
“Novak for the moment is almost unbeatable,” Nadal said after losing to his rival in the semifinals of the ATP World Tour Finals. “As I say before, the only thing you can do is congratulate him.”
None of this is to say that Djokovic will once again mop the floor with his three greatest rivals, or even a two-time major winner in Stan Wawrinka. Each is capable of an unreal level of play, as Stan showed in beating Novak in the final at Roland Garros last year, one of the rare accomplishments Djokovic has yet to complete. But again, that is what it takes today to beat Novak Djokovic — a Hall of Famer’s best shot.
If the beginning of the season is any indication, the world’s best is ready to answer those shots. In the final of the year’s first tournament, in Qatar, Djokovic beat Nadal 6-1, 6-2. That is tied for the second-fewest games the Spaniard has ever won in a completed match. Nadal admitted that the scoreline had little to do with a disastrous performance on his end.
“I played against a player who did everything perfect,” Nadal said. “I don’t know anybody who ever played tennis like this. Since I know this sport I never saw somebody playing at this level.”
How great could Djokovic be? Perhaps after passing over the Nadal mountain last year this season will be when he can finish off the career Grand Slam at Roland Garros.
But as another major season begins, it is perhaps fitting to revisit what Djokovic said when he won his first Grand Slam title. He stared at the trophy, aghast at the idea that his name belonged amongst those of legends. If Novak Djokovic continues on the path that he has set forth on, he will more than just fit in, he’ll find his spot in history as the legend who eliminated the concept of the “Big Four.”
The only rival that may stand in his way is the record book.