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Big Four's dominance is truly special
In so many ways, golf and tennis are very different games. They stand together, however, as the two great individual sports of our age and, as such, must bear some comparison. On the evidence of the past few weeks, what we have seen is this: Men's tennis currently is powered by megawatt star power from four outstanding players, while men's golf tries to sort itself out in the aftermath of the Tiger Woods implosion.
Novak Djokovic has emerged as the best player in men's tennis in 2011.Susan Mullane
It would, perhaps, have been too much to ask of Rory McIlroy for him to transfer his US Open form to a links course and dominate the British Open. But the fact that Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, the two top-ranked golfers in the world, failed to make the cut and that Phil Mickelson, the only American with star quality in the field except for the veteran Tom Watson, only made a late run, many at Sandwich were left longing for something tastier.
If one were to make a comparison between Grand Slam tennis and the golf majors, failing to make the cut would be the rough equivalent of losing in the second round of a Slam. Tennis hasn't witnessed anything like that for a very long time. The last occasion Roger Federer lost that early in a Slam was at Roland Garros in 2003 when he went down in the first round. Rafael Nadal's last loss in the second round or earlier was at Wimbledon in 2005; Novak Djokovic has made it past the second round every time since the Australian Open in 2006, and Andy Murray has done so since losing in the first round of the Australian in 2008.
This is just one way of pinpointing the extraordinary stranglehold these four players have held on the game the past three years, during which time they have occupied the top four spots on the ATP ranking list at the end of each successive year. Rivalries take time to mature, and it was in women's tennis that we saw one of the great rivalries of all time develop between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert over no less than 14 years. But the players at the top of the modern men's game face far stiffer opposition from those below them, and the way they have shut the door on their peers is astonishing.
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With all the talk of Federer's decline and Murray's inability to take one step up and win a Slam, one might have thought others would have gotten a look in the past few months. But for the gang trying to scale the ramparts, this year has been worse than last. In 2010, Robin Soderling at Roland Garros and Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon barged their way onto the scene on finals day. Not this year.
Djokovic began his extraordinary run at the Australian Open, beating Murray in the final. In Paris, Nadal hung on to his crown by beating Federer in the final. And at Wimbledon, it was Djokovic again with Nadal making it to the final. They don't like intruders, do they?
Even the semifinal spots are jealously guarded. Djokovic and Murray were in the semifinals in Paris, while Murray was in the last four at Wimbledon. No second-round losses in sight for this quartet, who could pick up their swords and take a good stab at being the modern version of, if not d'Artagnan and his pals, then certainly those four French Musketeers — Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon — who were so dominant in the 1920s. So dominant, in fact, that the French government financed the building of Roland Garros so they could show off their skills to a wider public.
Today, the stadiums are built and the current quartet have no trouble filling them. Some 23,000 people will pack Arthur Ashe Stadium on the final days of the US Open in September, and something strange will have to happen for any of the four Musketeers to be missing from the semifinal schedule.
Of course, the US Open Series, due to start at Atlanta, Los Angeles and Washington DC in the coming weeks, will take its toll on form and fitness if normal temperatures set in, but Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray will be confining themselves to the two big ATP Masters Series events in Montreal and Cincinnati and so, with luck, should arrive in New York in reasonable shape.
Three-time Slam runner-up Andy Murray has made at least the semifinals at all three majors so far in 2011.Pierre Lahalle/Presse Sports
If there is one player out there who has the credentials to break into this jealously guarded club, it would be Juan Martin del Potro, the powerful Argentine who shocked the tennis world by beating Federer in the final of the 2009 US Open. Wrist surgery and nine months out of the game created a cruel hiatus in this young man's development, but he has shown glimpses of his old form in the past few months. The hard courts of North America will make him feel right at home.
There are others, of course, who will all need watching: Robin Soderling, who briefly raised himself into the world's fourth spot but couldn't maintain it; Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who had such a dynamic impact on the grass in London at Queen's and Wimbledon; and David Ferrer, who demonstrated, to America's chagrin, how good he can be on faster surfaces in the Davis Cup quarterfinals in Austin, Texas. And, hopefully, Andy Roddick will be able to shake off that hometown disappointment and continue to offer a threat.
Even though the internal story has changed within the quartet itself — Djokovic now being the man to beat with just one loss this year — the game still is ruled by these four amazing players who are setting records at every turn. The last time the men's game was ruled by four players of such quality was from 1983-85, when John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander occupied the top four spots for three years, jostling the No. 1 spot around amongst themselves.
Were they as great as the current quartet? That's a good discussion for a rainy afternoon, but there is no doubt that we are in the midst of a golden era with Novak, Rafa, Roger and Andy.
Now if only Northern Ireland could just produce a couple more golfers ...
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