By Leighton Ginn
For over a decade, the Big Four of men’s tennis — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray — have dominated the sport like no other.
Of the four majors over the last 11 years, the Fab Four have won 39 of the 44 major singles titles, with 29 of those finals pitting the sports creme de la creme.
While Federer and Nadal, two of the winningest players in tennis history, were hampered last year with injuries, Djokovic and Murray aptly filled in with historic years.
Djokovic became the first player to win four consecutive Grand Slam singles title when he won the French Open. The French title also completed his career Grand Slam to join Federer and Nadal in this generation to accomplish it.
However, in the second half of the year, Murray went on an impressive run that included his second Wimbledon title and second-consecutive gold medal at the Olympics to become the first Brit to earn the No. 1 ranking in the Open era.
On Thursday, Djokovic suffered a stunning second-round loss Denis Istomin, a wildcard who is ranked outside the top 100. It is the second time in the last three majors where Djokovic failed to reach the second week.
And this came at the Australian Open, his best major, where he’s claimed six titles in 10 years.
It raises this question: Is the Golden Age over?
WHAT MADE THE GOLDEN AGE GREAT
What made the Golden Age great is you had four great players who were always battling in the semifinals or finals of major tournaments.
For that to happen this year at the Australian Open seems like a longshot.
Murray came into the tournament as the No. 1 seed and top-ranked player, and nothing has changed for him.
But Federer is seeded 17th and would have to face Murray in the quarterfinals. Nadal is ninth, but he has no momentum coming into Melbourne. It’s not impossible for Nadal to reach the finals, but probably unlikely.
Moving forward, how much can we expect from Federer and Nadal who missed such a large portion of last year?
THE FALL OF DJOKOVIC
The real problem is Djokovic. No.1 and No. 2 isn’t a huge drop, but the quality of play from the Serbian superstar is.
When he won the French Open, it was his 12th major title and it was reasonable that he could make a serious run at Federer’s 17 Grand Slam titles.
Yet, to go from completing a Grand Slam to failing to make the second week of a major twice in the next three is troubling. Throw into the mix Djokovic losing in the first round of the Olympics and it becomes a worrisome trend.
If Djokovic was able to reach the quarterfinals, then it would have been too early to sound the alarm.
After his loss Thursday, Djokovic said he felt fine physically.
There have been questions about his desire. Only he can answer that, and he said that’s not the case.
Confidence? Same to assume it wasn’t what is was last year. Can he get it back? And can he do it in time to defend his French title?
IS ANYONE READY TO STEP IN?
Because Djokovic and Murray have been so good and holding the fort down with Federer and Nadal recovering from injuries, it looked like the Big Four could still squeeze out some more magic at the majors.
Now with Djokovic out, it opens the door for someone to step in to grab his own share of the limelight.
The top candidate is Stan Wawrinka, who has won three major titles in the last three years, including the Australian Open title. Some have suggested the Big Four should be the Big Five based on what Wawrinka has done. He certainly is on that level as far as ability.
I’m not sure if fans have embraced him on the level of the Big Four, in terms of excitement and anticipation. He hasn’t seriously challenged for major titles until the last four years. By that time, his legacy had been deep in the shadows of his fellow Swiss, Federer.
Wawrinka’s body of work as a contender is short, and at 31 years old, is probably closer to the end than the beginning.
But if he does continue to play at this high level and reach more major finals, then Wawrinka can enrich his already impressive legacy.
Currently, Milos Raonic is the No. 3 seed and has a career-best No. 3 ranking. With big weapons, he is an exciting power player. He’s building momentum in his career by reaching the Wimbledon final and the Australian Open semifinals in 2016.
Marin Cilic is the 2015 US Open champion and Juan Martin Del Potro is the 2009 US Open champion, but both have been hampered by injuries.
Kei Nishikori reached the 2015 US Open final and has maintained a top-10 level, but not enough to crack into the Big Four level.
Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych have been around a while, but don’t appear are able to get to the next level, at least not yet.
Young players Dominic Thiem and David Goffin have made gigantic strides in the last year.
But the thing all these players are lacking is a body of work like the Big Four.