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Andy Murray says era of tennis’s big four could be over

The Guardian logo The Guardian 13-11-2016 Kevin Mitchell
Andy Murray before the ATP World Tour Finals: Andy Murray practices at the O2 Arena before the ATP World Tour Finals, which starts on Monday. © Reuters Andy Murray practices at the O2 Arena before the ATP World Tour Finals, which starts on Monday.

Andy Murray finally voiced the unthinkable when he said on Saturday that the Big Four, the elite club which he will captain for as long as he can hold Novak Djokovic at bay, could be without its founding members, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, within 12 months.

“I think next year will be interesting,” the new world No1 said on the eve of the ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena in Greenwich. “That will be the time to sort of tell whether it’s done and that era is past.”

Federer, who dropped out of the top 10 for the first time in 14 years this month, and Nadal, who, like the Swiss, is absent because of injury, have struggled to stay in touch with Murray and Djokovic. And, when the Serb’s run of 123 weeks as world No1 came to an end in Paris last weekend, the story shifted dramatically again.

Murray, who has been thrust to the top of the mountain against most expectations but who has earned the honour in the course of an unbeaten run of 19 matches, made his prediction with a sense of regret rather than celebration. He acknowledges that Federer and Nadal have been probably the two best players in the history of the game and he knows that, when fit and in form, they demand total respect.

But, at 35 and 30 respectively, they have been unable to avoid the inevitable drag of physical decline. The sharpness of hand and eye is ever so slightly dulled, the flexibility not what it was. The muscles and bones ache more deeply. The passion? Even Djokovic, the sport’s iron man, admits that comes under pressure too. But it all starts with the moving parts.

“When somebody is not playing for six months like Roger,” Murray said, “then they can’t maintain their ranking and they are not competing for the biggest events. Rafa, just when he was starting to play better, he had this wrist issue and that has set him back a bit. Stan [Wawrinka] winning at the US Open against Novak in the final was a bit of a surprise, maybe.”

The main battlefield for a little while has featured three players: Murray, Djokovic and Wawrinka. Form suggests that is the way it will play out on the banks of the Thames this week. If Djokovic can win every match, he will reclaim his crown; if Murray can match or better his results, he will finish the year as No1, something only 16 players have done since the computer rankings began in 1973. Murray would rather not be among the nine who reached the top and slid down quickly.

His peers are impressed. Kei Nishikori, who plays Wawrinka in the afternoon match on Monday before Murray’s evening opener against Marin Cilic, said: “It is great to see a new No1 player. For sure I think he is going to stay there a long time. But Novak is going to be playing strong as well, and Stan won the US Open. It won’t be easy for him.”

What makes the sacrifices more bearable for Murray is his young daughter, Sophia. Her arrival in February brought him obvious calm and she has become the centre of his and Kim’s lives.

“She started crawling [on Thursday],” he said. “I wasn’t there, unfortunately. I was practising. There’s video of it and I saw it this morning for myself. It’s nice. Anyone who’s a parent will say that.

“Even though it’s baby steps, small steps, it’s nice to be around when that’s happening and that’s why this period of the year is great.” It was also why he declined an invitation to be at Wembley for Scotland’s World Cup qualifier against England on Friday – which might be as well.

“I will get to see her every day for the next four and a half weeks before I go off to Miami. I will get to spend a bit of time with her over Christmas and she is coming at the beginning of the year to some of the tournaments in the Middle East. So I will get to spend a lot of time with her.”

Some critics a little way removed from Murray’s circumstances suggested fatherhood might undermine his focus. He could not disagree more. “The thing is, it has distracted me in a good way. All of my focus isn’t on tennis now, which is a positive. Maybe before, tennis was like my life – and now it isn’t. I still want to do well but it’s true that, when I finished in Paris, I was really happy that I won but I wanted to go home and see my family and that’s more important now.

“Maybe my focus is a little bit different but I’m not dwelling on wins and losses as much. I feel a lot more level-headed through the year emotionally. I’m not as up and down. My mood isn’t based on: ‘OK, I won a tournament. That’s amazing.’ And then, when I’ve lost, I’m not way down here, either. I just feel a lot more stable throughout the year.”

Djokovic, who admits he has struggled with off-court problems as well as an injury to his right arm which stubbornly refuses to heal, is also keeping his day job in perspective. He was a little touchy on Friday when asked if he felt back to normal after what he himself had said during the Olympics in Rio had been a difficult time.

“What makes you say that?” he asked his questioner. “I am my normal self every day. I was talking about having certain ups and downs. ‘Not emotionally myself’ is too strong. I think.”

He did concede his game lately was “not quite up to the standard of the last 12, 15 months, the high standard of results that I have had. Probably [injury and his private life] have taken its toll a little bit. I didn’t get to recover a little bit. I had to dig deep, take some time to reflect on everything.”

Djokovic is wounded, still. But that is when he is at his most dangerous, as any member of the Big Four would agree.

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