A year of backs and comebacks: The return of Federer and Murray
Roger Federer and Andy Murray have both reclaimed their spots in the top four of the ATP rankings
The first month and the first Grand Slam of the year are done.
The points have been added and the players ranked, the risers noticed and sliders noted. And Novak Djokovic has cemented his place at No1 for his 132nd week—and for a good few more, too, with a margin of 3,800 points over the chasing pack.
And the rankings published in the first week of February look much the same as they have done many times before. Along with Djokovic, a permanent resident in the top four since Wimbledon 2007, the usual suspects are all present and correct: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.
Except that, contrary to received wisdom, it’s been a while since ‘the big four’ did actually hold the top four ranking spots to the exclusion of everyone else.
Federer dropped from the elite quartet after his surprise second-round exit at Wimbledon in 2013, the first time he had done so since he rose to No3 with his first Wimbledon title a decade before.
Nadal only re-entered the top four as Federer left it: the Spaniard had been ranked at No5 for most of the first half of 2013. That, too, was a watershed moment, his first time outside the top four since June 2005, when he won his first French Open title.
Andy Murray dropped from the top four after last year’s Australian Open for the first time since making his debut Grand Slam final, the US Open, in 2008—barring a two-month stint at No5 at the start of 2011 when Robin Soderling threatened to crash the party before the best 18 months of his career was cut short by glandular fever.
So during this same week in 2011, in 2013, and last year, “the big four” were not “the top four”… and that despite them having won all but two of the preceding 35 Grand Slams.
Last year’s post-Australian rankings, in fact, had their most unfamiliar look in almost a decade: When Federer topped the list in 2005, only one other member of the famous quartet, Nadal, was even in the top 150.
It was Nadal, though, who topped the rankings last February, leading Djokovic by the same margin with which the Serb now leads the pack. Next came the newly-crowned Stan Wawrinka at a career-high No3. Juan Martin del Potro was No4 and David Ferrer—himself at a career-high No3 two weeks earlier—rounded out the top five.
Andy Murray had just dropped to No6, and would slide still further through the year, all the way to No12. At No7 was Tomas Berdych followed by, at his lowest ranking in almost 12 and a half years, No 8 Federer.
Despite Nadal’s lead last February, come Wimbledon he had been overhauled by Djokovic, and his ranking subsequently suffered from injury and illness for the rest of the season. But it was the fighting spirit and determination of the other two “big four” that kept fans on the edge of their seats as the year reached its World Tour Finals climax.
Murray had missed the last three months of 2013 to undergo back surgery, and the effects of that lay-off took much of the following season to counter. He started well enough in Australia, still ranked No4 and reaching a creditable quarter-final, but he dipped, rose at Roland Garros, and dipped again to No12 as the Asian swing got under way.
Then Murray began one of the year’s most arduous runs as he went hell-for-leather to qualify for London. He did it the hard way, three titles from six back-to-back tournaments, winning 20 of his last 23 matches.
The prize was big but the price had been high, and a tired Murray could not make an impression in Paris or London. But with a rejigged team, a fiancee, and a body back in condition, he made the final in Melbourne and regained a place in the top four, just 285 points behind Nadal.
Federer’s resurgence in 2014 became one of the stories of the year as he inched from No8, to No5 after Indian Wells, into the top four ahead of Wimbledon and on to No3 after reaching the final. He made the top two after winning runs through the Davis Cup semis, the Shanghai Masters and Basel.
Hard to believe, then, that during 2013, Federer had struggled with a recurrent back problem, claimed only the Halle title and, in the space of month, lost to three men ranked outside the top 50—two of them outside the top 100.
He found himself quizzed about his advancing years—32 by the time he pulled out of the Rogers Cup in Montreal—and about his trials with a new racket. At the end of 2013, he managed only to qualify for the World Tour Finals in the last fortnight, ranked No7, though there were signs that his fitness was returning.
Not that fitness was Federer’s only weapon come the New Year. His bigger racket was being flourished in an increasingly net-attacking game, backed up by an inspiring new mentor, Stefan Edberg. After such a challenging season—and the naysayers that came with it—Federer took on the look of a sleeping lion roused from his slumber.
In short, the Swiss put together a comeback so strong, with five titles from 11 finals and more match-wins than anyone else on the tour, that he earned a chance to reclaim the No1 ranking by year’s end… if he could keep up the pace.
He certainly gave it his all until a third-round loss at the Paris Masters and, days later, an astonishing return by Djokovic to take the title a week after the birth of his first child.
Federer’s gruelling season ended with more back trouble and withdrawal from an O2 face-off against Djokovic, but he went on to join Switzerland in winning the Davis Cup, dipped into the IPTL, played a charity fundraiser and, before you knew it, was off to a racing start in 2015 with the Brisbane title.
Perhaps it was, in part, the ambition of his 2014 comeback that took a toll come Melbourne. Even so, the Swiss remains a solid No2, 3,560 points ahead of Nadal.
But what makes Federer’s last 12 months so significant is that, on this very day 11 years ago, aged 22, he first reached No1, where he would stay for an unbroken 237 weeks. And to give that some perspective, the next longest streak is Jimmy Connors with 160.
Along the way, Federer has notched up a record 302 weeks in total—and still he came close to adding more in a year that he began as No8.
Now that’s staying power.