Big four dominate race and rankings, but fresh blood Thiem, Zverev and more jostle for attention in Madrid
Alexander Zverez, David Goffin, Borna Coric and Dominic Thiem are all looking to impress in Madrid
As tennis pundits will tell you before the start of each of Masters tournament, ‘the big four’ continues to be alive and kicking many years after the term was coined—and that was a good decade ago.
The ranking dominance began with Roger Federer in February 2004, and within little more than a year, he was joined by Rafael Nadal at No2—and they held those top two spots between them for years.
Come 2007, Novak Djokovic made his break into the top four, and a year later, Andy Murray did the same. But since 2008, while there have been brief incursions by other players—by the likes of David Ferrer, Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic, Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro, Kei Nishikori—the stranglehold has been near complete.
No-one else has made it to No1 or No2, only three others have won a Major title—a tally of five from 48—and the same ‘big four’ has won 59 of the last 64 Masters titles.
This week’s Madrid Masters is a prime example: 11 of the last 12 titles have been won by the same four—and every one of them since it switched to clay in 2009.
For what seems like years, therefore, one question has remained unanswered: Who will be the “next big thing”?
Del Potro was a favourite, but multiple wrist surgeries later and he still struggles to make consistent inroads.
Nishikori, now age 27, reached No4 two years ago, but has picked up assorted injuries to rib, hip and wrist that have pulled him up short.
Raonic became the first man born in the 1990s to break into the top four, and held his spot for five months. He even made No3 at the end of last year, helped a little, perhaps, by the ongoing absence of Federer and Nadal with extended injury breaks. But he too has been impeded by foot surgery and leg problems. Madrid is only his sixth tournament of the year, and he conceded walk-overs in two of them.
Now Federer and Nadal have returned to the fray, apparently as fit and eager as ever, and between them have mopped up all the big titles: the Swiss has the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami; Nadal has Monte-Carlo, was a finalist in Australia and Miami, and is certainly one of the favourites to win Madrid and Rome. They lead the Race to London at Nos 1 and 2, and have edged back to Nos 4 and 5 in the overall rankings.
But then, Federer turns 36 in three months’ time, Nadal is 31 next month, and Murray and Djokovic will be 30 in a few days’ time. So is the time ripe at last for the next generation, either the one born in the 90s, or the one competing under the #NextGen banner, to make their move
Here are the views of four who have made it to the quarter-finals in Madrid this week.
Alexander Zverev, age 20, ranked 19, but expected to break a new career high this week after beating No7 seed Marin Cilic and No11 seed Berdych. Leads #NextGen Race to Milan, has won three titles form five finals in the last year, and is now into his second Masters quarter-final.
“I mean, I think a lot of young guys are coming through quite well now. I think we’re improving. Borna [Coric] lost in the qualies here and is now in the quarter-finals. Well done to him for that. He just beat Andy [Murray], who is world No1. He’s playing great tennis, as well.
“But I think a lot of young guys are coming through, and a lot of young guys are starting to play great tennis… There’s a reason why other guys are beating the top players: because they are playing great tennis.”
David Goffin, age 26, at a career-high No10 ranking after reaching his second Major quarter-final in Australia and his third Masters semi-final in Monte-Carlo. Has two titles from eight finals, and has four wins over top-10 players this year, including Djokovic and Raonic.
“Of course, it always gives me a lot of confidence to beat those guys, but especially with the way I played is the most important thing. I think the last two matches I lost against Milos were great matches, too, but [today] I returned much better than in past matches against him, and that was the key today. And I stayed really aggressive to the end—that was another key.
“I always try to just say to myself that, even if I don’t win this match, I just want to be a tough opponent, so even if I’m not feeling great or in great shape, I just want to be tough. That’s what I say in my head before I go on court, doesn’t matter the score, the moment, the match, I just want to make my opponent run a lot, and spend some tough moments on the court.
“I think now I’m improving match after match and I become tougher opponent month after month.”
Borna Coric, age 20, is second to Zverev in #NextGen Race to Milan. Close to career-high 33 of two years ago after knee surgery last year, beat Nadal in Cincinnati, beat three top-40 players to lift Marrakech trophy last week, and upset world No1 Murray to reach second Masters quarter-final.
“It’s a huge win [against Murray], for sure. It’s going to mean to me a lot—also regarding my confidence, and it’s going to help me in my ranking… I can play now a little bit more, let’s say, free. I don’t need to defend many points. I can only earn points.”
“I have learned there is ups and downs in life, you cannot only go up. I had small injury, which was unlucky, [but] you just need to make your way up again.
“I’ve been doing really well very young. Also, my expectations were very high, which was maybe not very realistic.
“I have my path. I have my motivation. I shouldn’t look at the others too much. At the same time, I can see [Zverev] is doing really well. He’s going to be top player, for sure. He’s already now. I think he’s going to break into the top 10 very, very soon. It does show me that I need to work extra harder. At the same time, everyone has their own path and career, so I need to be focused on myself.”
Dominic Thiem has eight titles form 12 finals, broke the top 10 a year ago after reaching first Major semi-final at the French Open. Went on to reach four Masters quarter-finals, and now into first in Madrid after saving five match-points against Grigor Dimitrov.
Thiem told ATP World Tour:
“Madrid is my favourite Masters because I beat my first top-10 guy there [Wawrinka]. That is still probably one of my best wins. [Thiem beat Murray in Barcelona two weeks ago, as well.]
“It’s unbelievably tough. From the second round there [are] only blockbuster matches. You have to be on fire from the first round and you have to beat only good guys to win the tournament. That’s why so few players have won one!
“I don’t always play good in the important points, but today yes. I don’t know if I ever saved that many match points in one match, so it’s a really good feeling. In the third set I showed really good mentality. I was a break down and I came back good.”
With this win, Thiem moved to No3 in the Race to London behind Federer and Nadal. Goffin is No4, Zverev No12, Coric No26.