And not only have the “big four” exchanged that top spot exclusively and unbroken for virtually 15 years, they have also occupied all four of the top spots together for the bulk of the last decade.
The statistics speak for themselves.
Federer began a 237-week residency at No1 in February 2004, which was ended by Nadal in August 2008. Together, they occupied the top two places for 211 consecutive weeks until August 2009.
The top two places have been held by members of “the four” continuously since July 2005: It is 13 years since anyone else has even reached No2 in the world.
Between them, they have won 53 of the last 60 Majors, 74 of the last 90 Masters, and 12 of the last 16 World Tour Finals. And while Murray won just three of those Majors, he did become the only player ever to win two Olympics singles golds.
And yet, one by one during the last three years, each was forced off the pace through injury: Perhaps little wonder given that, at the start of last year, all were either approaching, or considerably past the 30-year-old threshold.
And while the Australian Open draw in 2017 found Murray at No1, and Djokovic at No2, Nadal was down at No9 and Federer at his lowest since 2001, No17.
The latter pair had succumbed to injury, and each missed many months and tournaments during 2016. Federer in particular had undergone surgery—to his knee—for the first time in his career, and did not play a tour match between Wimbledon and Australia.
It looked, then, as though the writing was well and truly on the wall as last—until Nadal and Federer swept all before them through 2017 to reclaim the top two rankings.
Now it was the turn of Djokovic and Murray to lose ground due to injury. Neither played from Wimbledon last year until early 2018—indeed Murray only returned in June, and as 2018 closes, he has managed just 12 matches in the last year and a half.
However, Djokovic has been to 2018 what Nadal and Federer were to 2017. Since minor elbow surgery in February, and a ranking low of 22 in June, he has piled on points, titles and ranking places to end the year as No1. Along with way, he has won two Majors, No13 at Wimbledon and No14 at the US Open, plus two Masters to become the first to collect the set of nine titles.
So here we are, at the end of 2018, with the most successful three of “the four” again on top of the world. Djokovic, Nadal and Federer also hold all four 2018 Majors, and that after the latter pair shared all four between them in the previous season.
Federer now owns 20, Nadal 17, Djokovic 14. That means they are now the three most prolific Majors champions in history—equalling or exceeding Sampras’s 14. They are also the most prolific Masters champions ever: Nadal 33, Djokovic 32, Federer 27.
And each of them has been at No1 during 2018: Federer became the oldest ever, age 36, and Djokovic the oldest end-of-year No1 at 31.
Federer, indeed, ends the season as the oldest man in the top 100, now age 37, and the poster-boy for a record-breaking season for more over-30s on the tour.
Aside from the Swiss star’s own age-defying achievements, and the over-30 profile of the Djokovic-Nadal-Federer triumvirate, the year-end top 10 includes seven players age 30 or over, the most in the 45-year history of ATP rankings.
• No5 Juan Martin del Potro was briefly at a career-high No3 this August after first reaching No4 almost nine years ago—and having twice fallen outside the top 400 in between. He notched up a 47-13 season with back-to-back titles in Acapulco and Indian Wells—incidentally, his first Masters title—but a fall in Shanghai halted his progress up the ranks.
• Then there is No6 Kevin Anderson who, now 32, made his first two Major finals in the last 15 months, his first two Masters semis in the last six months, won his first ATP500 title in Vienna, and reached the semis of his first World Tour Finals a fortnight ago.
• Add to the mix Marin Cilic, age 30, who has made two Major finals three years after becoming a Major champion back in 2014. With two semis and three more quarters at Masters level, he too held a career-high No3 for almost three months.
• Finally, there is John Isner, into the top 10 for the first time at the age of 33, into his first World Tour Finals after making his first Major semi at Wimbledon and winning his first Masters in Miami.
There are six more over-30s in the top 30—that makes 13 altogether.
• Fabio Fognini won three titles in a single season for the first time, made four finals in a season for the first time, and equalled his career-high No13 at age 31.
• Richard Gasquet won his first grass title in 12 years at s-Hertogenbosch, age 32.
• Gilles Simon won his first two titles in three years and recorded his 450th match-win, age 33. He rose to No30 from 89 at the start of the year.
• Pablo Andujar, age 32, made the biggest rankings jump this year, up 1,619 places to No82, and won his first title in four years, in Marrakech.
• Over-30s Malek Jaziri, Matthew Ebden and Adrian Mannarino all recorded career-high rankings.
Of course, another parallel story has unfolded through 2018, that of the #NextGen wave of players making their move up the ranks and into contention for the big titles. Indeed, their trailblazer, Alexander Zverev, has been edging his way among the top 10 since turning from teen to 20, and several more promise to follow, very possibly in the coming season.
More of that to come in another chapter of the 2018 Review. However, that storyline does beg a number of questions.
Will the same names still be topping the charts this time next year? Will Murray ‘do a Djokovic’ and bounce back from surgery and his long absences to re-establish “the four”? Can Federer possibly live with the pace, even win another Major, as he approaches his 38th birthday? And what of Nadal’s body, which let him down again late this season: Will he follow Federer’s lead and deliberately reduce his schedule to maintain his longevity?
But whether it’s ‘all change’, or ‘more of the same’, tennis has seldom commanded such fascinating and age-spanning storylines.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge