Three men who have long occupied the top ten have recently slid down the ranks. Proof of tennis’ capacity for individualism is that each plays quite differently. Tomas Berdych is a man of sustained concussion, winning his matches with thundering flat drives. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at his best pulls off that tricky business model: the shot-maker, cracking boldly. David Ferrer is a hornet’s nest of energy, oppressively buzzing his opponents.
The 31-year-old Berdych is now ranked #14 in the world, with a tall order ahead: defending points from runs to the quarterfinals of Roland Garros and a semi at Wimbledon. The 32-year-old Tsonga is #11, with a third round at the French and a quarter at Wimbledon. Ferrer, #30 and 35 years old, was already starting to fade last year, losing in the round of 16 at Roland Garros – his earliest exit there in five years – and the second round of Wimbledon. As youngsters such as Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev have begun to make their way up the ranks, it’s hard to see Berdych, Tsonga or Ferrer striking big again at the Slams.
But for a long time, these three nibbled near the very best. Each has earned his share of wins over Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, including several at the majors. Each has also reached a Grand Slam singles final – Berdych at Wimbledon in 2010, Tsonga at the 2008 Australian Open, Ferrer at Roland Garros in 2013.
Yet for a variety of reasons, none of them ever took that final step. At one level, the evidence is technical, from Berdych’s limited arsenal to Tsonga’s inconsistency to the limitations of Ferrer’s size. But is it that simple? Are the technical, tactical and mental skills of the Big Four that much better? The evidence says yes. And this is particularly cruel in an individual sport, when you can’t make a trade or even bring someone in off the bench.
Still, let’s be clear: Berdych, Tsonga and Ferrer are excellent players. Were the Big Four to vanish, might we be waxing lyrically about these three? There have always been players of this caliber – the likes of Dennis Ralston and Marty Mulligan in the ‘60s, Brian Gottfried and Dick Stockton in the ‘70s, Pam Shriver and Tim Mayotte in the ‘80s, Todd Martin and Thomas Enqvist in the ‘90s.
A player who won multiple Grand Slams once told me, “I guess I wanted it more.” But what does that even mean? Perhaps the difference between those who win big and those who come painfully close is an unsolvable mystery.