Eight years ago on the brick-red clay of the French Open in Paris, three Argentines and a British man did something that wouldn’t be done again in tennis until the U.S. Open this week in New York: they conducted the final weekend of a Grand Slam without Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal.
Since that time, when Roger crashed out of Roland Garros in the third round and Rafa missed the tournament because of an ankle injury, one or both of the men has qualified for the semifinals or better of every major—an astounding 33 in all.
But while the two most dominant players of their generation may not be part of the festivities this weekend in Queens, tennis will survive. In fact, their absence in the final four is a good thing for the game, a chance for it to thrive, to showcase talent outside what has become the Rafa and Roger show—and plenty of talent there is.
On Saturday, one of the supporting cast members of the tour, Andy Murray, booked his spot in the final with a four-set win over Federer beater Tomáš Berdych. On Sunday, another great, Novak Djokovic, will try to join Murray there; he’ll take on David Ferrer in a rain-delayed semifinal.
For years now, Murray and Djokovic have been knocking on the door marked “Federer and Nadal.” Last year it was Djokovic, a charismatic Serb with a coy smile and quick wit, who took the tennis world by storm, winning four majors in the span of 13 months and becoming the world’s No. 1 player, brushing aside Federer and Nadal. (Federer has since regained the top seed.)
Djokovic’s winning streak threw a wrench into what had become a game of set expectations—Rafael vs. Roger for the title—sorting global fans into a trio of camps rather than just a pair.
Then it was Murray who split the lines once again, pushing his way fastidiously through a series of disappointments, including a final loss to Federer at Wimbledon this year, by claiming gold at the London Olympics last month. With another name cemented in the conversation of who might take a major title, the rivalry turned “trivalry” suddenly became a four-man game.
But the fact is, as any insider tennis fan would tell you, the sport is bursting with guys who would make great champions—and have the talent to do so over the next few years. As “the Big Four” have developed their stronghold on the top of the game, tennis has bubbled with competitors who are trying to break their iron grip, a modern-day blue-collar crowd aiming to get off the assembly line.
Here’s a look: there’s John Isner, a 6-foot-9 American with the game’s most gargantuan serve and a suave maturity on court; Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is a dynamic Frenchman with diving ground strokes and a postmatch chest thump that is straight from the silver screen; Juan Martín Del Potro has a wandlike windup on his forehand, perhaps the game’s most feared stroke; David Ferrer is the people’s player with a workmanlike game and scintillating speed; and Berdych, who possesses a lithe, crisp all-court approach, with the long reach of a big bird at net and the name to match.
It has been those latter two, Ferrer and Berdych, who have broken through at the Open this year, Berdych taking out Federer and Ferrer beating another cannonball-fast player, Janko Tipsarevic, in a five-set classic of a quarterfinal. But like them, Tsonga, Del Potro, Murray, and Djokovic have all consistently made the semifinals of a major, often one of them upsetting Nadal or Federer on their way.
Tennis cannot just survive on one rivalry alone. Yes, the Federer-Nadal head-to-head has been a thing of history, to put it quite simply. They’ve met 28 times, the Spaniard winning 18 of them, but the 26-year-old has beaten his older counterpart in eight of 10 major finals, most recently at the 2011 French Open, which Nadal won in four sets.
They have both been labeled the GOAT—Greatest of All Time—with the distinction usually reserved for Federer and his record-setting 17 majors, a dominance that the sport has never seen before and perhaps may never see again.
There is no call for, nor should there be, the demise of these two great competitors. But as their rivals attempt to close the gap between them and the rest of the world, tennis can only benefit from its chance to put on display the deep pool of talent that travels the globe on a weekly basis.
Tennis is, above everything else, a global game. Federer, a Swiss, and Nadal, from Spain, have proven that. But wouldn’t you like to see free-wheeling Frenchman Gaël Monfils make a run next year at the Open? Or how about the booming, Pete Sampras–like serve of Milos Raonic advancing deep in New York?
While women’s tennis has struggled with the ability to develop any engaging rivalries (Serena Williams against anyone, please?), men’s tennis has had the opposite issue. Murray, Djokovic, Ferrer, and Berdych at this Open is a start, but Federer and Nadal aren’t giving up their reins anytime soon. And that’s what makes it all the more engaging.