Australian Open: Djokovic looks strong, can Murray emerge stronger?

Bhavya Dore
Bhavya DoreJan 31, 2016 | 13:35

Australian Open: Djokovic looks strong, can Murray emerge stronger?

Novak Djokovic has sped so far ahead of the field that the concept of the "Big Four" no longer has the punchy currency that it once did. The exclusive gentleman’s club at the rarefied levels of men’s tennis is now more a quaint anachronism than a reliable indicator of what the final few days of a Grand Slam will look like.


Roger Federer lost the last two Grand Slam finals to Djokovic, Rafael Nadal was last seen at his destructive best at the French Open 2014. The smart money is no longer on either of these former number ones ahead of Grand Slams these days. But was it even ever on the fourth member of the quartet, the relative under-achiever Andy Murray?

In the Australian Open final on Sunday, Murray will meet Djokovic, who is bidding for his sixth title here. Murray will be bidding for his first.

Djokovic and Murray are the same age, but it was Djokovic who first erupted with force to disrupt the Federer-Nadal duopoly. Murray followed a little after, trying to catch up.

It’s hard to pin down the first recorded usage of the term “Big Four”, but no doubt it was floated somewhere around 2008-'09 when the ascendancy of these four men became clear, and they went on to successfully dominate the tour until the end of 2013.

Between them, they had at one point won 34 of the 35 Grand Slam titles. To find a number one other than Federer, Murray or Djokovic meant peeling back the parchments until February 2004 to Andy Roddick.


And while Murray did his bit holding up his end of the Big Four-ness, he did very little by way of establishing himself in those years as the central point in that constellation of greatness.

For one, he never made the number one ranking (peaking at number two). This in itself is hard to hold against him (look at what he was up against), but which made one wonder if he had been included in the quartet on account of symmetry or invincibility.

Then there were the murmurings of the pro-Wawrinka lobby, a lobby with a periodic pitch for relevancy: Murray has the same number of slams as Wawrinka (two). Of course he has shown up at more finals (losing finalist six times, to Wawrinka’s none) and won more titles overall (35 versus 12) than Wawrinka, but going by blunt numbers of slam victories, they are indeed on par.

Finally, Murray has the least convincing head-to-head record against each of the other members of the famous quartet.

So in some senses it was perhaps a case of the "Big Three and a Half", with circumstance, poetic neatness and the in-built drama of a British man breaking the 77-year curse to finally win the Wimbledon that helped Murray bridge the marginal shortfall in achievement.


His best spell was in 2012-2013, when he upended decades of history and put paid to a thousand opening paragraphs on potentially being the first British man since Fred Perry to win a Wimbledon crown.

Just before his first slam victory in the US Open in 2012, losing the Wimbledon to Federer, Murray wept openly on court.

“I can cry like Roger,” he sniffled, “It’s just a shame I can’t play like him.” Despite this admission being sort of true for Murray, by this point both Nadal and Djokovic had taken the sheen off Federer. A little later their collective hegemony came under threat.

In September 2014, when Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori set up a "No Big Four Please Mortals Only" US Open final, the tennis establishment declared what had been inevitable: their invincibility had been cracked, their party of the exclusive definitively crashed. This frenzied obit-writing turned out to herald a temporary scare rather than a state of affairs when Djokovic promptly proceeded to win three of the next four slams, stopped only by the aspiring "Big Fifth", Wawrinka, at the 2015 French Open.

Murray has been in one final since his 2013 Wimbledon victory, gone through back surgery, on-off injuries and a change of guard in the coaching department.

On Sunday, he will trot out his underdog stylings against the vastly favoured Djokovic. This is a familiar place for Murray, as a second Sunday visitor at Melbourne Park on four previous occasions, none of which, he has gone on to win.

This time too, he is unlikely to win. He just about got past a boisterous and fearless Milos Raonic in Friday’s semi-final and has played Djokovic 30 times, losing on nine occasions.

Of course now Djokovic is the "Big One", the single-point star in his own galaxy orbited by the lesser lights that comprise everyone ranked two and downwards.

If however, Murray does somehow turn a fifth Australian Open final appearance into a victory, it would be a validation of his own talent and his serious return to relevance.

But earning a third slam crown would also effectively dispel any idea of him being a gatecrasher in the "Big Four" and belatedly confirm him to be a true member. A Djokovic loss at the hands of the least decorated "Big Four" cardholder would also do one more thing: help bring meaning back to that old-fashioned term all over again.

Last updated: January 31, 2016 | 13:35
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