Earlier this year, just about three weeks before Novak Djokovic mercilessly cruised to his 11th grand slam crown at the Australian Open, an ESPN columnist made an interesting analogy between the Serb and American basketball legend Michael Jordan.
“Djokovic looking like 1980s-90s NBA,” Howard Bryant tweeted. “First there was [Larry] Bird, Magic [Johnson], Isiah [Thomas], Jordan. Then there was just Jordan. Djokovic becoming Jordan.”
That seems to be the case. The Big Four of men's tennis is now just the Big One. If you need evidence, then Djokovic's spellbinding tennis in the first two sets of a four-set win over Roger Federer in the 2016 Australian Open semi-final should be enough. Or, the similarly ruthless 6-1, 6-2 demolition of Rafael Nadal in the Doha final in January.
Those two, Federer and Nadal, are owners of 31 major titles between, and yet they have struggled to crack the Djokovic code. The Serb has won six of his last eight matches against Federer, Nadal has lost six on the trot. Andy Murray, the "junior" member of this Big Four, has won only two of his last 16 duels against the world No 1.
“For the last year-and-a-half or two years, only one is dominating,” said Nadal in Miami on Friday. “Maybe too much. But he deserves it.”
Nadal would love to see some rivalries, but reckons Djokovic’s domination is not such a bad thing for the sport, since, in his opinion, it is “not good” if a different player wins a tournament every week. “Because if there is 20 players winning tournaments different weeks, the people arrive to the tournament and nobody knows who are the favourite to win.”
Since the start of 2015, fans have not faced any such issues on the men’s tour. It is almost guaranteed Djokovic will, at least, be in the final if not lift the winner’s trophy. Last year, he took part in 16 tournaments and reached the final in all but one (Doha), including all four grand slams. He finished the year with a 82-6 record, winning 11 titles, including three grand slams and six Masters 1000s.
The Serb started 2016 in the same vein and, after winning Doha and the Australian Open, looked set to equal Ivan Lendl’s 1981-82 record of 18 consecutive finals, in Dubai, but, two wins away from the record, he was forced to retire from his quarter-final match because of an eye infection.
Disappointed to miss that mark, Djokovic returned to win Indian Wells without much ado and is now on the verge of breaking a significant milestone in Miami this weekend. Last week, he equalled Nadal’s record of 27 Masters 1000 titles and he is now just four wins away from breaking that record in Miami.
In a sport where the four grand slams dominate the statistics, or are often the only yardstick to measure a tennis player’s worth, it is easy to ignore the significance of the Masters 1000 tournaments, but 57 of the past 64 Masters events, since the start of 2009, have been won by a member of the Big Four. Djokovic has won 23 Masters events during this period.
During this same period, the Big Four have won 25 of the 29 grand slams titles, with Djokovic accounting for 10 of the past 21 and four of the past five.
This means 86.2 per cent of the grand slams since the start of 2009 have been won by the Big Four, but in Masters events, that percentage is an even higher 89. That might perhaps explain why Stan Wawrinka, a two-time grand slam winner, has won only one Masters title until now.
Marin Cilic, the 2014 US Open champion, has not won a Masters, neither have Kei Nishikori or Richard Gasquet. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has won two, while the likes of David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych are waiting for their second.
So, while we keep talking about the grand slams, and for good reason, it is time to realise the worth of Masters as well. And while Djokovic might still be some years away from Federer’s record haul of 17 majors, the Serb is clearly the master of Masters.
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