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What Makes Tennis’ Big Four So Great – A Complete Analysis

The Big Four – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray – has been the most dominant force in tennis for over the past decade. Since the 2005 French Open, they have claimed 49 of the last 54 Grand Slams. Since February of 2004, one of the four members has been atop the ATP rankings.

Simply put, the Big Four has been almost unbeatable since they arrived on the scene. Even when one of the members was struggling, the others would take his place. They have acted as the gatekeepers to tennis’ most prestigious titles, letting only a couple past their guard. They very well might be the most commanding group of players in the history of the sport.

What makes the Big Four so good? How have they been able to keep this level of success up for so long? Let’s take a look.

Roger Federer

Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player of all time. With 20 Grand Slams to his name, the Swiss has done it all. And even at the ripe age of 37, he is still one of the best players in the world. How did Federer become the GOAT? We’ll find out.

Impeccable Serving

Federer is one of the best servers in all of tennis. He doesn’t have the same power as Isner and Karlovic, but he more than makes up for it in placement. The Swiss Maestro can hit any spot on the court with his serve, and his ball toss makes it almost impossible to guess where the ball is going to go.

With 10,645 aces, Federer has the second-most of all time, quite an impressive number for a player who is only 6’ 1”. Roger has the fourth-highest serve rating of all players on the tour, and he holds his service games more often than anyone except John Isner.

As Federer has gotten older, his serve has improved. He can paint the lines and hit the corners, and his one-two service combo makes it incredibly difficult for opponents to break. Federer is also one of the clutchest servers on tour; under pressure, especially on break points, Federer is known to hit a couple of aces and dig himself out of trouble.

Federer may not be a servebot, but he has one of the best serves in the history of tennis, and it very well might be his most powerful weapon right now.

All-Around Game

Watching Federer play is like watching art. The way he can glide around the court with impeccable footwork and aesthetically perfect groundstrokes makes him perfect to watch. Unlike many of today’s Next Gen, Federer is a true all-court player. He has more variety than any other player on tour, and it’s one of the factors which makes him so unpredictable and tough to beat.

He is excellent from the baseline, and while his groundstrokes may not be as clean or consistent as the rest of the Big Four, there are very few players who can outslug the Swiss in a rally. But perhaps more crucially, Federer is not afraid to come to the net. He loves playing at the net, particularly after Edberg’s coaching stint, and his volleys and overheads are near-perfect.

Federer can hit almost any shot. His backhand slice drops low and short, making it difficult for opponents to generate any true pace on the ball. He possesses magnificent touch, and his use of the drop shot has only increased with age. Trick shots, slices, flat balls, topspin. Federer can do it all.

And like the rest of the Big Four, Federer has no true weakness on any particular surface. While he certainly excels on faster courts, he was arguably the second-best clay-court player for a decade, and if not for Nadal, it’s likely he would have ended up with at least a couple more French Open trophies.

Federer is a master of disguise, and he never ceases to amaze fans with his variety. One of the last in today’s game, Federer is an all-around player, suited for any court against any opponent.

Aggressive and Decisive

But what makes Federer so lethal is how aggressive he is. Federer takes the ball earlier than anyone on tour, depriving opponents of the time to think and wind up for their shots. This fast-paced game makes Federer one of the hardest opponents on tour; he will suffocate you if you let him.

Federer is by far the most aggressive member of the Big Four. He isn’t afraid to head to the net, and he aims to finish points quickly, avoiding long, exhausting baseline rallies. While this style is high-risk, high-reward, Federer is the master of attacking tennis, and it’s just one of the attributes that separates him from the rest of the tour.

Federer isn’t afraid to go on the attack, even when he’s having an off day. By taking control of the point, Federer is almost always the deciding factor in the outcome. If he’s playing poorly, it means that he’ll struggle more than the rest of the Big Four, but when he’s firing on all cylinders, he’s almost impossible to stop.

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal is the toughest man in tennis. His grueling, topspin-heavy style of playing has allowed him to win 17 Grand Slams and an awe-inspiring 11 French Opens. He is the best defender of his generation, and Nadal fans will be quick to point out that he has a claim to the title of GOAT as well.

Defense? Offense? No Problem

Nadal is one of the best defenders in the game. He can out-rally anyone from the baseline, and this makes him incredibly difficult to play against. He is incredibly quick, and he can get to balls that seem like clear-cut winners.

Rafa’s high, loopy strokes make him lethal, especially on clay. The insane amount of topspin he can put on the ball makes his shots incredibly difficult to control, and they also give him plenty of time to recover and set up for the next shot. He will rarely mistime a shot, and his spin also allows him to push back opponents.

But make no mistake. If you give Rafa a short ball, he will punish you. While his defense alone is enough to strike fear into the hearts of opponents, it is his ability to strike suddenly that makes him such an incredible player. He will pound his opponent’s weakness over and over again (just look at Federer’s backhand), sacrificing pace for spin. And as soon as his opponent falters, Rafa will move in, often closing the net – an underrated aspect of the Spaniard’s game.

Nadal is one of the best defenders in the game, but his game is not nearly as defensive as it may look. Rafa’s topspin is by no means easy to handle, even for the top pros, and he isn’t afraid to attack when given the chance.

Mental Toughness

Nadal does not give up. After all, the Spaniard is nicknamed El Toro. In grueling baseline rallies, Nadal will continue to pummel the ball, giving his opponents no free or easy points.

His incredible defensive ability combined with his speed allows him to get to almost any ball on the court. If the ball lands in, there’s no doubt that Nadal is going to chase after it. This grit and raw determination make him just that much better of a player; in tennis, one point can swing the entire match, and Nadal will fight for each and every one of them.

Nadal is also known for being great under pressure. Even when he’s struggling, Rafa always looks like he has a chance. Unlike Federer, he isn’t prone to mental lapses; he capitalizes on almost all of his chances, and very rarely will he lose after having a lead.

Nadal might be known for his many tics while playing, but he still has the mental fortitude of a bull. He is always focused, and whenever he’s on the court, you can expect him to give his all.

Lefty Spin

While I covered Rafa’s topspin in the first section, it is such a powerful weapon that I feel it deserves more attention. Nadal is left-handed, a rare sight for a tennis player, and this can also be especially troublesome for right-handed players.

In fact, Nadal was not originally left-handed; he writes and eats with his right hand. A young Nadal originally played with two-handed forehands on each side, but the Spaniard would eventually make the decision to switch to a left-handed forehand, seeing that his previous style was unsuitable for the higher levels of tennis.

The switch might have been the best decision of Nadal’s life. His lefty forehand was certainly more spin-heavy, and he decided to take full advantage of this skill. After the transition, Nadal focused predominantly on spin; he didn’t need as much pace or as much depth as other players because his ball bounced so much higher.

Today, Rafa’s forehand is the most iconic in tennis. His ability to generate massive amounts of spin – measured close to 5000 RPM at its highest – makes him almost impossible to attack consistently. To put his topspin into reference, Federer, who certainly doesn’t hit too flat of a stroke, only generates around 2500 RPM on his forehand.

Rafa’s topspin is a thing of magic. It pushes his opponents back, often forcing them to hit the ball well above their preferred strike zone. It allows him to reduce his errors; he can often afford to hit the ball with a little less depth and more net clearance. But perhaps most importantly, it is unorthodox, unprecedented; opponents are never truly prepared to play against a player like Rafa.

It is this very same spin that brought Nadal so much success against Federer; by abusing his one-handed backhand, Nadal got a lot of weak balls back. In this way, Nadal turns even the best-attacking players into defenders, making spin not just a strength but a weapon.

Novak Djokovic

At the heights of his power in 2015, Djokovic looked unbeatable. There wasn’t a single ball that he couldn’t get to, and he was able to hit shots with incredible power and precision. In that incredible run of form, Novak won 5 of the 6 Grand Slams contested – including winning 4 straight. Let’s take a look at what allowed him to become the best player in the world.

The Ideal Counterpuncher

Djokovic is a wall. He refuses to miss, and he will run down every single ball you throw at him. He rarely makes too many unforced errors, and even when he does (100 against Gilles Simon), he can often find a way to win regardless.

Much of Djokovic’s defensive prowess comes from his ability to move on the court. Not only is the Serbian incredibly quick, but his inhuman flexibility allows him to return shots that most others would not even touch. This sliding and stretching has become a trademark part of Djokovic’s game, and it also means he can take less time to recover in between shots.

But Novak’s defense is just half of the story. While he is a great defensive player, it is his ability to attack that makes him one of the best players of all time. Whenever Novak returns a ball, he hits it back with more power and more spin. He uses his opponent’s pace to generate pace of his own.

With technically immaculate groundstrokes, he also has the ability to redirect the ball better than anyone else on tour. Down the line, cross-court, short. Djokovic takes an attacking player and puts him on defense. We saw this especially against Federer; Djokovic ran the Swiss everywhere, a rare sight on the tennis court.

Djokovic was a monster on defense, and he translated this to become one of the best attacking players of all time. His ability to change direction in a snap allowed him to quickly gain control of the point and become the aggressor. He was unbeatable and unplayable at his peak, the perfect version of today’s modern baseliner.

A Killer Backhand

Djokovic has the best backhand on the tour. While it is not nearly as flashy as Wawrinka’s booming one-hander or as elegant as Federer’s, its consistency and power makes it Djokovic’s best weapon. Whichever direction opponents go against Novak, the Serbian has two equally powerful weapons to defend and attack with on each side.

So what makes Djokovic’s backhand so good? First of all, let’s take a look at his technique. Djokovic approaches the ball with perfect technique – the kind that would make a tennis coach’s mouth water. His feet are planted, his wrist is relaxed, his take-back is smooth, and his racket face and contact point are ideal for generating power while maintaining precision.

But it is his footwork that pushes him a step above the rest of the tour. Djokovic is almost never late to his groundstrokes, affording him more time to set up and execute his shot. And even when the Serbian does get there a bit late, his flexibility allows him to hit backhands with an open stance, sacrificing very little in terms of depth.

Djokovic also has the ability to change the direction of his backhand with ease. The Serbian is known for his down-the-line backhand, and it helps to keep his opponents on their toes; you never really know what to expect against Novak. This makes Djokovic’s backhand an attacking weapon as well, something that very few players can take advantage of.

Simply put, Djokovic’s backhand is the best in the business. It generates great depth and power, landing near the baseline almost every time, and it is also incredibly consistent – making it hard to break down. It is a defensive and offensive tool, and it makes him just as good on both sides of his body; you can’t attack his backhand like you can with so many other players. Djokovic’s backhand grants him the freedom to stay at the baseline; in today’s game, there’s no one better there than he is.

Best Returner Ever?

Djokovic may be the best returner in the history of the sport. Many will recognize his famed return against Federer in the 2011 US Open, but his returning prowess extends far beyond that one magical shot.

Throughout his career, Djokovic has won 32.1% of his return games, good for sixth best all-time. But to truly understand how good the Serbian’s return is, you have to watch it in action. Novak’s return penetrates the court, landing past the service line around 80% of the time. This allows him to neutralize even the biggest servers, making him a nightmare for guys like Isner and Raonic to face.

His return isn’t nearly as powerful as Agassi’s, but it is also much more consistent. Djokovic returns almost every serve he sees, allowing him to get into his opponent’s service games with ease. Once Djokovic can neutralize the opponent’s serve, he has a huge advantage; besides the rest of the Big Four, there’s no one better at the baseline than the Serbian.

Andy Murray

Patience Is Key

Murray is the true definition of a counterpuncher. You’ll very rarely see him take the initiative and go for a winner. Instead, the Scot prefers to sit back and wait, trying to force his opponent into making a mistake.

From a viewer’s perspective, Murray has a very dull game. Unlike Rafa and Novak, he is a pure defender; he possesses neither the same aggression nor pace on his shots. But what he lacks in offense, he makes up for in patience. It is this patience that allows him to take advantage of mentally weaker players; unlike the rest of the Big Four, Murray has a near-perfect record against Kyrgios (5-1).

Murray’s game relies heavily on patience; he waits for mistakes and makes very few errors himself. He will force you to hit an extra ball each and every point, and this makes it incredibly frustrating for opponents, who will often crumble mentally after seeing their attacks fail time and time again.

No Weaknesses

Murray is a very complete player. He doesn’t have a killer forehand or a lethal serve like other players, but he also doesn’t have any true weakness besides his often lackluster second serve. In fact, while many point to Federer as the jack of all trades, Murray has plenty of variety in his game as well.

The Scot uses the slice to his advantage, and his backhand slice is a great defensive shot. It doesn’t drop quite as low as Federer’s; instead, it is used more as a defensive shot, a change of pace. Murray also has the best lob in tennis; his arching lobs are immaculate, and they add an extra dimension to his game, unsettling any opponent who is brave enough to rush the net against Andy.

Murray may not have the same skills that the rest of the Big Four possess, but there’s no doubt that he has plenty of talent of his own. Unlike many other defenders, he is by no means one-dimensional, and this makes him that much better of a player.

Marathon Murray

Since Murray plays such a defensive game, a lot of his success relies on his ability to move around the court. Murray covers more ground than just about anyone on the tour, and this grueling playstyle means he needs a particularly strong endurance.

Murray’s fitness is stellar, and his stamina is next to none. In fact, it is estimated that Murray runs on average 20% more than Federer in each and every match. The longer the match goes on, the more likely it is that Murray will come out the victor. He can handle fatigue better than anyone on tour, and he is perfectly suited for baseline slugfests, particularly in Grand Slams.

Andy’s court coverage does take a toll on his body, however, and it’s one of the reasons why he’s been plagued with injury woes ever since the start of the 2017 season. He has since returned, but the Scot doesn’t look like the player he once was. Can he return to his peak?

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