We're on a roll here in The Toss command center. Last week we rounded out the field for the ATP World Tour Finals. This week, Ben Rothenberg joins as we stay on the same side of the aisle and dive into the top of the men's game.
Today's Toss: Has Andy Murray officially transformed "Big Three" into "Big Four"?
Courtney Nguyen: I know, I know. Of course Murray, after finally winning his first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open last month, has pried open the doors of the Triumphant Three's clubhouse to earn his spot in what is now the Fearsome Foursome.
But has he really? I'm not trying to play contrarian here or stir up controversy for controversy's sake. But the topic got me thinking: What exactly did "Big Three" mean in the first place? Was it just about being one of the guys who could win a Slam? If that's the case, then Juan Martin del Potro has the right to enjoy club membership. Was it overall consistency and dominance over the rest of the field? If so, has Murray earned that spot given his propensity to lose to players outside of the top 10 like Milos Raonic, Jeremy Chardy and Nicolas Mahut? While Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal can have that air of invincibility that leads to a mental edge over their opponents, I'm not quite sure our Andy has earned the same level of intimidation.
All that got me to thinking: Despite Murray's Slam success, aren't we still talking about a Big Three + Murray? What do you think, Ben? What did it ever mean to be one of the Big Three anyway?
Ben Rothenberg: Ahoj, Courtney!
While it's fair to say that there has been a fine line on the WTA between the "haves" and "have-nots" -- how do we compare the careers of, say, Sam Stosur and Caroline Wozniacki? -- the ATP line has been very, very thick. And in recent years on the ATP, that line was always drawn under the fourth spot in the rankings, most often right under Murray's name.
Even if he hadn't won multiple Slams like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic had, Murray was always a part of the conversation in any tournament he entered in a way that nobody else ever was. Before his "breakthrough summer" of winning the Olympics and the U.S. Open, the guy had won eight Masters 1000 titles and made four Grand Slam finals. Nobody else on tour came close to those numbers -- outside the "Big Three," of course.
It's hard for me to include Del Potro as a legit member of this group for any reason other than nostalgia for his 2009 form. The guy has not won a single Masters event (and has made only one final) and, excluding his title run at the '09 U.S. Open, has gone further than the quarters of a major only once (semis at '09 French). Those numbers are simply not comparable to Murray's.
"It takes only one Grand Slam, and Caroline is a legend," Piotr Wozniacki said of his daughter in January. The same logic holds for Murray. The rest of his accomplishments were already sturdy enough.
It would be fair to argue that Murray wasn't really part of any "Big Four" before he won that all-important Slam, rather a "Big 3+1" or "Big 3.5." But now that he's added Slam hardware to his trophy case, I think the equation indisputably computes.
Nguyen: As one who always considered Murray part of the Big Four even before he won the U.S. Open -- for precisely the reasons you lay out -- I suppose that's where I'm hung up on this issue. Since Murray ascended to No. 4 in September 2008, it has been a "Big Four" or "Top Four" or whatever you want to call it. Aside from the occasional slip to No. 5, Murray has done his part in guarding the passageway, and the gulf between the top four men and the rest of the field has only grown since.
So the only difference between the Big Three, as it existed, and the Big Four, as it exists now, seems minor to me. If all Murray needed was a Slam title to join Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal as a member of the ATP's ruling class, what exactly are we talking about here?
To me, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic earned their place as the pure elite of the men's game not just because they won Slams (the plural of which Murray hasn't done) but because they won, simply put: All. The. Time. Just this past weekend, Djokovic joined Federer as the only men who have reached the final of all nine current ATP Masters 1000s and all four Slams, and Nadal is only one Cincinnati final shy of joining them. Meanwhile, Murray hasn't even won a Masters event this year -- the Big Three have -- and has fewer titles in 2012 than the likes of David Ferrer and Juan Monaco. (Granted, Ferrer and Monaco are cleaning up at the ATP 250s, particularly on clay, but it's not like Murray didn't have his chances at the smaller events too.)
My point is that despite Murray's phenomenal five months, the ATP doesn't feel all that different at the top. Sure, Murray has a Slam, so it's easier to talk about a "Big Four" and use the Slam as the common bond. But just because you cross some imaginary line doesn't mean anything's really changed.
Rothenberg: I think it is different at the top now, if only because of the inroads Murray has made in head-to-head matches against Federer and Djokovic. Murray had never beaten Federer at a Slam before this year -- and he still hasn't -- but the Wimbledon final was extremely tight and then he absolutely clobbered him at the Olympics. He beat Federer last week in the Shanghai semifinals, a result noteworthy for being totally not noteworthy. He's right there with him. The same goes for Murray against Djokovic, whom he also had not beaten at a Slam before this year's U.S. Open final. He then almost beat him in the Shanghai final, squandering five match points.
But I do agree with you about imaginary, arbitrary lines, especially as they relate to British tennis. In another story this week, Heather Watson won her first WTA singles title and broke into the top 50. And for that I say: Kudos, Hev. But is this achievement really worth the attention it has been getting? Watson won an International title and beat only one top 70 opponent (No. 40 Anabel Medina Garrigues). Obviously, as English-speaking media active on Twitter, we are both susceptible to being deafened by the glee of the British tennis media over stuff that just isn't that impressive. Watson's title and top 50 entrance earned her a press conference on Tuesday in London, which was poked fun of by our fellow scribe Matt Cronin on Twitter, drawing the ire of some in the British tennis community. But what are we really talking about here? Watson, the current British No. 1, enters the top 50 at No. 50. This still puts her behind players from nations such as Australia, Austria, Belgium, Belarus, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Denmark and Estonia. I'll stop now. You get the point.
It's been a rough several decades for British women's tennis, to be sure, but nothing has really changed quite yet. We're talking about top 50. Not top 10, not top 20, but top 50. Although I'm certainly not going to argue that it should be called a "Top 49+1."
But for Murray the breakthrough is far from arbitrary. The "Big Four" is the size it is because that's how many truly elite players there are.
Nguyen: Well, now you have me saying, "We're talkin' about top 50" in my best Allen Iverson "practice" voice. That will keep me entertained for a while.
Yes, Murray has done well this year to stop the bleeding against Djokovic and Federer when it comes to his performance against them in big matches. That's obviously been the difference this year, as he's turned heartbreaking losses into confidence boosts that propelled him to wins at the Olympics and the U.S. Open. It's possible that I've thrown out this question pre-maturely and that we need a bigger sample size with which to work. What Murray does in 2013 -- or even over the next month with the Paris Masters and World Tour Finals -- may solidify his place in the "Big Four" in my mind. The missing piece for Murray is the consistency outside of the majors, a cruel knock I know given how much pressure has been put on him to win a Slam. But if we can't rely on him to get to the last four of any tournament he enters I just find it difficult to see him on the level as Roger, Rafa and Novak. Again, a cruel knock given the history-making players he's been grouped against. But that's the point. Until the Brit can gain the consistency at the Masters or build his tally to become a multiple-Slam winner, I can't shake the feeling that he's still just a +1 to the party.