A Mighty Quartet: How Dominant Are the Big Four?

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(Photo: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images North America)

With his victory at the Indian Wells Masters 1000, Rafael Nadal has contrived a brief return to the No.4 ranking, thereby granting men’s tennis a momentary break from the odd configuration whereby the Big Four aren’t its top four. At a stroke, Nadal has reasserted the validity of the Big Four as a concept, and realigned it with the actual rankings. Given that this was the first tournament they all contested since June last year, it’s frankly convenient.

To say this is hardly to lavish undue disrespect on David Ferrer, who is generally the first to concede his compatriot’s superiority. Lest Ferrer had forgotten the pecking order, there was the Acapulco final several weeks ago to remind him, in which he managed only two games, which was at least one more than he deserved. The point was further rammed home when he fell in his opening match at Indian Wells. The rankings will switch back after Miami, since Nadal isn’t playing there and Ferrer is. Nadal will inevitably subside back to the number five ranking. That’s just the way the rankings work.

I presume I do not astonish anyone by saying that the top four’s current dominance of men’s tennis surpasses anything that has gone before. You don’t need to know much about the sport to know that. In a way, it is a coincidence that there are four supremely good players at the top of the men’s game, although this is also a number reinforced by the structure of tournament play. Even if there was a fifth player with similar abilities, he would find it hard to break in.

It relates directly to seeding. The top four seeds will always be drawn to face a seed between five and eight at the quarterfinal stage. This can be a mixed bag: that top seed might draw Tomas Berdych in a monstrous mood, and potentially lose, but he might also face Janko Tipsarevic or Ferrer having a bad day, and cruise. On the other hand, someone seeded between five and eight will always draw a top four player in the quarterfinals, and, in the current era, those guys almost never have bad days. You might take out one of them, or even two, but then you’ll find another one lurking in the final. (This is what Juan Martin del Potro discovered in Indian Wells, although I’m sure he was already conversant with the theory.)

Consequently, on average the top four are more likely to reach the semifinals not only because they are by definition better at tennis, but also because they face lesser opponents to get there. Once there they are awarded more points – at the same time denying those points to other players – thereby reinforcing their position.

And the points are crucial, since in order to be in the top four, you must regularly accrue the kinds of points that are allocated for semifinals and above. As a general rule, the amount of points rewarded for each round at an ATP tournament doubles as you progress, until the semifinal. For example, the points allocation for a Major is as follows.

  • 1st Round: 10 points
  • 2nd Round: 45 points
  • 3rd Round: 90 points
  • 4th Round: 180 points
  • Quarterfinal: 360 points
  • Semifinal: 720 points
  • Final: 1,200 points
  • Winner: 2,000 points

As you can see, the points from each round apart from the first round are doubled in each subsequent round, until you reach the semifinal. These proportions are retained for every tournament of each level. A Masters 1000 event is called that because the winner receives 1000 points; aside from the early rounds, which are riddled with byes, every round awards half what a major does . You can therefore guess why 500 and 250 events are named as they are, and what the point allocations are.

At the Majors (and to a lesser degree Masters), the jump from the quarterfinals (360 points) to the semifinals (720 points) represents a break point of sorts. Consistently reaching the semifinal stage at those events bestows enough points that you can reach the higher ranking, while at the same time denying those below you the chance to do so. To be ranked in the top four in the current era requires a lot of points, more than ever before, and it requires reaching a lot of semifinals as a baseline, with regular titles and runner-ups thrown in.

To take an extreme example, world No.1 Novak Djokovic currently has 13,280 points, while No.2 Roger Federer has 8,715. The gap between them is therefore 4,565 points. That is greater than the points gap between the world No.7 Juan Martin del Potro and the world No.182 Agustin Velotti. Of course, Djokovic’s current points lead is enormous, while Federer has shed thousands of points in the last six months, but my point is that there is an enormous concentration of points in the top few spots, especially at the moment, and that in order to achieve those points hauls you have to be consistently reaching the semifinals.

So just how many points are concentrated at the top? Well, there are various ways to look at it. One useful metric is to examine the absolute maximum number of points the top four players can have, which would be achieved if all four of them reached at least the semifinal at every event for twelve months. To keep the comparison consistent we can limit this to ‘mandatory’ events, meaning the four Majors, the nine Masters and the World Tour Finals. For the record, the maximum number of points that four players can accumulate from all these events is 42,740. The present top four have actually accumulated 32,450 points between them, which 75.92% of the maximum possible. Bear in mind that this number is lower than it could be, given Nadal was absent for seven months, a period that included two Majors, four Masters, and the WTF.

The following graph demonstrates how this data compares historically, against year-end data going back to 2000.

As can be seen, the dominance of the top four has increased dramatically in that time, peaking in 2011. There has been a slight tail off since then. Nadal’s recent absence had something to do with this (the main beneficiary was Ferrer), as well as general improvements from del Potro and Berdych.

It is interesting to note that over that same period, similar data for the top ten reveals a slighter though still noticeable increase:

The points are increasingly concentrated at the very top, which means the so-called Little Four (Ferrer, del Potro, Berdych and Tsonga) are maintaining their positions with relatively modest results (although Ferrer’s results, as mentioned, have been slightly inflated). If anything, this makes it even more surprising that the top ten is as stable as it is: it’s currently the same as it was last December.

The Little Four only require consistent quarterfinals and the odd semifinal in order to stay where they are, and the wonder is that they’re managing to do precisely that. They managed to fashion a rather stable camp just below the rankings summit. In some ways this is far more startling than the news that the Big Four are so dominant, which isn’t really news at all, any more.

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