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The Second String: The ATP’s Veteran “Almosts”

David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have a won combined 45 ATP World Tour titles, 1463 matches and have each reached a single Grand Slam final. For all of their consistency, however, this trio of veterans — all nearing or over the age of 30 — has won just four Masters Series 1000 titles, and have zero major titles to their names.

All three have vast amounts of talent, weaponry and potential at their disposal. They’ve all had some close calls in big matches over the years, but when it’s counted most, they’ve tended to come up short. It’s easy to attribute a failure to win the biggest tournaments to a lack of necessary mental resources. They appear to be seized by the moment, unable to seize it for themselves. All players have been victims to the moment at one point or another; it feels as if these three in particular have fallen into this trap more than they should have, and that is what is ultimately holding them back.

How true is this? While that there is no real way of testing this hypothesis without the players’ confirmation, it’s a familiar narrative all the same, one that the tennis community at large has readily accepted.

Regardless of how discernible this phenomenon seems to a bystander, it remains important to realize there are two sides to every story and two players taking part in each and every tennis match. For Berdych, Ferrer and Tsonga, the narrative of their careers must include the other side of the court as well. It’s been so often the case that these three men have run into another group of men that have caused them a fair bit of grief and has denied them trophies and absurd amounts of money.

I am, of course, talking about the “Big Four” — the nickname given to Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer for their dominance over the last decade. #spoileralert

Unfortunately for Berdych, Tsonga and Ferrer, they’ve tried to win Grand Slams and major tournaments during an era where four players have fortified an unprecedented monopoly over the game, one that has been ceaselessly protected.

Let’s take a look at the facts:

  • In their Grand Slam finals, Berdych and Ferrer were defeated by Nadal and Tsonga was defeated by Djokovic. No shame in that.
  • In Ferrer’s seven Masters Series 1000 finals, he’s lost to Nadal twice, Murray twice, and Federer and Djokovic once. His only victory came in 2012, when beat Jerzy Janowicz in the Paris Masters final.
  • In Berdych’s four Masters Series 1000 finals, he’s lost to Federer, Djokovic and Andy Roddick. He won his lone title in Paris in 2005 against Ivan Ljubicic.
  • In Tsonga’s three Masters Series 1000 finals, he’s lost to Federer and won his two other finals against Federer and Nalbandian in Toronto and Paris, respectively.

Unsurprisingly, it’s more often been the case that these three “challengers,” so to speak, have lost to the Big Four before the final in Masters Series 1000 events.

Since 2009, David Ferrer has lost 22 times in Masters Series 1000 events to a member of the Big Four. Berdych has fallen during this period 17 times and Tsonga 15 times. Those are staggering numbers. When moving onto Grand Slams, the numbers don’t get much better.

Since 2005, Tsonga and Ferrer have lost to a member of the Big Four in a Grand Slam a total of 13 times. For those of you counting, that’s 4+ years of slams. Berdych’s record is similarly futile all on his own, as he has lost to a member of the Big Four in slams during this period 12 times.

What also needs to be realized is that unless there is a massive opening, winning majors and Masters 1000 events often requires these guys to beat more than one member of the Big Four. En route to his major final, Ferrer was a bit lucky in 2014 to not face a member of the Big Four until the championship — but playing Nadal at Roland Garros is like playing all four of these guys at one time. What we saw from Marin Cilic at the U.S. Open last year was an aberration, an anomaly, an outlier; whatever you want to call it, it’s not likely to happen at any given event.

Digging deeper into the issue, there are particularly disturbing trends regarding Tsonga and Berdych. In all of the Grand Slam matches Tsonga has played against the Big Four, the first set has almost always decided the match. Tsonga has beaten Murray, Nadal, and Djokovic once each in a major. In all three of these matches, he won the first set; the Frenchman has also beaten Federer twice at majors, winning the first set in one of these matches. In the 13 Grand Slam matches Tsonga has lost to the Big Four, he’s won the first set just three times.

For Berdych, the problem has been after the first set. In the last five years, there have been five instances of Berdych winning the first set in the second week of a grand slam to a top 10 player before going on to lose the match.

2015 Australian Open SF: 7-6(6), 0-6, 3-6, 5-7 (l. to Andy Murray)

2013 U.S. Open R16: 6-3, 1-6, 6-7(6), 2-6 (l. to Stan Wawrinka)

2012 U.S. Open SF: 7-5, 2-6, 1-6, 6-7(7) (l. to Andy Murray)

2012 Australian Open QF: 7-6(5), 6-7(6), 4-6, 3-6 (l. to Rafael Nadal)

2009 Australian Open R16: 6-4, 7-6(4), 4-6, 4-6, 2-6 (l. to Roger Federer)

As a side note, in the second sets in the three most recent matches listed here, Berdych won a combined three games. Translating his first set performances to second sets and actually taking them in these big matches may be what tips Berdych over the edge in future Grand Slams.

So, the next time the likes of Ferrer, Berdych and Tsonga are criticized for falling short mentally, let’s not forget that while their mental game is worth discussing, it must be coupled with the fact these men have often been forced to say “too good” to the champions standing across the net from them.

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About Nick Nemeroff (66 Articles)
21-year-old NYU student. Passionate about playing tennis, coaching tennis, and writing about tennis. Feel free to contact me at any time!

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