Almost a century ago, four men entered their names into tennis folklore. A foursome from France, cutthroat, ruthless, peerless, they were nicknamed ‘The Four Musketeers’. And, like Alexandre Dumas’ eponymous heroes from whom their nickname was affectionately taken, they were the pride of the court. In the 1920s and 1930s Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon and René Lacoste were the true titans of tennis.
Between them they racked up six consecutive Wimbledon titles from 1924 through 1929 and 10 French Open titles in 11 years, spanning between 1922 and 1932. They also led France to six straight Davis Cup championships. It was truly an era of seminal dominance. But before the turn of the millennium the first of a new tennis tetrad to surpass that French foursome emerged.
His name was Roger Federer, and he became the greatest player the sport has ever seen. And he wouldn’t be alone. Federer’s Athos would be joined by his own Porthos and Aramis. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have spurned superlatives.
Nadal may be the most exceptional athlete of all time, his 13 French Open titles testament to an unequalled mastery of a discipline in a single environment, in any sport, ever. He has only ever lost two matches at Roland Garros. Two! And he’s won 100. In 2020, he became just the fourth modern male player (one of whom also happens to be Federer) to wrack up 1,000 professional victories and leads all men in the Open Era with an 83.3 winning percentage (1,000 pro wins to 201 defeats).
Djokovic meanwhile, as the youngest, may become the most decorated tennis player in history. Alongside his 17 Grand Slam titles - just three fewer than the aforementioned duo, he’s already been numero uno for 301 weeks, and has finished as year-end No. 1 on six occasions, an Open Era record shared with Pete Sampras.
And then there’s the D’Artagnan, found in Sir Andy Murray, a man of exceptional grace, eagerness and courage, who made his top 10 debut in 2007 as a teenager at the age of just 19 and in 2013 became the first male Briton in 76 years to conquer Wimbledon.
Combined, the four have produced 316 ATP singles titles. Just consider that number for a moment. 316. Federer has won 103. Nadal 86, Djokovic has won 81 and Murray 46. Since 2004, the year Federer first truly dominated the circuit after his breakthrough at Wimbledon 2003. together they have collected 59 of the last 67 Grand Slam tournaments available.
These four may not be French. They may not even be friends. Yet, as the 21st century’s Four Musketeers, they have terrorised tennis. But the news that Roger Federer will miss the Australian Open for the first time since 1998 due to a knee injury will have heightened fears that he could retire in 2021, and the four-pronged dominance of the men’s game could be set to come to an end.
The Swiss turns 40 in August (remember, Borg retired at 26!) and his current ailment could well help to turn his attention towards his post-tennis plans. And with further concerns about Murray’s career from the recurrence of that niggling world-weary hip, the forthcoming season could well see more than one of the quartet call it a day, bringing down the curtain on the Fab Four’s era.
Murray is the wholly respectable Ringo in this quartet. Though he equals the three Grand Slam singles of Stan Wawrinka, the Pete Best in this tired metaphor, the super Scot is a player who arguably had to work harder than any of his contemporaries to be the best, graced with marginally less God-given talent. And hard work should always be valued more than talent. Murray’s drive and personality have accentuated him into the upper echelons, to become truly a player for the aeons.
It has also taken a heavy toll on his body, which suggests that 2021 is the year that the curtain finally comes down. He is set to return to action at the Australian Open two years after it appeared he was about to retire from tennis altogether. A poignant farewell tour appears about to commence, with Wimbledon a potential perfect venue for a final wave goodbye.
But one thing, regardless of the records, that is of utmost importance to remember is that we have been blessed. Whoever becomes the first to bow out, don’t be sad that the era of this star-studded quartet is over, be thankful that it has happened. Murray has stirred with pluck and persistence, Nadal has produced almost inconceivable paramountcy, Djokovic a smiling assassin, unabashed bully with no better service return in the game. And Federer? Federer has transcended tennis, pulling off shots seemingly bloomed from the Elysian Fields.
So enjoy every last ounce of all four of them, because 2021 might well be our last chance to celebrate them together in all their glory.