It’s an old adage in tennis, and any sport in fact, that you can only beat what’s in front of you. What happens in the other half of the draw is largely irrelevant until the final when they get through to face you. When it comes to winning a grand slam, they are all created equal but in response to a few suggestions, I thought it would be worth looking at who the top four had to beat to win their first grand slam title.
Not to say any one player had it harder than another, but really just to show how they did it. It was often said of Andy Murray’s attempts to win his first grand slam that he was unlucky in finals – playing Roger Federer twice and Novak Djokovic – while Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal all played lower-ranked opponents in the final.
Federer beat Mark Philippoussis (ranked 48 at the time) to win Wimbledon in 2003; Nadal beat Mariano Puerta (37) to win the French Open in 2005 and Djokovic beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (38) to win the Australian Open in 2008.
So, let’s see how they did it. Well, in terms of the average ranking of the players they beat, Nadal actually comes out on top, just shading it from Murray, with Djokovic third and Federer fourth. Nadal’s opponents were ranked an average 36.57; Murray’s were 37.14; Djokovic’s were 39.85 and Federer’s were 41.14.
Now that doesn’t mean Federer’s victory was any less frought or more easily achieved than others (even if he only dropped one set). Winning a first grand slam is about talent but also handling the pressure. For the record, Murray dropped five sets, including two in the final; Nadal lost three and Djokovic dropped just one, in the final against Tsonga.
In terms of top-10 players beaten along the way, Federer and Nadal managed just one each while Djokovic and Murray beat two each. Open it up a bit more to top-20 players beaten and it reads Murray (4), Djokovic and Federer (2) and then Nadal (1). But Nadal beat then world No 1 Federer in the semis in Paris and Djokovic also beat then world No 1 Federer in the semis in Melbourne.
To win his title, Djokovic beat Lleyton Hewitt, David Ferrer and Federer before beating Tsonga, which is a pretty impressive grouping. Federer beat Feliciano Lopez, Sjenh Schalken and Andy Roddick before downing Philippouissis and Murray beat Milos Raonic, Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych before taking out Djokovic in the final.
Murray’s win over Djokovic in the final was by far the highest-ranked final of the four so it’s possible to argue that the Scot had it toughest of all, not least because he is the only one of the four to have played someone who had been to a grand slam final before, let alone already won one. But, for example, Tsonga may have been ranked 38 when he played Djokovic in the final in Australia yet was on his way to making it into the top 10 and had beaten Murray in round one, so was no novice.