With Rafael Nadal quickly returning to the athletic, versatile form that made him one of the greatest defensive players of all-time, tennis is about to enter brand-new territory.
The sport has certainly been better rounded from top to bottom in the past, but never has it seen four marketable superstars with such a stranglehold on the summit.
|Player||Grand Slams||ATP Masters||ATP World Tour||Olympics||Total|
|Percent of Total Tourneys||95.2||84.4||80.0||100||87.7|
You could even make an argument that Juan Martin Del Potro, who won the only other Grand Slam (2009 US Open), transforms the "Big Four" into the "Fabulous Five," but for now, we'll stick with the quartet.
Now, you may be thinking, "Tim, if these four have had such a dominant control over tennis since 2008, then what does Nadal's recent return from injury have anything to do with it?"
Well, I'm glad you asked, reader.
The biggest difference between now and when Nadal was sidelined after his early 2012 Wimbledon exit is Murray.
With Nadal out of the picture, the 25-year-old ascended to a new level. He lost that Wimbledon final to Federer, but many saw it as the major turning point when he went from star to superstar.
After that, he bested Federer in the Olympics for gold, won his first major at the subsequent U.S. Open and defeated Fed-Ex to return to the Australian Open finals to start 2013.
The Brit simply elevated his play to a place that we had never seen before, firmly entrenching himself in Nadal's spot of the "Big Three."
But now the Spaniard is back, giving tennis an inimitable foursome.
In his return from a lengthy hiatus, Nadal fell to World No. 73 Horacio Zeballos in the finals in Chile, but responded with a tournament win in Brazil after defeating David Nalbandian in straight sets.
The way Nadal plays puts lots of pressure on his knees, and there is still obviously plenty of rust, but it's apparent the King of Clay is hastily returning to his 11-major form (via The Guardian's Kevin Mitchell):
"When the knee is feeling better," he said after winning in Brazil, "I feel like that I can do more of the things that I used to do my entire life. If the pain is bearable like it was today, then it's fine."
Moreover, and encouraging for the sport itself, Nadal's appearance at the Brazil Open alone was enough to showcase the type of effect he can have on tennis (via the SportsBusiness Journal):
SBD Global: Rafael Nadal's participation in the Brasil Open resulted in 57,465 sold tickets, a 26% increase over '12. http://t.co/Ay7sEj8I2013-2-19 03:30:01
Nadal being in a South American tournament is obviously going to boost popularity, sure, but that just serves as a sign of things to come for tennis.
What we have now, for the first time ever, is a legitimate scenario where any four players can realistically win a Grand Slam at any given time. Fans who don't usually pay attention to the sport are going to flock to it for the dream matchups, for the expected five-set thrillers, for the history inevitably being made, for four of the all-time greatest players dueling at the same time.
Nadal is back. We are about to witness the Golden Age of tennis like never before.