NEW YORK — The term Big Four faded from tennis over the last three years. Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal combined to win each of the last 11 Grand Slam singles titles. Andy Murray dropped out of the band with hip surgeries.
It is now Big Three. But Stan Wawrinka, the last man outside that group to win a Slam, looks closer to being ready to rejoin the fold.
Wawrinka, a major champion in 2014, 2015 and 2016, upset top-ranked and defending champion Djokovic 6-4, 7-5, 2-1 in the U.S. Open fourth round on Sunday, with Djokovic retiring with his recent left shoulder injury. He received some boos leaving the court and refused to say how much and when it began affecting him during the match.
“I don’t want to talk about my injuries,” said Djokovic, who received treatment on the shoulder before the third set. “I did a lot of different treatments and diagnostics and everything the last couple of weeks. Obviously, I have to do it again and see how the shoulder reacts.”
Still, Wawrinka deemed his level of play “superb.”
“I was quite confident with the level I was going to bring tonight,” he said, “but against the No. 1 player you never know if you’re going to win or not.”
Wawrinka was ranked No. 3 when he played for the final time before two left knee surgeries — against Daniil Medvedev in the 2017 Wimbledon first round. (Medvedev, the hottest player on tour leading up to the Open, is Wawrinka’s quarterfinal opponent Tuesday.)
He missed the rest of 2017, plus two more months early in 2018. His ranking dropped to No. 263, due significantly to inactivity but also a year in which he went 4-4 at the Slams.
But Wawrinka showed grit at age 34, getting back into the 20 at the French Open three months ago. He outlasted 20-year-old Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas in a 5-hour, 9-minute epic at Roland Garros, the longest match of his career. Two days later, he took a set off Federer and forced two others to tiebreaks. The knee held up.
“Maybe confirmed to you guys that I can still beat some top guys,” Wawrinka told media in Paris. “I know where is my level. I know what I have done to come back in that level physically.”
Djokovic’s shoulder has been volatile in New York. He said he was pain-free in Friday’s third-round win, but before that had some days of higher intensity pain.
“The pain was constant for weeks now, some days higher, some days with less intensity,” he said Sunday night.
His defeat has ramifications for the other Big Three members.
Djokovic, with 16 Slam titles, is closer to the totals of Nadal (18) and Federer (20) than ever. Now he will likely drop farther behind one of them. And faces uncertainty with that shoulder after winning four of the last five majors coming back from elbow surgery.
Federer’s path to a potential final with Nadal (they’ve never played at the U.S. Open) now no longer includes Djokovic. The three men left in his half are a combined 3-33 against him (the only three wins were by Wawrinka on clay).
Earlier Sunday, Federer needed just 79 minutes to take care of No. 15 David Goffin 6-2, 6-2, 6-0. That came two days after Federer advanced in 80 minutes out of the third round. And after he dropped the opening set of his first two matches at a Slam for the first time.
In Tuesday’s quarterfinals, Federer gets Grigor Dimitrov, who as he climbed to his peak (world No. 3 in 2017) gained the nickname “Baby Fed” for having a Federer-like game.
But Dimitrov is into his first Slam quarterfinal since the 2018 Australian Open and into the second week here after losing in the first round of three of his previous five Slams.
Federer is 7-0 against Dimitrov.
“I’m aware of the fact it’s a big match for him,” Federer said. “Yeah, I’ve done well against him in the past. But new match, new Grigor, new me.”
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