The headline says 'Big 3' instead of 'Big 4' in order to avert argument. Andy Murray's place alongside three of the greatest tennis players of all time -- Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic -- has always been contentious, and rightly so. He has three Grand Slam titles to his name to Federer's 20, Nadal's 17 and Djokovic's 14. On the other hand, Stan Wawrinka has won as many Grand Slams as Murray but the Swiss is not offered the rarefied place that the Scot is. However, even his detractors -- and there are many -- would have felt a pang of loss when he limped off the court after being defeated in the first round of the ongoing Australian Open, which could well have been his last appearance as a competitor on the ATP tour because of a hip injury that just won't go away. The adrenaline that drove the rallies no longer sustained him as he limped between points.
Outside of his loyal and long-suffering fan base, that pang is not for Murray but for the first nail in the coffin of tennis's golden age. There are three more to come, but for now the nails are safely in their packaging and the hammer back in the hardware cabinet.
Golden ages are not just about quality, but the consistency of that high quality displayed by the elite practitioners -- and that is where Murray is closer to the Big 3 than he is to Wawrinka. The Scot does not have the numbers in Grand Slams that the Swiss, the Spaniard and the Serb do, but along with them he has been a dominator in the sport ever since making his first bow at Wimbledon in 2005 and announcing himself as a major player by beating a rampant, almost unbeatable Federer in straight sets in their second meeting in Cincinnati in 2006.
In fact, in their first eight meetings leading up to Indian Wells 2009 -- a period, since the 2005 Wimbledon, in which Federer won eight out of 15 Grand Slams -- Murray emerged victorious on six occasions. No one else but Nadal, that too mostly on clay – Federer's weakest surface and Nadal's strongest -- could boast a record like that against Federer over that period. But there was a catch, and it is one that hounded Murray through a stellar career -- none of those wins came in the five-set Grand Slam matches, on which casual fans and die-hards alike place the greatest value.
Murray's first Grand Slam title came in the 2012 US Open when he beat Novak Djokovic in a five-set dogfight. That was after losing four Grand Slam finals -- the 2008 US Open (Federer), the 2010 Australian open (Djokovic) and the 2012 Wimbledon (Federer). Andre Agassi, eight-time Grand Slam winner, once said that if Murray was playing in his era, the Scot would have won more than three and Agassi would have had less than eight. While it is to his discredit that Murray took longer to mature than his peer Djokovic and so entered an arena of giants as the fourth wheel in a tricycle, he was also a touch unfortunate that 10 of the 11 finals he played were contested against either Djokovic or Federer. Federer won his first final in the 2003 Wimbledon by beating Mark Philippousis; Nadal won his first Grand Slam, the 2005 French Open, by beating Mariano Puerta and Djokovic bested Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the 2008 Australian Open final for his first Grand Slam. All good opponents, but hardly in the league of a Federer or Djokovic.
Those, at the end of the day, are all excuses to explain away Murray's shortcomings. Sport remembers winners and though he did not win as much as the Big 3, he won much more -- by a country mile -- than the rest in his era. Wawrinka comes up here. He bats a thousand in Grand Slam finals, winning three of the four that he has contested, but he has not been anywhere near as consistent as Murray in the most prestigious tournaments. Murray has 45 singles titles, including 14 Masters 1000s -- the most important title after Grand Slams. He is fifth on the all-time Masters 1000 winners' list, behind the Big 3 and Agassi. Wawrinka has 16 titles and just two Masters 1000s. Murray is also the only man to win two successive Olympic gold medals -- the second coming in 2016, the year in which he went on a 23-match unbeaten streak to become the 16th year-end number one in the Open Era.
Numbers, however, do not do him justice. His career was defined by the Big 3 and how he responded to their surely frustrating pre-eminence. Despite commentators routinely hailing his tennis IQ and someone like Ivan Lendl -- the coach under whom he won all his three Grand Slams -- being astonished by how good his hands were when playing at the net (Murray was best known as a baseline counterpuncher), Murray knew that the others would more often than not have the wood on him. But while others shied away from the challenge, Murray persisted and beat each of the others in a Grand Slam at least once. To do that, he changed physically from a lanky teenager to a muscular player capable of withstanding the mental and physical assault unleashed by the Big 3. His 29 wins against them is also the most by anyone outside tennis's most elite club, while the 56 losses are simultaneous testaments to their superiority and his tenacity.
The Big 3 were also, to an extent, defined by Murray because it is a measure of Federer, Djokovic and Nadal's greatness that they combined to keep an undoubtedly great player to just three Grand Slam titles. Murray was part of the Big 4 in that, especially from 2008 to 2013 -- at the end of which he was laid low with a shoulder injury -- it was usually these four, and almost inevitably at least two, who were in the semifinals of tournaments they entered. That was a treat for tennis fans as they knew that come the business end, they would be watching tennis of the highest quality, and that is what is to be lamented with Murray in all likelihood going quietly into tennis's night.
Just like some of his best matches, Murray has left a window of possibility. After the first-round defeat to Roberto Bautista Agut, he said that he would try his best to come back but it was highly unlikely after a big hip operation. If he does manage to force one last fifth-setter and somehow add to those three slams, he will be part of the conversation again. But in all likelihood, he will remain the warrior who gave the best three players of all time a run for their money… and that is somehow an apt end.