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Stability at the top

Roger Federer during his quarterfinal match against Gael Monfils in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
By Neil Schlecht
Saturday, September 6, 2014

As world-famous celebs go, tennis’ Big Four are hardly party animals.

Roger Federer says he loves traveling the circuit with his wife Mirka and two sets of twins in tow. Novak Djokovic married his high-school sweetheart Jelena Ristic days after winning Wimbledon earlier this summer, and the couple is expecting their first child. Rafael Nadal, a homebody who still lives with his family on the island of Mallorca, has been with his girlfriend Xisca Perello for more than eight years – nearly his entire professional tennis career. And the only person who has been in Andy Murray’s player’s box longer than his girlfriend Kim Sears is his mum.

The stability of four men at the top of the game who have combined to win 36 of the last 38 Grand Slams, going back nearly a decade, is the most remarkable aspect of the current era in men’s tennis.

What is perhaps less noted, in this day of badly behaving celebrities and sports superstars, is how stable and grounded tennis’ brightest lights are.

These are four fabulously wealthy, incredibly fit, attractive and famous professional athletes in their late 20s and early 30s, who jet across the globe and play a game for a living. Yet their vision of the high life seems remarkably low-key.

True, they have yachts and fabulous houses and get married at luxury resorts, but they are rarely seen out partying at nightclubs and getting into trouble.

Of course, the Big Four occasionally do land in the tabloids and celebrity websites. But the most risqué photos you’ll see of Nadal are shots of him in bathing trunks, out on a boat in the Mediterranean with Xisca and friends. Federer’s behemoth new mansion overlooking Lake Zurich or reports of his Swiss tax haven are about as close to controversy as he’s likely to come.

These four gentlemen are remarkably mature and constant in their personal lives. Obviously, they are phenomenal talents, four of the greatest athletes the game has ever seen. But could it be that their groundedness off the court is the very thing that has propelled their consistency at the top of the game?

In a sport that places such intense demands on individual players, with no teammates to pick up the slack when things aren’t going well, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray look to their families and wives and girlfriends for the emotional support they need to excel consistently.

They thrive on constancy. Nadal lost his sole match at Roland Garros in 2009, at a time when his parents were in the act of separating and later divorcing. “The continuity I so valued in my life had been cut in half, and the emotional order I depend on had been dealt a shocking blow,” Nadal wrote in "Rafa: My Story."

Djokovic struggled on-court after the deaths of his beloved grandfather and first coach, Jelena Gencic. As Christopher Clarey wrote in The New York Times, “Djokovic has now lost two touchstones in a hurry. They were two elders who were particularly crucial to his sense of stability and possibility during the war years in Serbia in the 1990s.”

Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are certainly not the only athletes or even tennis players who have succeeded by constructing stable cocoons around them to deal with the demands of their sport and stardom.

It’s just that, like their tennis, they seem to have done it better than everyone else.

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