Last night, disaster befell Andy Murray again. The only good thing you can say about his straight-set loss to 92nd-ranked Guillermo Garcia-Lopez is that it wasn’t quite the embarrassment of his losses to Donald Young and Alex Bogomolov one year ago. Once again, it raises questions about whether Murray really belongs in the conversation with the rest of the big four. After all, except for the odd disappointment from semi-injured Rafa, the other three guys aren’t losing in any first or second rounds.
Federer hasn’t lost to anyone outside the top 50 since Indian Wells in 2008, and that was to a comeback-trail Mardy Fish. Nadal has been perfect against the top 50 since his own (probably injured) loss to Gigi in 2010–before that, you have to go back to Queen’s Club 2007. Djokovic’s undefeated streak against the top 50 goes back to Queen’s Club 2010.
While it’s disappointing that Murray followed up such an impressive performance in Dubai with such a dud, let’s consider this in context. Even counting Indian Wells last year, yesterday’s match was only Murray’s fifth loss to a player outside the top 20 (and third outside the top 50) since the beginning of 2011. (He also lost to Thomaz Bellucci in Madrid and Kevin Anderson in Canada.) Sure, this is the rung below Rafa/Roger/Novak, but the current level of top three-or-four dominance has raised the bar beyond any realistic expectations.
And perhaps most importantly, do these early exits really matter? In the locker room, maybe, but what about in the rankings? Murray trails Federer by 1,260 points. If Andy had reached the semis in both Indian Wells and Miami last year (and remember, simply playing up to one’s seed can’t reasonably be expected), he would have 670 more points, barely cutting that lead in half. Count the early exit at the Canada Masters as well and assume that he reached the semifinal there as well–still only 1005 additional points, and not enough to catch Federer. (Though he would’ve held the #3 ranking before Fed’s win in Dubai.)
These counterfactuals are reminders that, given the current level of competition, it’s the big matches that really matter. Winning a grand slam semifinal is worth almost as much as reaching the semis of two Masters events. If Murray is to displace one of the top three, he’s much more likely to do so by winning a slam (or at least reaching more finals) than by simply playing up to his seed everywhere else.