Has the reign of the Big Four ended?
That was the question on everyone’s minds at the pointy end of the recent US Open, when, instead of getting the highly-anticipated Roger Federer versus Novak Djokovic final, Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori each staged stunning semifinal upsets to prevent it.
For the first time in almost 10 years, fans were witnessing a Grand Slam final devoid of any members of the illustrious quartet of Federer, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.
Yet after watching Cilic put away a backhand winner to become one of the most surprising Grand Slam champions in recent history, another question arose – was such a result really the sign of a changing of the guard, or merely a flash in the pan?
It is actually quite difficult to tell.
We saw the first signs of change right here at the Australian Open in 2014 when Stan Wawrinka romped to the title, beating Djokovic and Nadal en route. He became the first non-Big Four member to win a major title since Juan Martin del Potro claimed the 2009 US Open.
Cilic was among several players who highlighted Wawrinka’s triumph as something of a watershed moment. “Wawrinka opened the doors for us from the ‘second’ line, and I think most of the guys have now bigger belief that they can do it on the Grand Slams,” he said ahead of the US Open final.
Yet Wawrinka’s victory had something of an asterisk beside it, given the fact Nadal’s back betrayed him from the second set onwards in their final. Sure enough, the Spaniard was back in the winners’ circle a few months later in Paris, claiming an incredible ninth title at Roland Garros in the past 10 years. His victim in the final was Djokovic; seeing this duo duke it out in the French decider seemed something of a return to normality.
Such a feeling persisted at Wimbledon, where Djokovic met Federer in the final and erased the disappointment of Paris with his second title at the All England Club. And we were merely a shade away from seeing a repeat of that final in New York, until the advent of Cilic and Nisikori.
With the Grand Slam season concluded, the status quo remains relatively intact, with Djokovic, Nadal and Federer still occupying the top three places in the rankings. Yet their stranglehold on the game appears to be loosening.
A momentous year in Djokovic’s personal life – marriage and a baby – plus the inevitable come-down after his emotional Wimbledon victory have combined to diminish some of his trademark intensity. Injuries have returned to plague Nadal, sidelining him since Wimbledon. Federer, despite a heartening return to form in 2014, is now 33 years old; when he comes to Melbourne it will have been two-and-a-half years since his last major triumph. Murray hasn’t been the same since winning Wimbledon in 2013 and then undergoing back surgery; this season he has failed to reach a tournament final.
The Big Four will undoubtedly be the favourites if they all arrive fit and healthy in Australia in January, but there are, for the first time in a long time, other legitimate contenders to consider.
Leading the way are Cilic and Wawrinka, who will look to prove that their Grand Slam triumphs were no flukes. Hard courts are tailor-made for Cilic’s brand of controlled aggression while Wawrinka fares pretty well on them too, having gone deep at the US Open in addition to his title run Down Under. The added pressure of expectation may fall on the shoulders of a newly-crowned major champion, but accompanying that is often the belief of knowing they have what it takes to do it again.
Behind them is an impressive young brigade featuring Nishikori, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov, all of whom have made Grand Slam breakthroughs in 2014. Nishikori’s came in New York, while Raonic and Dimitrov flourished at Wimbledon, each progressing to the semifinals. The members of this exciting trio are all now firmly entrenched in the world’s top 10 and will be eyeing more success in Melbourne.
Peppered among those names are several veterans who have been at the top of the game for many years and remain capable of springing an upset at a Grand Slam event. David Ferrer continues to hold down a top-five ranking while Tomas Berdych has been productive at the majors in 2014, reaching quarterfinals in Paris and New York while advancing to the semis at Melbourne Park. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s recent Masters victory in Toronto signalled a return to form for the popular Frenchman, and he is knocking on the door of the top 10.
From a local perspective, Australia will field one of biggest contingents in the last 15 years thanks to having six players in the top 100, many of whom are young, exciting talents. Joining the perennial former No.1 Lleyton Hewitt will be prodigious youngsters Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic and the impressively late-blooming Sam Groth and Marinko Matosevic, giving local fans plenty to cheer about.
After years of stability throughout the glorious reign of the Big Four, significant change could very well be upon us in the men’s game. The game’s newest star, Cilic, summarises it thus:
“I feel it’s going to definitely be much bigger competition from next year,” he said.
“I feel the guys at the top are going pull the other guys, too. I think the game of tennis is definitely going to evolve much more.”
We’ll get our first look at this evolution at Australian Open 2015.