“Come on, Andy!” I slur desperately at the TV, drunken with tiredness.
“Collapsing..!?” Murray wails at his faltering legs as they begin to betray the Scot, point after point. The tank is empty. With each unyielding Djokovic-groundstroke, the end of my all-night tennis binge rapidly approaches.
It is no secret that we are living through one of the most glorious and competitive eras in the history of tennis. It was therefore no test of loyalty, hanging on until 6 am that morning to witness the conclusion of this year’s US Open quarter-final between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, two of the game’s immortals.
Despite Murray’s abnormally powerful forehand and offensive play, the strong, supple defence of Djokovic was enough to grind down the British no 1 and eventually prevail in what was a three and a half hour slugfest.
It required a biblical five-set effort from the graceful, god-like Roger Federer to join the Serbian superstar in the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows where they – the world numbers three and one respectively – would meet opponents from outwith the World’s top 10: Kei Nishikori (11) and Marin Cilic (16). And they would lose.
For over a decade tennis has been defined by the superior athleticism, groundstrokes and defensive capabilities of the so-called ‘big four’ players: Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. For any given player, the road to winning a Grand Slam will have often required beating three of these four men in the same week and possibly in consecutive matches – a feat which has never been achieved.
In fact you must look back to January 2005 to find a Grand Slam final without one of these names contending; Nadal, Djokovic and Murray were all teenagers. Has any sport ever seen such domination over as long a period? Possibly not. Thus, even as 2014 saw the top players wobble – age and injury at times getting the better of them – not many people saw the end coming so soon.
It all started Down Under. Stanislas Wawrinka (4), the eternal understudy of Swiss tennis, broke the 16-slam streak held by the big four at the time, attacking and killing off a wounded Nadal to win the final of this year’s Australian Open.
Federer fell before the quarter-final stage at the French Open and Rafa imitated this at Wimbledon. Leading up to this month’s US Open, Murray hadn’t reached a tournament final all season. But the cracks in the walls of this four-player fortress were yet to be exposed. Why then should they tumble now?
“You can’t be serious!?”
Like John McEnroe victimising a cowering line judge, I found myself aiming this question at my computer screen.
Federer and Djokovic were beaten by Cilic and Nishikori respectively, in a spookily convincing manner, and there were certainly no injuries, technicalities or mistakes. They just lost.
The lanky Croat, Cilic, utilised his strong serve to assert an unmistakable dominance against the greatest player of all time, blasting Federer off the court with 43 winners in only three sets. On the other hand, Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam final by outlasting the seemingly perpetual engine of Novak Djokovic in their tight, three-hour semi-final, after already completing two consecutive five-set matches. Thus both finalists defeated each of their worshipped opponents, on the big stage, at their own games to spark what is sure to become a revolution in tennis.
The younger generation of players who are emerging from the considerable shadow of the big four are showing the confidence and belief required to be regular contenders. Some, like Nishikori and Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov (9) are emulating the tenacious style of Messrs Djokovic and Nadal, others showing a fresher, attacking approach with the likes of Cilic, Canadian giant Milos Raonic (8) and Latvia’s Ernests Gulbis (13) proving a handful for any opponent when serving well. Dominic Thiem (36) of Austria shows great attacking flare and as the youngest player in the world’s top 50 has fantastic potential for the coming years.
25-year-old Marin Cilic went on to dismantle his Japanese counterpart in last week’s final with what was an anti-climactically efficient performance, winning 6-3 6-3 6-3 and becoming the eighth man to win a Grand Slam in the last 10 years.
The convincing manner of this victory, despite Nishikori’s nervy showing, tells me we haven’t yet seen all that the Croat has to offer.
“This is a big sign [that] if you work hard it will pay off,” preached the US Open champion who had previously highlighted the extra boost he got from seeing Stan Wawrinka go the whole way eight months ago.
“Wawrinka opened the doors for us from the second group,” Cilic revealed.
“Most of the guys have now bigger belief they can do it at the Grand Slams. It’s a bit of a change-up year.”
‘Change-up’ is indeed an apt description of this season, as for the first time since 1998 there are four different champions for each of the men’s and women’s Grand Slam singles, and with the world’s top 10 male players bunching closer together, who is to bet against a repeat next year?
The first Major of 2015 in Melbourne will reveal a lot about the immediate future of men’s tennis as the eyes of the world await a champion’s response from one of our fallen giants. At 33 years old and surrounded by younger, fitter competitors, I think Roger Federer’s race is run but I expect an almighty backlash from the other three protagonists. Vitally, Murray and Nadal will have the close-season to recover from form-hampering injuries, which have certainly played a part in this year’s rise of the underdogs and even prevented the Spaniard from turning up to defend his title at Flushing Meadows this year. The climb back to the top will be a hard one, however.
2014 has been an eventful season, propped up by four uniquely thrilling Grand Slams, but it is sure to be remembered as the year when the tides of tennis turned. The big four’s fortress is breached. Revolution is in the air.