Men’s tennis in a state of flux as game’s big four loosen grip

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Who will replace the Big Four? Photo credit Wikimedia
Who will replace the Big Four? Photo credit Wikimedia
Who will replace the Big Four? Photo credit Wikimedia

Men’s tennis in 2014 was defined, more than anything else, by a rupturing of the dominance of the big four. In Marin Cilic and Stanislas Wawrinka, we had our first winners of a Grand Slam from outside Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic since Juan Martin Del Potro’s flurry of ferocious forehands surprised Federer at Flushing Meadows in 2009. Indeed, from February 2005 to December 2013, 31 of 33 Grand Slam tournaments were won by this hegemonic group. In essence, the question of 2015 is whether the old order becomes uprooted, and what stands in its place.

Yet the question of whether the big four is dead is by no means settled. Indeed, many of the signs of decline are nothing but contingent coincidences. Wawrinka emerged victorious from a 5 set match against Djokovic of the highest quality, then fortuitously ran into an injured Nadal. Murray being off-colour all year due to a slow return to form after back-surgery also weakened the perceived impregnability of the big four, his return to form a blow to those outriders wishing to replace them. This is clearly not to deny the notion of an impending decline, a Federer resurgence all year seems likely to be temporary, flashes of brilliance such as his wonderful win in Shanghai against Djokovic may continue, but are suited to shorter form three set matches. At the age of 33 physical decline will eventually come. At 28, similar concerns over terminal decline should not be hanging over the head of Nadal, but with the physical strains on Nadal’s body already being unprecedented in a top level tennis-player, and with the degradation of his results, even on his beloved clay,  questions must be asked about his capacity to play at the highest level for much longer. Still, Djokovic continues to look impressive, albeit susceptible to varied baseline play.

But even assuming that the big four undergo a relative decline, it is hardly apposite to claim that a new order of the same ilk will emerge in its’ place. In Cilic and Wawrinka we had the epitome of transitional champions, players who belong as much with the generation of the big four. Wawrinka is a contemporary of Federer, Cilic a long-time competitor of Murray. These players are in no way significant of a new generation, they are contemporaries of the existing order.  In both cases, we see a transformation causally related to the hiring of a new coach; Magnus Norman with Wawrinka and Goran Ivanesevic with Cilic respectively. It would seem highly improbable to see a repeat of their grand-slam victories, both were caused by aggressive tennis of which few can repeat for long stretches with success, making both players have predictably inconsistent results.

So, should the notion that the dominance of the big four must necessarily wane, though not cease in totality, who can realistically said to be challenging them?` Kei Nishikori, the US Open finalist, indefinitely has the groundstrokes,  a wonderfully penetrating backhand combined with a consistently assertive baseline game reminiscent of Djokovic. He also has the mental fortitude, having beaten both Federer and Djokovic last year, and dominated Nadal at Madrid until injury struck. Fitness is probably the greatest barrier to any further progression in his game, though his serve is relatively poor compared to his competitors. Yet Nishikori seems the most likely to break through. Grigor Dimitrov, despite possessing excellent form on all his strokes, simultaneously seems to lack the shot selection and physical explosiveness to make a real impression this year.  Milos Raonic appears the spiritual successor to Andy Roddick, possessing an incredibly powerful serve and forehand, but little semblance of an all round game that would be able to compete with any of the best players in the game. These players, all of whom are aged twenty-four or younger, can be considered the ‘next generation’ of men’s tennis, yet are not displacing those players who should be on the wane. They may begin to constitute a ‘lost generation’, players who should chronologically be in line to replace the big four, yet are of insufficient quality to outperform a generation as great as the previous one.

Yet some group of players must win. But if the big four are on the relative decline, and the new generation insufficiently good to regularly beat the old generation, what will be the outcome? One option would be a similar year to that of 2014, with players of previously unrealized potential springing a surprise run of form together to provide a serious threat at major tournaments. A player such as Ernests Gulbis, supremely talented but combustible, could do such a thing. As could the erratic Frenchman Jo Wilfried Tsonga, particularly on quicker, lower bouncing courts. Juan Martin Del Potro has the ability to do so, though his recovery from severe wrist damage will take time, even in the best-case scenario. Or we could see an emergence of players below the age of 21, superseding the ‘lost generation’. A player such as Borna Coric, already having beaten world number two Nadal, seems likely to continue his ascent up the rankings. The young German Alexander Zverev also saw impressive results towards the end of 2014. Australia have two young players with potential to make some impact on a Grand Slam in Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic, particularly on the grass of Wimbledon, where both have had impressive results in recent years. But however impressive these players are relative to their age, it seems highly unlikely to expect them to persistently reach the latter stages of Grand Slam or even Masters level events.

The results of the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam event this year, perhaps show a manifestation of the above themes.  Tomic and Kyrgios, admittedly aided by partisan support, both reached the latter stages.  Raonic, Nishikori and Dimitrov all played well, but failed to beat the more established members of the big four. Both Nadal and Federer, both suffering physically, deservedly lost to players whom they had previously dominated. In Tomas Berdych, we may yet have a more experienced player who emerges to challenge the established order; he must surely take confidence from his crushing victory over Nadal. Murray, whose renewed form was epitomized by his performance against Berdych, seems likely to be a perennial contender for titles.  Yet Djokovic, as has tended to happen in Melbourne in the recent past, emerged victorious. This outcome somewhat symbolizes how male tennis will evolve in 2015. Young challengers emerging, perennial underlings improving to take advantage of the gradual, but inevitably decline of the big four.  And yet, it would be surprising for the big four not to win the majority of Grand Slams. It seems that despite signs of upheaval, that the old order will remain supreme.

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