It was ever thus. As the Australian Open moved into the second week and the draw was whittled down to the last 16, four names stood out from the crowd: Messrs Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray. All four have eased their way through the rounds so far and not one of them has dropped a set. Not one of them has broken a sweat, either. It has been a quiet few days for the Gang of Four.
The first week of a Slam needs to be negotiated carefully – conserve as much energy as possible, get the job done quickly and efficiently and keep your powder dry for the big challenges ahead. Now, though, everything changes: the big names start bumping into each other and the pulse rate quickens as the finish line comes into focus.
The first ‘big’ match of the men’s tournament is on Monday night. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will do his level best to stop Federer from reaching another quarter-final, and having done for him at the French Open last year and Wimbledon in 2011, he knows he has what it takes to beat the Swiss when it matters.
The Fed, meanwhile, is keen to show his critics that he is not done yet. He spent most of last year struggling with a back injury, a problem that limited his play on court and, more importantly, curtailed his training and practice. And even if you have 17 major trophies sitting on your mantelpiece, you still need to be in perfect physical nick to go toe-to-toe with your nearest rivals, and you still need to be able to develop your game in your time off.
His annus horribilis of 2013 may, actually, have done him a favour for this coming year. By the time he got to the off-season, he knew he had to clear his diary and just concentrate on nothing but training and practice. Stefan Edberg may have broken the monotony of the regime, but as a 32-year-old bloke with a bad back, Fed knew he had no time for exhibitions and public appearances – he needed to work his socks off to get fit.
So far, he has not been threatened but, even so, he has had a few scratchy moments. Tsonga will pose the real test, and if he can beat the powerful Frenchman, he will fancy his chances of making a bid for the trophy. That said, if the mighty Swiss is to have a go at the title, he needs to beat Tsonga, then – potentially – Murray, Nadal and Djokovic. No worries there, then, Rodge.
Nadal has been looking awfully impressive so far. His demolition of Gael Monfils on Saturday night was as impressive as it was entertaining. The Frenchman appears to have limbs made of elastic, but no matter how far he ran or how far he lunged, he could not make so much as a dent in the defences of the world No.1. And now Kei Nishikori has to try and find a way to stop Nadal on Monday afternoon. Good luck with that, Kei. In five attempts, the Japanese has only managed to take one set from the Spaniard.
While all the big boys have got themselves high-profile, big-name coaches, Nadal stays happily with good old Uncle Toni. Rafa is not one for change, and apart from appending a little more time on rehab for his knees these days, he is doing what he has always done – and, hey, if it has won him 13 major titles so far, he is clearly getting something right.
When he began his comeback from the last knee injury back in February, the pundits did not give him much of a chance. Surely, after seven months away from the tour with an injury that stubbornly refused to heal, he could not get back to his best. And yet, in his first event back, he reached the final. Within a week, he had won his first title and then, from there, he set off on a winning spree that took in the French Open (natch) and the US Open. If he can get himself to the final here, he will take some stopping.
Should he get there, he is likely to meet Djokovic, who is on a winning run of his own. Since he proposed to Jelena Ristic – and since she said ‘yes’ – last September, he has not lost a match. That is 28 consecutive victories. It is hard to see what Boris Becker can bring to the Serb’s arsenal when it is obvious that all he needed to do to lift his game was ask Jelena is she fancied becoming Mrs Djokovic.
Whether Big Boris can give the world No.2 that extra bit of steel when he plays his next major final remains to be seen. From sweeping all before him in 2011, dealing with various problems off the court in 2012 yet still finishing the year as world No.1, he was suddenly at a loss last year. Murray did for him in the Wimbledon final and Rafa did likewise in New York – it was as if his rivals had stuffed a block of kryptonite in his kitbag. The coming week in Melbourne could be key for the rest of Djokovic’s season: if he wins here, he may be unstoppable everywhere else; if he loses here, Boris may be looking for another job.
And then there is Murray. He has been flying under the radar as he makes his way back from back surgery. He has only been back on the road for three weeks after a four-month lay-off and, unsurprisingly, he is not expecting much of himself. Even so, he has cruised through the first week and now faces Stephane Robert, the world No.119 and a lucky loser from the qualifying competition. On paper, that does not look difficult and if he finds himself in the quarter-finals, he may start to reassess his chances.
The coming week ought to be fascinating, but it is still unlikely to produce an upset. When the trophies are being handed out next Sunday, it is likely to be one of the usual suspects making the acceptance speech.