There are few global sports that have had the predictability of men’s tennis in the past decade, where the ‘Big Four’ of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have largely dominated the majors.
But Stanislas Wawrinka’s title run at this year’s Australian Open shows that while the afore-mentioned quartet are sure to be major factors in every tournament they contest, the door is now ajar for other players to make moves.
With his take-down of Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals and Rafael Nadal in the final in Melbourne, the eighth-seeded Wawrinka became the first man to defeat the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds at a Grand Slam since Sergi Bruguera did it at Roland Garros in 1993.
Coming into last season, Wawrinka was on the verge of being an afterthought at the age of 27. But after a five-set loss to Djokovic in Melbourne 12 months ago that many thought was the match of the year, he worked doubly hard, began to develop faith in his shots and pushed himself until he finally believed he could play with the best.
With the new Swiss No. 1 now becoming a Grand Slam winner, there’s inspiration for the rest of the tour to follow his example, which should turn the 2014 season into one that will be both exciting and unpredictable.
Veterans like Czech Tomas Berdych, who reached his first Australian Open semifinal this past fortnight, Spaniard David Ferrer, 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro and former Australian Open finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will surely take note of Wawrinka’s career-best run, as the Swiss had not won a title beyond the ATP lower 250 level coming into Australian Open 2014.
World No. 1 Nadal missed the Australian Open in 2013 due to injury, and while he was unable to add to his 2009 title in Melbourne after a back injury hampered him in Sunday’s final against Wawrinka, the Spaniard has only lost a handful of matches in the past 13 months, and has improved his all-round game. If he can stay healthy – which, as Sunday’s final proved, is no guarantee – he will be difficult to knock out of the top spot.
After losing to Nadal in the final of the 2013 US Open, Djokovic spent four months pushing his game to new heights, and came into his Australian Open quarterfinal against Wawrinka on a 28-match winning streak. But even with a new coach in former AO champion Boris Becker at his side, Wawrinka stunned him in five sets, overturning two five-set losses in the past two Slams where they had faced off in Melbourne and New York.
The rationale for six-time major champion Djokovic hiring Becker was to help the Serb become slightly more aggressive and more comfortable at the net. He also wanted the German to give him some tips about how to respond at crunch time. With his loss to Wawrinka in Melbourne, the four-time Australian Open champion has now gone a full year without winning a major for the first time since 2010, so perhaps some mental tips are necessary. Djokovic is way too steady and committed to fall off the face of a cliff, but Wawrinka’s victory gives a handful of quality players the idea that he can be defeated.
At the Australian Open, Federer played his best tennis in more than a year with his impressive wins over two excellent players, Tsonga and Murray. Armed with a larger racquet, Federer showed more power off both wings and brought out a more effective serve. While he could not find a way past long-time nemesis Nadal in a one-sided semifinal, his quality was high enough overall to show that, with the exception of the Spaniard, he can play with anyone and still has the goods to win another major on a fast surface.
Murray soothed the anxiety of a nation last year by winning Wimbledon, but a couple of months later he was forced to undergo back surgery. Instead of coming into 2014 as the man with a clear shot at No. 1, he entered the Australian summer wondering whether his body had healed to the point where he could immediately challenge the world’s best. While he lost to Federer in four sets in the quarterfinals and his back grew stiff late in the match, Murray did not play badly, and was perhaps 20 per cent off his optimum level. If he continues to get healthy and regain the level that saw him raise the Wimbledon winners’ trophy, the 26-year-old is his prime and should be able to compete for every singles crown off clay.
It seems like the tour has been waiting a young player to make a serious push at the ‘Big Four’ for some time, and at the age of 22, the super-talented Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov backed up his promise by reaching the quarterfinals in Melbourne and playing Nadal as close as anyone in a loss outside of the elite players. Dimitrov has a huge serve, forehand he can dictate with, a high variety one-handed backhand and soft touch. If he continues to mature as rapidly as he has under Australian coach Roger Rasheed, he could quickly become a threat for major titles.
Japan’s Kei Nishikori also brought in a notable coach, former Roland Garros champion and Australian Open finalist Michael Chang, who has helped him improve his work ethic and concentration level. At the age of 24, Nishikori is now longer an inexperienced player, but he was impressive in standing toe to toe with Nadal in his three-set fourth-round loss in Melbourne, and may finally be prepared to crack the top 10.
Two young big servers, Canadian Milos Raonic, and Poland’s Jerzy Janowicz, should also move forward if they keep their noses to the grindstone.
Given that the ‘Big Four’ have combined to win 38 Grand Slam titles since mid-2003, it is conceivable that they will end the year at the top of the sport again. But Wawrinka’s run to the Australian Open title indicates that retaining their mortgage over those top four spots will be tougher than ever.