The future of tennis

Wimbledon and the Big Four

If Wimbledon 2014 has proven anything, it has shown that the Big Four are still a powerful entity in tennis. Though none have doubted the impact that these players have had upon the sport, some critics have prophesied that their end may be close at hand. Federer had his unsuccessful 2013 season, Djokovic had his 17 month Grand Slam drought, Nadal battled injuries and Murray’s mental consistency often faltered.

However, though the four men aren’t getting any younger, they continue to dominate the sport. In fact, Stan Wawrinka’s unprecedented victory over Nadal in the 2014 Australian Open was the first time a player outside of the Big Four had won a major since Juan Martín del Potro’s victory over Federer in the 2009 US Open.

The Gentlemen’s Singles final at Wimbledon further reinforced the notion that these men are the top athletes in the sport. Djokovic and Federer, meeting head-to-head in a Grand Slam singles final for the first time since the 2007 US Open, battled it out upon the grass of Centre Court for five sets in spectacular fashion.

Though Federer won the first set, Djokovic’s dogged determinism secured him the second and third sets. In the fourth set, though leading 5-3 and serving for the Championships, Djokovic was blinded by a flash of the classic Federer magic, and lost five consecutive games to the Swiss Maestro, forcing the match to a definitive fifth set. Though Federer fought hard, Djokovic won the final set and his second Wimbledon title, earning the No. 1 ranking in the process.

The release of the ATP Singles Rankings on the Monday further confirms the dominance of the Big Four. Djokovic, at No. 1, sits atop the tour, while Nadal holds No. 2 and Federer No. 3. Murray, however, is nowhere to be seen. Upon further inspection, the Scotsman can be seen clinging helplessly to the bottom of the top ten at the No. 10 spot, far below the likes of Raonic, Dimitrov, and Wawrinka.

A shifting paradigm

Though the Big Four remain the powerhouses of the sport, the 2014 season may prove to be the beginning of the end for the current era of men’s tennis. This year has seen a huge variety of upsets and unexpected contenders since the first events of the year. The Australian Open saw Stan “the Man” Wawrinka take home his first Grand Slam title, following his hard-fought victories over former champions Nadal and Djokovic. The French Open featured appearances of newcomers Ernests Gulbis and Milos Raonic. Wimbledon played host to the likes of Grigor Dimitrov, Nick Kyrgios and Marin Čilić.

While the end may not be imminent per se, every paradigm shift in a sport of individual players begins gradually. The Big Four of the 1990s, comprised of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang, did not dissolve instantly; instead, the gradual inclusion of lesser ranked players, like Federer, served as the catalyst that affected changes in the tennis status quo. As underdogs began challenging the aging elite of the sport, more and more upsets began to erode away the lingering vestiges of the old order. Though the current order remains largely stable, the subtle whisperings of change remain in the air as more contenders arise from the woodwork to challenge the might of the Big Four.

The next big things

Eventually, Djokovic and Federer will go back to their beloved families, Nadal will turn in his racquet for a fishing rod and Murray will finally have the time to open his five star hotel. Who will rise to fill their shoes when all is said and done? I believe there are a few contenders in the field who may be the next elite in the coming three to five years, namely Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic, and Grigor Dimitrov. While other players, like Ernests Gulbis and perhaps Nick Krygios may also attempt exert their dominance in the post-Big Four era, I believe the aforementioned athletes will be the top players in tennis in the coming era.

Grigor Dimitrov

Grigor Dimitrov has been hailed as Federer’s successor since the public first took notice of the young Bulgarian, if his moniker “Baby Fed” is any indication. However, at the age of 23, Dimitrov has achieved notably less than his hero Federer had to that point in his life. At the age of 23, in 2004, Federer had already won Wimbledon twice, as well as the Australian Open and the World Tour Finals, not to mention a host of other assorted Masters titles and ATP 500 and 250 titles. He was well on the way to winning the 2004 US Open and another World Tour Final.

Dimitrov, for his part, only holds four titles to his name and has never gone higher than the semifinals of a Grand Slam. His career thus far has been plagued by a distinct lack of fitness and racked by unforeseen injuries, and while he has the strokes and consistency to be a top player, he still has much to learn.

However, the 2014 season has been kind to Dimitrov. Entering the season with only a single title to his name, Dimitrov won his first ATP 500 level title on the hard courts of Acapulco, followed by a clay courts win in Romania and a grass courts victory at the Aegon Championships in London. He followed this up with a powerful dispatch of defending champion Andy Murray in the Wimbledon quarterfinals before ultimately falling to eventual champion Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. If this progression is any indication, Dimitrov may soon be coming into his own, and will likely make more of an impact as the Big Four begin to fade.

Kei Nishikori

The 24 year old Kei Nishikori has recorded a number of upsets over top ten players, including the likes of Roger Federer, James Blake and David Ferrer, and has cinched five titles and a career high No. 9 ranking. But despite his speed, agility and consistent play, he has largely been kept from making a run to the top by the Big Four, losing many title opportunities to Nadal and Djokovic in particular. At his age, he still has time to make an impact in the sport, especially once the Big Four begin to fade from the scene, though his endurance in long matches is a cause for some concern, as are his occasionally troubling bouts of injury.

Though he’s failed to make it past the fourth round in three of the four Grand Slams, Nishikori did book himself a quarterfinals appearance in the 2012 Australian Open. If his game and endurance improve, he could very well emerge as a legitimate contender in the coming years.

Milos Raonic

Canadian Milos Raonic is perhaps best known for his powerful serve and forehand. As the World No. 6, he has recorded a number of wins over top players and has earned for himself a total of five ATP titles, as well as a semifinal appearance at Wimbledon and a quarterfinal appearance at the French Open, both this year. In 2013, he made an appearance at his first ATP 1000 Masters final in Montreal, though he lost in straight sets to Rafael Nadal to the disappointment of the Canadian crowd.

His groundstrokes and serves are powerful and efficient, enabling the Canadian to power through his opponents rather than out-finesse them. However, even at the age of 24, he has been plagued by a number of knee and ankle injuries that could endanger his future prospects in the sport. However, should his fitness improve, Raonic could definitely make a solid run to the top in any Grand Slam event in three to five years’ time.

The future is foggy

Obviously, this list is not definitive. The ATP World Tour is littered with young talent from across the globe, all anxious to make a lasting impact in the sport. The next Federer or Nadal could be right around the corner, training in a city wrecked by war, as in Djokovic’s case, or making appearances on the ITF Futures or Challengers tours. While the lasting legacy of the Big Four is certain, the events of the coming half-decade are not, and these next few seasons will continue to shape the sport and its future elite.

Andrew Eissen, senior editor of Three for Ten Sports, serves as chief tennis analyst.

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