One year ago, Roger Federer was being urged by critics and fans to retire. The Maestro’s subpar performance at Wimbledon was still fresh in everyone’s minds, and Federer’s hard court form seemed less than average, producing only a quarterfinals billet at the Cincinnati Open. His prospects looked bleak heading into the US Open. Ultimately, the Swiss fell in the fourth round of the Open to low-ranked Tommy Robredo, ending a month of poor results and disappointing tennis.
Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal was scooping up titles like candy, winning both the Rogers Cup in Canada and the Cincinnati Open back to back in preparation for what would be a historic run to the top at the US Open. Novak Djokovic had been playing some great tennis as well, but his game was largely overshadowed by Nadal’s “Summer Conquest,” and the Serbian had fallen prey to Nadal’s unique brand of tennis multiple times during the year. These two faced off in the US Open final, and though Djokovic forced the match to four sets, Nadal lifted the trophy yet again.
Fast forward a year. Here, at the cusp of the 2014 US Open, all roles seem reversed. Federer is now the favorite at the Open, Djokovic is under pressure due to multiple losses at the hands of lesser ranked players, and Nadal has dropped out of the Open to tend to his right wrist injury. A number of upcoming contenders have garnered their share of the limelight, most notably Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. With a week of rest now in effect for the highest-ranked players, the courts of Flushing Meadows are prepared for what can only be a fascinating US Open.
It takes a lot of skill to beat a Top Ten tennis player. It also takes a lot of skill to beat one who has won Grand Slams on that particular surface. It takes a completely different set of skill entirely to beat three such Grand Slam-winning Top Ten players, all while marching on the road to a Masters 1000 title.
Meet Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The Frenchman is not exactly a household name, but he has had some degree of success in the past, contesting the final of the 2008 Australian Open as well as making showings in the semifinals of Wimbledon and the French Open. He holds a career 11 titles, including two Masters 1000 titles, and spent the better part of 2013 within the lower levels of the Top Ten.
His 2014 season prior to Montreal, however, has been less than satisfactory. He failed to win a single title, and produced sub-par fourth round showings in the first three Grand Slams of the year. As a result, Tsonga dropped down to World No. 15, finally falling out of the Top Ten for the first time in nearly a season.
Professional tennis is in many ways a game of hierarchies and hegemonies, wherein the best remain at the top and generally throttle the lesser ranked competition on every front. Some seasons bear testimony to unbroken stretches of dominance by the Top Ten players, who vie amongst themselves in the semifinals and finals of nearly every major tournament and championship. Occasionally, however, an upset or an unexpected injury will shatter the status quo and send the establishment reeling.
In many ways, 2014 has been a season full of such upsets and unprecedented challengers. The Australian Open was the first major championship of the year to bear testimony to such an upset, with Stan Wawrinka’s victory over former champion Rafael Nadal in the final, and his brutal defeat of defending champion Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals.
The French Open quarterfinals played host to a variety of new and upcoming contenders, as did the grass courts of Wimbledon. The enthralled audiences present at the Championships witnessed the defeat of defending champion Andy Murray to Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov and the unexpected resurgence of finalist and seven-time champion Roger Federer. Other pundits marveled at Rafael Nadal’s defeat at the hands of the 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios of Australia in the fourth round.