Dawn of the Big Four-free era?

BJP, the current ruling party of Central Govt in India, had in their election campaign promised a Congress-mukt sarkar where mukt means free and sarkar means govt.  They delivered.  When the first slam of 2014 produced the first non-Big Four (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray) champion, Wawrinka, since Del Potro in US Open 2009, talk of a new Big Four-free era in men’s tennis began.  The whispers grew into chatter by the time of Wimbledon, when Kyrgios upset Nadal in the fourth round.  And on Monday, Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic will contest the first non-Big Four Grand Slam final since the 2005 Australian Open, where Marat Safin beat Lleyton Hewitt.  Yeah, waybackwhenarchives stuff, right?


Since then, all the way until US Open 2014, either of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Murray have always contested every, yes every, grand slam final.  And you can count the no. of non Big Four finalists on the fingers of your hands. 


If that astounding stat says something, it’s more a reflection of the longevity of Federer and Nadal.  In 2005, the then young sensation from Spain who had already surprised Federer before at Miami in 2004, began to provide the first serious opposition to the seemingly unstoppable Swiss champion.  It would over the years prove enough to give him a comfortable upper hand in the rivalry.  But that would be later.  Nadal was the first player to perform consistently at a very high level, not just in tournaments as such but specifically in matches against Federer.  And the two kept winning more and more slams as they fought each other on clay, grass and hard court.

Along the way, Djokovic joined the party, breaking through in 2008 but only achieving consistency in 2011 and onwards.  The more fancied and hyped Andy Murray would have to wait a little longer to join the Grand Slam club but he duly did so in 2012.  Nevertheless, by regularly contesting semis and finals against the other members of the Big Four, he became very much a part of it, if to a lesser extent.   


But all good things have to come to an end.  By 2013, admiration for the consistency of the Big Four had turned into faint moans of protest at the sheer monotony of it all.  It didn’t help that often two players from the Big Four broke away from the pack and met each other in finals regularly…even in consecutive finals.  For instance, Djokovic and Nadal played four straight finals against each other from Wimbledon 2011 to French Open 2012.  Murray and Djokovic then played each other in US Open 2012, Australian Open 13 and Wimbledon 2013.  In the middle of this, Federer and Murray twice met each others in finals at Centre Court – first in Wimbledon and then in the Olympics.  

When Wawrinka beat Nadal at the Australian Open this year, there was renewed hope of a new order in men’s tennis.  If Djokovic and Nadal resumed their rivalry at French Open, seeds tumbled once again at Wimbledon with Dimitrov also accounting for Murray.  Federer and Djokovic made it to the final, though, and played one of the great finals of the tournament.  Federer went on to play down, with a hint of hubris, the chances of the young brigade in the near future, claiming the Big Four looked good to dominate the tour for another three to four years.  


That, it has to be said, was rather optimistic.  There have been signs throughout this year of an ebb in the domination of the Big Four.  Federer himself is a weak link; age has caught up with him and brought with it uncharacteristic inconsistency as well as losses to players he used to cream just three to four years back.  Murray has not been the same player since undergoing back surgery and may have perhaps invested too much emotionally in winning Wimbledon to find new goals particularly exciting.  Only Djokovic and Nadal remain and Nadal continues to be haunted by injuries.  


So, for all practical purposes, US Open 2014 was gift wrapped to be handed over to Djokovic, notwithstanding media hopes of an 18th slam for Federer.   But it didn’t quite pan out the way, beginning with an off colour hard court season for Djokovic.  It was expected that he would peak at the right time, that is, right in the middle of The Open and go on to win.  Except, he perhaps found his peak in the engaging mini epic he played against Murray in the quarter finals.  Even though Nishikori, his conqueror in the semis, had come through back to back five setters, it was Djokovic who looked more drained and less enthusiastic of battle.  As for Federer, he was blown off the court by Cilic’s power tennis.  


While I would personally love to see a Nishikori win, Cilic with his powerful serve and booming groundstrokes on both wings has a game that is tailormade for these conditions.  If he keeps his head together, The Open could well be his for the taking.  At any rate, for the first time in years, there is suspense and anticipation as fans grapple to call/predict this final.  It’s a toughie, pitting an offensive baseliner who does well on grass against a classic Hewitt-like counterpuncher. 


And the media have already voted with their feet.  Today’s newspaper noted that Nishikori-Cilic would not be the marquee final that fans and the media had been hoping for.  Ha!  So much then for wishing away monotony.  


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