In many ways, 2014 signalled the beginning of an inevitable shift in the men’s game. Of the 40 previous grand slam titles, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray claimed an astonishing aggregate of 37. It was almost as rare as a Serena Williams apology that two of that four weren’t in the last four of a major.
But last year, men’s tennis entered unfamiliar, unpredictable terrain. Stan Wawrinka, the perennial Swiss bridesmaid, upset Djokovic and Nadal in Melbourne, and while Nadal cantered to his customary French Open and the Djoker pipped Federer at Wimbledon, the US Open produced a surreal final in which Marin Cilic – who hitherto had never made grand slam semis – drubbed Kei Yishikori.
So, if you consider that half the 2014 slams were won by the Four Tenors and other half taken by the back-up singers, then you could argue that the odds are similar at the 2015 Australian Open – that “the Four” are about as likely to win this event as the rest of the field.
Alternatively, if the sample taken includes the previous 10 years of grand slams, then the percentages would be more than 90 percent in favour of the fab four (39/44) – Black Caviar odds.
So, this invites an intriguing question – whether this men’s title will be won by the Four or “the field?”
When this question was put to Tony Roche, the Australian great and coaching doyen (and one time coach of Federer), he agreed that the field had made inroads. But was it a 50-50 proposition at Melbourne Park? “Not quite,” said Roche.
“I’d take the four,” said another decorated Australian, Mark Woodforde. The TAB, when asked to frame a market, made the Four a short-priced $1.40 compared to $3 for the field and was happy to accept bets.
The case for “the field” rests on a series of obstacles for the Four. First is Nadal’s limited preparation and banged up body. Then, there’s Federer’s age; despite all the optimism about the second coming, he’s 33 and hasn’t won here, nor made a final, since 2010.
Murray, meanwhile, didn’t have a stellar 2014, which was evident in his slide to no 6 in the rankings, having made the giant leap for British-kind by winning Wimbledon in 2013; that said, he was razor sharp against hapless Marinko Matosevic and no one thinks of him as genuinely behind Wawrinka and Yishikori.
That leaves Djokovic, the blatant favourite to win his fifth Australian Open. The Djoker supposedly lost form later last year, but the end score was formidable: he went 61-8, won Wimbledon, was runner up in Paris and reached the semis in Melbourne.
Djokovic performed like a no 1 seed in his second round stroll on Thursday, smashing Andrey Kuznetsov 6-0, 6-1, 6-4 in 84 stress-free minutes. If Nishikori was considered among the pick of the field, then there was a hell of a contrast between his four set struggle against 86th ranked Croatian Ivan Dodig 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, 7-6 and the Djoker’s imperious dismissal of Kuznetsov. Nishikori sceptics note that the smaller man (178cm) has had difficulties when facing raw power.
If not Nishikori, then who heads “the field”?
Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov is the logical upstart, with an explosive Wawrinka, too, viewed as a danger. Tomas Berdych can beat anyone, yet, as one tennis insider put it, “there’s something missing” – mongrel, perhaps – from the package. Milos Raonic is another high end talent.
Dimitrov, 23, who has every shot and more, is widely regarded as the coming player. Woodforde reckoned he would be the next grand slam title winner and potential no 1. Dimitrov coach, Australian Roger Rasheed, said that, having reached the semis at Wimbledon (beat Murray, lost to Djokovic in four) and stretched Nadal here in last year’s quarters, Dimitrov had reached the stage where he believed he could win a major.
“Now he does (believe he can win),” said Rasheed. He’s seen it. You gain belief from experience.”
Our experience is watching four guys win majors. But Wawrinka and Cilic have shown what’s possible. “That gives the others hope,” said Roche.