Australian Open 2018: Big Four to dominate or will we see a new champion?
The Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific is now only a week away and there is a strange feeling in the air - the old guard of men's tennis may finally make way for the rest of the field. This is not to say that these challengers have not tried in the past. It is just another significant reminder of how good the quartet of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray have been over the last 14 years. These legends have seen off nearly three generations of tennis talent from all over the world, and their commitment to improving their games and taking the sport to the next level has largely left the rest of the field grasping at straws. It doesn't help that they have found a certain longevity to their careers, where they are still making the crowds gasp in awe at their scintillating shot making and mastery of the tennis court.
However, 2018 is when the new generation is knocking hardest on the door. There are cracks appearing in the Big Four:
- Andy Murray has withdrawn from the Australian Open 2018 as he considers surgery options for the hip injury he sustained in 2017. In spite of taking a lengthy lay off from the tour and doing intense rehabilitation (just check out his Instagram profile - he's a phenomenal athlete), Murray feels that his preparation is not adequate and that he has not completely healed. Unfortunately, the five-time Australian Open finalist will not be playing any part in the tournament this year.
- Novak Djokovic was expected to participate in the Abu Dhabi exhibition and also at the Doha Open but pulled out of both, instead opting to travel early to Australia and prepare discreetly for a good run. He's been nursing an elbow injury and also a confidence dent. Questions will be asked about his match fitness as he has not featured in any competition since the quarterfinals of Wimbledon 2017, a six month lay off! However, the Djoker looked good in practice. Knowing his lust for competition, he'll definitely be eyeing a deep run in Melbourne, if not better.
- Rafael Nadal is also fighting an uphill battle to be ready in time for the Open as he tries to coax another great season out of his weary knees. Nadal had a stellar 2017 and proved his critics wrong by not just dominating the European clay swing, but also by winning his 15th Grand Slam at the US Open. These exertions have left the current world number one running on fumes. Rafa insists that being healthy is his number one priority and that he can only enjoy his tennis and compete at a supreme level when he feels good. The Spaniard remains a "maybe" for the main draw in Melbourne.
- Roger Federer, in stark contrast to the other three, is happy, healthy and playing better than his generation remembers. The tennis community is running out of superlatives for this man. After the remarkable "Roger-ssaince" of 2017, Federer appears to be the only one of the big four to be entering 2018 with great form, confidence and calm. The man is so gifted that he is able to get the best out of tennis and fatherhood. After lifting his second Hopman Cup at Perth on Saturday (his first was in partnership with the Swiss Miss Martina Hingis way back in 2000), Federer looks in great shape to retain the Norman Brooks Trophy that he so stunningly won back in January 2017. A year on, Grand Slam title number 20 beckons and Federer continues to rise to the demands of this great sport. If you think Roger is stressed about how his 2018 is going to work out, here's a picture of him chilling with a quokka. The guy even gets selfies right. Enough said.
Which brings us to the rest of the field, the guys who are just as talented and hardworking but for whom it doesn't come together quite as regularly as the Big Four.
Needless to say, the likes of Dimitrov, Goffin, Thiem, Wawrinka, Cilic, Del Potro, and Nishikori possess the weapons to push the big guys to the brink and on occasion even upset them. But these magnificent players have spent almost a decade fighting the good fight and to some extent have managed to disturb this Big Four dominance of the past years. They are no longer the sprightly, unpredictable talents they were, instead transforming into battle scarred veterans of the game, nursing bruised knees, wrists, and memories. They will be a threat. But behind them come these young and hungry players who possess all the weapons and very little fear. Let's take a look at who could be the next face of men's tennis:
- Alexander "Sasha" Zverev is pretty much acknowledged as the 'heir apparent' and the fearsome teenager from Germany has it all. Supremely talented, light on his feet for a man of his dimensions, and with ground strokes that can whistle past opponents at the rate of knots, Sasha took his game to the next level in 2017 by winning a couple of Masters 1000 titles in Rome and in Montreal. The only player who bettered him in terms of Masters 1000 titles won was one Roger Federer (3 titles - Indian Wells, Miami, Shanghai). Not a bad effort Sasha, not bad at all!
- People tend to forget that Nick Kyrgios is still only 22 years old, but when he's mentally dialed in, there is literally no shot in tennis that he cannot pull off. Kyrgios' battle, as ever, will be fought in his own head first. The key to that will be in relying on his outstanding serve, and keeping points short and simple. It's about time Nick came to the party, with his immense talent. He's been around for years now, and this writer certainly hopes that the Aussie puts on a show for his home crowd on the Rod Laver Arena in seven days time.
- Denis Shapovalov is drawing some favorable comparisons with the great John McEnroe, primarily for that insane left handed serve and a willingness to finish off points at the net. In an era of baseline sluggers, the Canadian brings a vintage game and hits extremely intelligent strokes of both wings. His net play is scintillating and was critical to downing Rafa Nadal in Montreal last year. This is one guy that most of the tour professionals will not like to face early.
- The young Russian Andrey Rublev can hit ferociously off both wings and this easy power helped him to break into the quarter finals of the US Open last year. His year ended well with a runner up showing at the ATP Next Gen Finals in Milan, marking his arrival as one of the new faces of tennis. With a bit of luck, Rublev could surprise many and feature in the second week of the Australian Open.
- Rublev's conqueror in that final was the youngster Hyeon Chung, the bespectacled 21 year old Korean who never quite learned to give up on a point. With a relentless attitude and solid ground strokes, Chung can slug it out with some of the best in the game. By bringing variety and cleverness to his game, the tenacious Korean could become a name to watch out for in the near future. Expect him to make life difficult for some veterans at the Australian Open.
- Frances Tiafoe is a pure athlete and he has oodles of tennis talent to supplement that. The American pushed Federer to 5 topsy turvy sets and following that experience, is keen to get back on the big stage and push the giants of the game. Equipped with lightning speed and tremendous athleticism, Tiafoe is a modern-day Monfils. Wouldn't it be amazing to see La Monf and Frances go toe-to-toe on that blue Center Court? If it happens, then you read it here first folks!
These seven days cannot pass quickly enough as we are on the verge of a historic Australian Open, where there is the highest chance in recent memory of seeing the old guard being replaced by the bold and new. Personally, this writer is rooting for the old guard but the clash for the throne is assured to be nothing less than mouth watering.