The 2014 US Open was a landmark tournament for men’s tennis for a number of reasons. There were maiden Slap final appearances for the eventual champion from Croatia Marin Cilic and the diminutive Japanese Kei Nishikori, with the later attempting to become the first Asian man to win a Major. It was the first final between two players ranked outside the top 10 since 1997, the first in 12 years that none of the top-eight seeds were contesting and meant that it was only the third time in the Open era that the eight men’s and women’s singles titles have been held by different players.
However, the most remarkable statistic is this – it was the first time in 38 Grand Slam finals and almost a decade that one of the so-called ‘Big Four’ of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray were not present. Since Marat Safin won the 2005 Australian Open, these four have won 36 of the subsequent 38 Grand Slams. Federer had made 25 final appearances, Nadal 20, Djokovic 14 and finally Murray 7. If people wanted some hard, conclusive evidence that the end of one of sport’s greatest periods of domination was drawing ever closer, this was it.
It was inevitable that it would eventually happen and with Djokovic and Federer still reaching the semi-finals and Nadal absent through injury, to say this totalitarian control is on the verge of vanishing would be extremely premature. Nevertheless one cannot ignore a final, won comfortably in straight sets by the big-hitting 14th seed Cilic, which was bursting at the seams with symbolic importance. As proclaimed by Cilic, the match was a sign to other players striving to break through that it can be done and that these Major trophies are not as inaccessible as previously thought. The mental part of sport is such an enormous factor in success, so after the psychological impact of the ‘Big Four’ supremacy, this shift in mentality steadily sweeping across the game is hugely important. They have been exquisite and fully deserving of their wonderful achievements, displaying remarkable levels of consistency, fitness and hunger. Yet a vital element of their Grand Slam winning domination has been the fear-factor – they have seemed indestructible. Now, for a variety of different reasons, they are perhaps more vulnerable than ever before.
There is an increasing belief that players from the so-called ‘second line’, who have spent so long in the shadows, now suddenly have an opportunity to take centre stage. They are moving closer to the standard bearers of men’s tennis. Part of this emergence has come from the inspiration these players are taking from their peers. You only have to look to the start of the year. Stanislas Wawrinka, always a talent but never a real force to be reckoned with, finally put all the pieces together to pull off an unexpected but thoroughly deserved Australian Open win. Such instances continue to breed confidence in others who are realising that they can emulate such impressive efforts. The combination of natural ability and newfound confidence could prove decisive for those with the capability to make it to the very top.
So if the door has been left ajar, who are the players with this potential to force it open? Heads have been turned by the rise of a certain group of players. Cilic has thrived this year under the guidance of new coach Goran Ivanisevic, incidentally the last Croatian to win a Slam, and now seemingly has the consistency and variety to ensure he is not a one-Slam wonder. Nishikori has shown that previous claims of physical fragility denying him a place at the top are false, defeating Djokovic over 5 sets and overcoming the No5, No3 and No1 seeds en route to the final. He looks primed to deliver the potential acknowledged when he was named the 2008 newcomer of the year. Gregor Dimitrov has added steel to his great style and his steady progression suggests he is ready to break into the winner’s circle, as shown by his Queen’s victory and destruction of Andy Murray at Wimbledon. Milos Raonic is now regularly reaching the latter stages of the big tournaments with his big-serving and booming forehand and is now a permanent feature of the top 10. For him it is a case of when, not if, he wins his maiden Slam. Ernest Gulbis reached a career high ranking of 10th back in June and is showing signs of bringing the required maturity to his game. Defeating Federer at the French Open highlighted the talent that can ruffle the famous quartet.
The augmenting rise of this ‘second line’ has been aided by some recent struggles for the members of the big four. In reality they are hardly ‘struggling’ – it was only a few months ago that Djokovic and Federer were facing each other in the Wimbledon final. Yet we are not dealing with the mere mortals of men’s tennis here - any difficulties, losses of form or surprise defeats will be highlighted and cause questions to be raised. Nadal has for many years been battling with serious injuries to his knees and now wrist, Murray hasn’t recovered from his back surgery as quickly as most expected and even Djokovic, so often maintaining an astounding level of fitness and stamina, has looked drained at times this season. Federer, though still playing some majestic tennis and getting close to an 18th Grand Slam, is 33 and well into the twilight years of his career. Their gigantic scalps have been occurring more frequently than before. Cilic's victory even means that Murray has dropped out of the top 10 for the first time in six years, with Cilic climbing to ninth, one place behind Nishikori.
The hegemony of the ‘big 4’ could about to be cracked, bringing a more open era of tennis upon us. This could be one of the most unpredictable and exciting periods the men’s game has encountered in years. There were odds of 250/1 on either Nishikori or Cilic winning the 2014 US Open. Do not expect such odds to be so high much longer for the chasing pack of men’s tennis.