The Big Four 2008-2013?

It is easy to let one match become an interpretive key for the remaining season.  Until of course another match or tournament goes against the predicted script.

  • Roger Federer entered this Australian Open with the momentum of 5 2014 tittles, being part of a winning Davis Cup team, and winning Birsbane to start 2015.
  • Rafael Nadal entered short on matchplay coming off of a layoff, a poor stretch in Asia, and surgery. Rafa also was presented with a fairly soft draw for reaching the semifinal round.
  • Both men lost prior to the semifinals.
  • Andy Murray lost 6-0, 6-1 to Roger Federer in the 2014 World Tour Finals.  Murray is now going to be playing in his 4th Australian Open final in the past 6 years.  In portions of 2012 and 2013, it looked a bit like Murray and Djokovic were taking over tennis as they faced off in 3 of 4 Grand Slam finals in a 52 week span.
  • Djokovic and Murray may face-off yet again, or maybe Stanislas Wawrinka will add a second major to his trophy case that also includes an Olympic Gold in doubles and a Davis Cup crown.
  • A victory by Stan would uphold the 2014 story of players beginning to dissolve the Big 4’s hold on tennis’ biggest prizes.  Stanislas Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, Marin Cilic, and to lesser extents Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, and Nick Kyrgios contributed to this narrative in 2014.
  • That narrative sounds compelling until one considers that Novak and Rafa each won one major and were runner-up at another major in 2014.  Novak, Rafa and Roger combined to win 7 of the Masters 1000 Shields and the World Tour Finals.  Murray and Djokovic are a combined 11-0 in Melbourne this year despite Rafa and Roger’s troubles.

We can win too

The fact is, tennis is seeing both great results from the Big 4 and some different players making inroads across the tour calendar.  Instead of jumping to throw dirt on a player’s career after one uncharacteristic loss that might be followed by a lot of success, it might be better just to enjoy a situation in which multiple top tier players are capable of having success.  I do not think a hegemony of the Big 4 is still in place, but I also don’t think any of the Big 4 are no longer among the top 5 players in the world  think that all 4 of the Big 4 are still among the top 5 players in the world.  Stan might prove that tennis has a big 5 if he wins 6 more sets in Melbourne.

London results are in the past

Novak Djokovic vs. Stanislas Wawrinka 

This should be good.  In 2013, Novak fended off Stan in an electric 5 set encounter.  They repeated this level of play at the 2013 US Open with Djokovic again winning in 5 sets.  Last year, Wawrinka gained the upper hand dethroning Djokovic in 5 thrilling sets.  All the more remarkable was the fact that Djokovic  had won 3 consecutive Australian Open titles.   So the defending champion plays the world #1 who has won this title 4 times.  Djokovic has won 4 of the 7 Australian Opens held on plexicushion. Stan is coming off of a Davis Cup triumph for Switzerland and a tune-up title.  Each man has momentum and good feelings about  Rod Laver Arena.

The Breakdown

Stan’s game is one of hitting through his opponent and pushing his opponent backwards.  His serve and ground strokes are heavy.  Novak is such a good counter-puncher that he generally finds a way to steal a few points and eventually break down his opponent through a great return of serve and attacking weaknesses.  Stan, when he troubles Nole, hits through him enough to keep the Serbian on the defensive throughout most of the match.  Novak is a great defensive player, but few players like to be on the defensive for a majority of a match.  Novak clobbered Stan last November in London at the World Tour Finals.  I think Novak’s serve, a good shot, was even more dangerous on an indoor court.  If Stan can return well enough to make Novak work when he holds, it will put the match on more even footing.  That gets me to the key factor in this match.  I think Novak’s return of serve at some point will make the difference.  Novak will likely break serve often enough to climb back into a set in which he is troubled or to run away with a competitive set.  Are we ready for another Murray-Djokovic Australian Open final?

My Prediction: Novak Djokovic d. Stanislas Wawrinka 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4

Beyond all of that, Novak has finished 3 of the past 4 years as the #1 ranked player in the world.  A tournament win in Melbourne would give him the first building block for another #1 campaign.  Djokovic’s all-time status grew with his titles in Paris and London to close out last year, but an 8th Grand Slam title would keep Novak’s all-time stature growing.

Tomas Berdych (CZE) [7] vs. Andy Murray (GBR) [6]

This could happen

This match is harder for me to predict than the two women’s semifinal matches.  Berdych was quite solid in 2014, but could never quite breakthrough.  Maybe a year of good results plus a new coach and marriage will result in Berdych reaching his second Grand Slam final.  Andy Murray plays well in Melbourne.  The surface meshes with Murray’s game akin to how well it fits Djokovic’s game.  Murray has seemingly put some dodgy play from 2014 behind him and has looked sharp.  If Berdych plays the right way and serves well, he will set the tone in many points.  That does not mean Berdych will win, but he cannot win if he lets Murray dictate and plays defensive tennis.  Berdych will need to hit big serves to diminish the impact of Murray’s superb return of serve.  Berdych will also need to hit deep returns to ensure that rallies do not involve too much scrambling.  The more we see Berdych change directions during the match the worse his chances of winning will be.

Murray can scramble.  He has an excellent return and has the mindset of a counter-puncher.  If Murray’s speed and defensive skills are in top form, he should win this match.  However, Berdych will be Murray’s toughest opponent to this point.  I am torn.

Or this

My prediction: Andy Murray d. Tomas Berdych 4-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-4

Serena Williams (USA) [1] vs. Madison Keys (USA)

Serena has not looked unbeatable in Melbourne.  That seems to bode well for Keys.  Still, Serena closes exceptionally well in tournaments.  She is 4-6 sets of playing away from a 6th Australian Open title and 19th Grand Slam title!  I think Serena sees the finish line.  If Keys plays well she can keep this match close.  If it is close, strange things might happen.  Keys has a lot of talent and played with poise to beat Venus in 3 sets.  Still, Serena is the favorite (CLEARLY).

My prediction: Serena Williams d. Madison Keys 6-3, 6-2

Ekaterina Makarova vs. Maria Sharapova

Makarova’s game plan for facing Sharapova should revolve around how Petra Kvitova has played when successful vs. Sharapova.  A tough lefty serve and an ability to dictate play make me think Makarova could win this match.  The problem I see for Makarova is that Sharapova seems to be moving as well as I have ever seen her move on court.  If Sharapova is moving well, her biggest weakness shrinks like a New England Patriot’s football.  Sharapova’s game plan is pretty simple hit big serves and returns to take command of a point early.  Makarova’s ability to reverse the script gives her a chance, but I think Sharapova is the clear favorite.  I hope I am wrong as Makarova is a fun player to watch with a unique game.

My Prediction: Maria Sharapova d. Ekaterina Makarova 6-4, 6-2

[4] Stan Wawrinka (SUI) vs [5] Kei Nishikori (JPN)

This is a 50-50 match.  Their US Open match last year was an absolute war.  Nishikori seems poised to do what Stan did last year.  Wawrinka has momentum from Davis Cup and his title in India.  This is a fascinating match because Stan’s game at its best bullies an opponent and hits through and opponent. Nishikori wants to catch the ball early and rob an opponent of time.  So this match will be determined by how much Stan can push Kei backward.  Watch Kei’s court positioning, and you will be able to tell who is winning that segment of the match.  I am still undecided on how this match will turn out as I am typing.  Here goes: Stan Wawrinka d. Kei Nishikori 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 7-5

[1] Novak Djokovic (SRB) vs. [8] Milos Raonic (CAN)

Milos has been quite consistent.  I think even on this surface he can hit and serve through Djokovic at times.  The problem is going to be the times that Nole is dictating play.  Novak is built for plexicushion having won 4 of the 7 Australian Opens held since the surface switched in 2008.  If Milos can return well, he can keep this match close and perhaps win.  I think Novak’s return will allow him to eventually breakthrough and take Milos down.  Novak Djokovic d. Milos Raonic 7-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2

[18] Venus Williams (USA) vs Madison Keys (USA)

This one is hard to predict.  Venus looks a lot like her old self.  Keys is on the uptick.  Venus’ biggest issue lately when she plays well has been maintaining a high level from one match to the next.  I just picked against Venus and came out on the wrong end of the ledger lately.  If Keys is nervous, Venus should roll. Otherwise, I think this is a 50-50 match.  My guess is Keys is not going to be overly nervous.  I expect a great match.  Venus Williams d. Madison Keys 3-6, 6-4, 6-4

[1] Serena Williams (USA) vs. [11] Dominika Cibulkova (SVK)

If Serena serves well and keeps Cibulkova from returning the way she did vs. Vika, I think this match will be played and won on Serena’s terms.  If Serena is missing first serves and making a lot of errors, Cibulkova could get hot and play clean enough aggressive tennis to win.  I just think the match-up does not favor the uber aggressive Cibulkova as she will have to counter-punch at times versus Serena to have a chance.    Serena Williams d. Dominika Cibulkova 6-4, 6-2

[3] Rafael Nadal (ESP) vs [7] Tomas Berdych (CZE)

Based on what I saw of Rafa in Asia last fall and on his own pre-tournament words, I would give Berdych a fighting chance in this match.  Rafa who typically downplays his chances said he felt he was in good form after defeating Kevin Anderson.  That does not bode well for Berdych.  Also, Anderson is a good sparing partner to have when preparing to face Berdych.  I could see Tomas take 1 set, but 3 sets are not coming his direction as far as I can tell.  Rafael Nadal d. Tomas Berdych 6-3, 6-4, 6-4

[6] Andy Murray (GBR) vs Nick Kyrgios (AUS)

I just wrote a column on Kyrgios and Nadal, but shockingly I am not picking Kyrgios to set up a second match with Rafa.  Andy Murray showed a lot of fight in preventing a 5th set vs. Dimitrov.  Kyrgios is young enough to recover from a long round of 16 match in which he too displayed a lot of heart.  I think Murray’s return game, this surface, and Murray’s general form will be enough to win this match in four sets.  Murray’s task is to keep the crowd from becoming a huge factor as a Davis Cup environment would make anything possible.  Andy Murray d. Nick Kyrgios 7-5,  3-6, 6-4, 6-3

[3] Simona Halep (ROU) vs [10] Ekaterina Makarova (RUS)

This should be a good match.  Halep is a tough minded grinder and Makarova is a lefty shot-maker.  If Makarova can make simple work of her service games utilizing her slice serve, she can then pressure Halep’s service games even more.  Halep on the other hand has to elicit some errors as well as take initiative in points when short balls present themselves.  I think this is going to be close for at least one set, but that Halep in the end is too solid to lose.  Simona Halep d. Ekaterina Makarova 7-5, 6-3

[2] Maria Sharapova (RUS) vs [7] Eugenie Bouchard (CAN)

Sharapova has looked quite solid to this point.  Last fall, Bouchard looked a half level below the top players on the WTA Tour.  Perhaps she was fatigued from a breakout year that resulted in many new media and fan obligations.  However, based on the form Maria has had to this point and her status as a known commodity, I think Sharapova is the favorite.  If Bouchard can absorb a first strike and then redirect a point, Sharapova may struggle.  Still, Sharapova’s movement has looked solid so far in Melbourne.  Bouchard will also have to pressure Sharapova’s serve.  This could go either way, but Bouchard has a longer list of things she needs to do well in order to win.  Maria Sharapova d. Eugenie Bouchard 6-4, 6-2

Both Rafael Nadal and Nick Kyrgios have punched tickets for the quarterfinal round of the 2015 Australian Open.  That fact has caused me to revisit their match at Wimbledon last year even though they still each have to win to set up a sequel.  Their Wimbledon match was not the match of the year by any measure. However, it is the 2014 match that most interested me.

Generational Duels

Some generational matches are full of ill will a la Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors’ US Open tilts in the late 80s not to mention their more recent biographical battles.  Other generational matches present a sense of continuity as was the case in Roger Federer’s 2001 Wimbledon upset of defending champion Pete Sampras.  Federer had a ponytail at the time, but his play in that match mirrored Sampras’. Roger’s evolution beyond that template was still 2 or 3 years into the future.  Kyrgios vs Nadal was not full of spite or admiration.  Rather, it gave me a glimpse of what the eventual changing of the guard will look like.

Rafa’s sui generis play served warning to established tennis norms

Rafael Nadal – Forever Young?

Rafael Nadal meeting Nick Kyrgios struck me as a less acrimonious version of Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain meeting at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.  Rafa and Kyrgios have a few things aesthetically in common, but in many ways they are creatures from different eras.  The majority of Rafael Nadal’s career has been marked as being the challenger, and a very successful one at that.  Rafa has played the role of smiling revolutionary for several reasons.  First, Roger Federer, whose peers include Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Juan Carlos Ferrero, is almost 5 years older than Rafa but has never left the top tier of tennis during Rafa’s career.  Many tennis fans either like or dislike Federer for his regal demeanor. Rafa had a promising 2004 and rocketed into the top tier of tennis in 2005 all while wearing shorts associated with clam digging, hitting a buggy whip forehand, and wearing a muscle shirt.  For many years, Federer was the establishment, and the younger Rafa was the revolutionary.  In 2008, this all came to head in the classic Wimbledon final won by Nadal.

Little if anything in all of sport is as good as this was

Chasing Roger from 2005-2007 helped make Rafa an eternal upstart, but so too have Rafa’s injuries.  Rafa has posted excellent years from 2005-2014.  There is no reason to think 2015 won’t be an excellent campaign as well. Still, Rafa ceded the #1 ranking back to Roger in 2009.  He then had his best year in 2010 only to have Nole take over in 2011.  Roger even reclaimed the #1 ranking for a portion of 2012. Rafa again claimed #1 with a dominating 2013, but his 3 years of dominance required toppling a number one and then entailed losing that number one ranking the next year.  Taking the tour over on 3 occasions makes Rafa a highly successful revolutionary, and revolutions tend to be associated with youth.

Kyrgios Gave a Glimpse of the Future

At Wimbledon 2014, Nick Kyrgios walked onto court against Rafael Nadal wearing Beats by Dre, artistic kinesio tape, and a substantial gold chain.  Kyrgios, as Nadal has always done, exuded supreme athleticism on court, but he played with a fluid power that showcased what a player who grew up watching the retrieving and returning skills of Rafa, Nole, and Murray might need to do in order to dictate play.  Kyrgios clearly had no interest in a war of attrition akin to what is often seen between Rafa and Nole. He hit a ridiculous array of aces and huge ground strokes preventing Rafa from imposing his preferred patterns of play.*  Kyrgios sent the message that a set of players building on this prototype will eventually take over tennis.

Look at the 6:55 to 7:05 mark to see what I am getting at

It is unlikely that any one player of the next wave will be as accomplished as Nadal has been. However, as Bruce Lee once said “running water never grows stale so you’ve got to keep on flowing.” Tennis’ constantly arriving future is the one opponent no generation defeats.  For a few hours at Wimbledon in 2014, Nick Kyrgios made Rafael look like the palace guard.  That is noteworthy given that Nadal had been breaking down the gates seeking to conquer or reconquer the kingdom of tennis for a decade.  I remember that match so vividly because for one day the eternal revolutionary was the ancien régime.

* – A similar dynamic was present when Jerzy Janowicz won the first set of his 2013 Wimbledon semifinal vs. Andy Murray by hitting second serves above the 120 mph mark.  Murray, Nadal, and Djokovic’s defensive skills may spawn, via the tennis arms race, players routinely hitting winners that were unthinkable a decade ago. Still, I think Jerzy has less talent than Kyrgios.  Also, Jerzy ultimately lost this match, and Murray has not been the alpha male on tour.  Therefore, the Kyrgios-Nadal match stands out to me as the first big warning sent by the coming generation.