After Andy Murray’s maiden slam title in New York last September, men’s tennis now assuredly has a Big Four. But, following the surprise (shock?) withdrawal of Rafael Nadal from the Australian Open after reporting solid progress with his troublesome knees, it’s currently a case of ‘and then there were three’.
Nadal doesn’t look like he's returning to the tour anytime soon. Even when he does, he’ll have plenty of slack to pick up.
Consider Juan Martin del Potro, whose wrist injury kept him out of action for nearly a year. Only now, two years after his comeback, is the Argentinian anywhere near his scorching form of 2009.
The other dynamic at the pointy end of men’s tennis is the gradual fade of Roger Federer.
These days, every article about the great Swiss seems to contain the phrase "Federer isn’t getting any younger".
In fact, the more you examine the business end of the current men’s tour, the more you start to wonder if Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray might not clean up in 2013.
Federer’s Wimbledon triumph last year seemed to bear all the hallmarks of a last hurrah.
It came 30 months after his last slam triumph, with no Rafa in his path, and against a finals opponent—Murray—carrying not only the weight of a nation’s expectations, but also a sizeable monkey, in the form of a potential fourth unsuccessful slam final, on his back.
It seems that Federer’s short, sharp bursts of effort are no longer suited to the best-of-five, seven-match slugfests that slams have become.
There are no obvious gatecrashers to spoil the Big Four’s party.
Ivan Lendl would probably describe Milos Raonic as ‘a serve and a headband’ and, if the ‘Next Four’ quartet of Del Potro, David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga were going to consistently usurp the big boys, you feel they’d have done it by now.
So, how do we carve up the 2013 silverware?
Djokovic has serious form in the Australian Open and, after three titles in the last five years, you’d have to make him the favourite on Melbourne’s slow Rebound Ace.
The French Open is the big imponderable. Will Rafa be back? Will he be back to form? If not, you could see the Djoker lifting his maiden Coupe des Mousquetaires.
But it’s in the second half of the season when you feel that Murray will grab his share of the spoils.
For all his protestation that his game is best suited to hard courts, the Scot can rip wild on grass with his mind-bending spin and variations in pace. Three semis and a final at Wimbledon can’t be described as shabby. Murray will also draw upon his blistering displays at SW19 during the 2012 Olympics (6-2 6-1 6-4 against Federer, anyone?).
Window of Opportunity
Which brings us to the US Open.
Murray loves the New York Plexicushion, to which his junior title in 2004, a final in 2008 and last year’s celebrations all attest. You can expect him to defend his title like William Wallace on Stirling Bridge. But three times a finalist and once a winner at Flushing Meadows, Djokovic is unlikely to be caught snoozing.
Throw in the nine Masters titles and you can see these two long-time friends gorging themselves like a pair of six year olds at a birthday party for which they were the only ones given the correct time and date.
In short, can you say ‘window of opportunity’? Scarcely can one have been flung open quite as widely as in 2013 for the two men who currently spearhead the ATP tour.