Tennis has been dominated by a few select names over recent years, in both the men's and women's realms. Just one men's major had been won by a non-Big Four member since 2009, and Serena Williams had captured half of the women's majors over the past two years.
Labeling the 2014 Australian Open the dawn of a new era might be a bit premature. Williams figures to bounce back strong, and the quartet of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Roger Federer will be favored in the three remaining majors.
Actually, calling Li Na a "second-tier star" is probably a discredit to her at this point. The Aussie Open title marked Li's second major championship, following her 2011 French Open triumph, as well as the eighth time she advanced to at least the quarterfinals in the last 17 Grand Slams. In considering Li's win, her age might actually be the most interesting factor:
Li Na defeats Dominika Cibulkova to win Australian Open, becomes oldest women to clinch Aussie title in open era http://t.co/22lSWCpwl4— Sporting News (@sportingnews) January 25, 2014
Headed into the Australian Open, there were as many over-30s in the top 10 (Li, Williams) as players under 24 (Petra Kvitova, Caroline Wozniacki). As USA Today's Douglas Robson notes, the trend of teenagers dominating women's tennis has fallen by the wayside:
Just three of the last 19 majors were won by women younger than 25 -- Petra Kvitova at the 2011 Wimbledon and Victoria Azarenka at the 2012-13 Australian Open.
"It's an older women's sport," says former No. 1 doubles player and commentator Rennae Stubbs. "It's more aggressive and physical and as you get older you get stronger. That's what you're seeing. Then again, we have a young crop that's banging on the door. I think it's great for women's tennis that we have two different ends of the spectrum."
Indeed, the next wave of women's superstars is arriving, but slowly and less explosively than in previous eras. Nineteen-year-old Canadian Eugenie Bouchard reached the semis before bowing out to Li, and ladies like America's Madison Keys and Britain's Laura Robson figure to reach the top of the sport soon.
Nevertheless, players like Li are proving that it is possible to peak past the age of 30. With other stars like Maria Sharapova and Jelena Jankovic approaching the dreaded landmark, perhaps 30 is the new 20.
A handful of veterans dominate the men's sport as well, and 28-year-old Stanislas Wawrinka may have broken into the realm of the elite. Like Li, Wawrinka may represent a late-blooming star, as all five of his quarterfinal-or-better Grand Slam results have come at age 25 or later:
Stanislas Wawrinka: 1st Grand Slam title in 36th GS app. Only 1 man had more before 1st GS title: Goran Ivanisevic (2001 Wimbledon, 48th GS)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 26, 2014
Wawrinka defeated both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal after losing 14 consecutive to the former and 12 straight to the latter. While those results may have seemed shocking to the casual observer, they belied an excellent start to the calendar year for Wawrinka, who also won the Chennai Open in dominating fashion.
As unfathomable as it seems, Federer is no longer the highest-ranked Swiss player in the world, as Wawrinka's victory will vault him to third in the new world rankings. Pete Sampras, who surely thought he was in attendance to see Nadal equal his 14 Grand Slams, believes Wawrinka's success is sustainable, according to BBCSport.com:
This will hopefully be the beginning for Wawrinka. The win over Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals was a big moment. He got through it, he's now a Grand Slam champion and is on his way.
I think the right person won. He played great. He's got a big serve, moves well and has a good touch at the net - he's the real deal.
Will either Stanislas Wawrinka or Li Na win another major?
Wawrinka's win does not mean the dissolution of the Big Four on the men's side, just as Li Na's triumph does not discredit the next generation of women's stars. Nadal will be the overwhelming favorite at Roland Garros, and the likes of Murray and Djokovic will be favorites at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Nevertheless, this year's Australian Open will be memorable for producing arguably the most unexpected set of results in recent history. Ultimately, while tennis has not been completely flipped on its head, do not expect a return to the old status quo, either.