Australian Open 2014: Men's Tournament Suggests Major Changes Coming for Tennis

Alex EspinozaCorrespondent IIIJanuary 28, 2014

Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland kisses the trophy after defeating Rafael Nadal of Spain in the men's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
Aaron Favila/Associated Press

One Grand Slam title does not make an elite tennis player. Just ask Juan Martin del Potro, who has never achieved the same prestige as his men's tennis contemporaries in the the Big Four: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

Del Potro won the US Open in 2009 as a sprightly 20-year-old, defeating Federer in his prime. Though he's made it deep into Grand Slam finals since, del Potro still hasn't been considered among that top-notch club of players which has accounted for 34 of the past 36 major titles.

Could Stanislas Wawrinka be the man to shake up the top of tennis' hierarchy after his win in Melbourne at the 2014 Australian Open? There are several signs that point to yes.

Sure, Wawrinka's four-set victory (6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3) in the final featured a second-set back injury from No. 1 Rafael Nadal, but that shouldn't take away any weight from the Swiss' accomplishments the past two weeks.

First of all, Wawrinka downed half of the Big Four en route to winning the title, considering he beat Djokovic in the quarterfinals.

When it comes to the final, Wawrinka looked like a different player against Nadal, who had gone 12-0 in head-to-head matches entering play Sunday, taking each victory in straight sets. Even before Nadal went down with his back injury, Wawrinka looked to be in control of the first set, as noted by tennis great Pete Sampras on BBC Radio.

"He was outplaying Nadal and was up a set and a break when the back issue came up," Sampras told BBC. "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'm not sure he's quite up there with Nadal or Djokovic yet as they have been winning majors for years, but now he is over the hurdle of winning a Grand Slam, if he keeps it up, he'll be up in that category and deservedly so."

As Sampras acknowledged, Wawrinka still has a ways to go if he wants to crack the Big Four, but his performance Down Under coupled with Federer's decline may signal the end of an era.

Another 2014 Grand Slam title for Wawrinka would surely do more to help spark the discussion, which has been rekindled since Sunday. If Nadal wins, it's just business as usual for the men's bracket, with the world's No. 1 claiming another Grand Slam for the Big Four.

But with Wawrinka's ability to dictate the tempo of the first set against Nadal and his focus to close out the match, he may very well be supplanting Federer among the world's best. It's an interesting spot for Wawrinka to be in, as he has closely followed his fellow countryman's career throughout the years, per Piers Newbery of BBC Sport.

"Roger is a good friend," Wawrinka said. "He's for me the best player ever. He's been there so many years. He was struggling a little bit last year, but he's an amazing player, amazing friend, because he always wants the best for me."

Federer is 33 now, and his 2013 campaign only featured one victory at the Gerry Weber Open, while his season is best remembered for early exits in the Wimbledon (second round) and US Open (fourth round). As good as Federer looked in reaching the Australian Open semis, showing good mobility that he struggled to have throughout 2013, Wawrinka looks like a more complete player than Federer.

Or as Sampras put it, "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." 

Wawrinka (28), Nadal (27), Djokovic (26) and Murray (26) each figure to be in their physical primes for years to come, while it's entirely conceivable that Federer will never win a Grand Slam again.

Now, surmounting Federer among tennis' Mt. Rushmore will take time, but Wawrinka appears to have the makeup to do it. By year's end, we will likely be looking back at 2014 as the end of the Big Four era.