Why the Balance of Power in Men's Tennis Is Due for a Seismic Shift in 2014

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2014

In this picture released by Argentina's Ministry of Tourism, tennis players Rafael Nadal, left, and Novak Djokovic  pose in front of Glacier Perito Moreno from a tennis court on a ship where they played an exhibition game near El Calafate, Argentina, Friday, Nov. 22, 2013. (AP Photo, Argentina's Ministry of Tourism)
Uncredited/Associated Press

Maybe Stanislas Wawrinka’s surprising Australian Open title was an anomaly in men’s tennis, but that has only fueled more speculation for media and fans who wonder how much more will change in 2014.

For the most part, the top two players, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, are the favorites for the three remaining Grand Slam titles and other big tournaments. But they are also rapidly approaching their 30s, and injuries always lurk in the shadows, waiting for inopportune moments to strike.

The resurgence of Roger Federer and comeback of Andy Murray also strengthen the field. These four megastar players will combine for more Grand Slam titles, but it will probably not be easy. At some point, their tennis dominance will be replaced.

Change can happen in the blink of an eye, but there are curious patterns from past decades to consider. If history is any indication, men’s tennis is due for a seismic shift in 2014.


The 10-Year Cycle of Seismic Shift

Since the Open era began, men’s tennis has always seen this seismic shift in years ending with a four. Here is the evidence:

1974: Jimmy Connors, age 21, blasted through the ATP tour with three Grand Slam titles—nearly half of the eight majors he would win in his career. Connors signaled that the distinguished amateur era stars were all but finished. His brash demeanor, baseline approach shots and return game turned the sport upside down.

For good measure, Bjorn Borg won his first major at the 1974 French Open. The professional era’s big superstars had arrived at once.

SIMON DAWSON/Associated Press

1984: This was the last demonstration of the wooden racket stars and bad boy John McEnroe. He was at the height of his career, racking up 13 titles, 82-3 record and majors at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He nearly won the French Open but could not hold a two-set lead against Ivan Lendl.

It was the end of McEnroe’s Grand Slam winning. Though he had switched over to a graphite racket like almost everyone else on tour, this change would symbolize the end of his kind. Finesse, angles and touch would continue on, but power was coming quickly. Next year, Ivan Lendl’s big baseline game had displaced McEnroe’s artistry. Boris Becker was coming and suddenly 1984 was history.

1994: In early summer 1993, tennis fans were wondering if Pete Sampras would live up to the talent and hype that had produced his first and only major win at the U.S. Open. He closed out the year with the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles.

By Wimbledon 1994, Sampras was completing his greatest run, four Grand Slam titles in five attempts, a stranglehold on the No. 1 ranking and the reality to the rest of the tour that Sampras would rule the rest of the century. Never again would rivals Jim Courier and Michael Chang win a major. Stefan Edberg and Ivan Lendl were finished, and Boris Becker had one last gasp still remaining. One man would rule them all.

Vincent Thian/Associated Press

2004: Maybe you've heard of Roger Federer. The young Swiss talent had risen to fame by defeating Pete Sampras at 2001 Wimbledon, and he matured to win this title in 2003. At the dawn of 2004, he was one of several champions vying for the top, but with no clear-cut dominator.

Everything changed forever in 2004. Federer crushed the tour for three Grand Slam titles and sent out the memo that he would rule the ATP. He would also play a lefty Spaniard named Rafael Nadal for the first time that year.


Most Likely Scenario for 2014

Parity is trying to crawl its way into men’s tennis. In 2012, its four biggest stars each claimed one Grand Slam title.

But Nadal and Djokovic sprinted out ahead in 2013, and it was Nadal who had his first multi-Slam season in three years. Most pundits and fans maintain that these two will battle for the No. 1 ranking and most of the Grand Slam hardware in 2014.

Wawrinka’s Australian Open victory makes it very unlikely any player will win three Grand Slam titles in 2014, but that doesn't mean a seismic shift cannot happen. The question is how it can happen:

  1. Maybe the 28-year-old Wawrinka wins another Slam and pioneers a breakthrough title for another veteran like Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or David Ferrer.
  2. Perhaps young potential stars like Grigor Dimitrov or Milos Raonic combine for a couple of majors.
  3. One of the Fab Four posts an epic year like McEnroe’s 1984. Could Nadal rally for a pair of majors despite his fragile history of battling through injuries after a great season?
  4. Will Djokovic storm into Roland Garros, grab his title and have his best season in three years?
  5. How likely is it for Federer or Murray to take control of the year’s two faster-surface Slams?

Patterns rarely repeat in the same manner. Currently, it does not appear that a new superstar force in tennis is coming anytime soon, but there could be more minor trends that signal the end or the beginning.

A new French Open champion could signal a seismic shift on clay. Anyone other than Nadal winning this tournament might be starting a new era.

Wimbledon is now perhaps more of a wild card tournament than the other three Slams. Youngsters like Bernard Tomic and Jerzy Janowicz have played some of their best tennis here. Maybe this is where Raonic rides a hot serve, Juan Martin del Potro finishes the job or Federer recaptures some magic. Murray still has questions about his back, Nadal has faltered on grass and Djokovic has proven vulnerable.

The U.S. Open has also operated like an equal opportunity event. There were five different champions from 2008-2012. Somebody new could step up.

Sang Tan/Associated Press

The safe bet is that we will witness the old guard fighting it out for Slams as they see who is healthiest and able to play his best tennis at the right time. But they are no longer a sure thing, and we could get more Wawrinka stories breaking in and grabbing their last opportunities.

It’s an older ATP field of champions, and it appears likely to be that way for at least a couple more years. Nobody's going to show them the door until there is nothing left.

The seismic shift and 10-year-cycle may prove to be nothing with this Golden era of tennis legends.


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