Rome’s 2014 Italian Open is just another example of gradual change in the ATP. Never mind that top stars like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are currently the standards, or that Roger Federer has recalled and burned the obituaries the media created last year.
There will always be more attention on the stars. When they are winning, gallons of ink are rolled out for endless eulogies and legacy discussions. When they lose, the headlines shout out that something is wrong, as if the French Open were to dye its courts blue.
But there is another side, and perhaps more important than the aging and injuries that have taken shots at the stars. Second-tier players are Top 20-talents who are closing the gap at the top with more emboldened play.
Profile of Talent
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that anyone in the Top 100 is a world-class player with elite talent. Take someone like Jurgen Melzer. He was a golden talent in the late 1990s, winning the Wimbledon junior title in 1999
Melzer is now 32 and has had a nice career. He’s a crafty left-hander who can cut all kinds of slice and volley with soft hands. He defeated Novak Djokovic at the 2010 French Open to land in the semifinals, and he reached a career-high ranking of No. 8 in 2011. If he only had the big weapon, or had played in another era, perhaps he could have been a Grand Slam winner.
Now he is playing for lunch money as No. 67, but he was good enough to push Andy Murray in the third round this week, falling 7-6, 6-4.
Turning the Tide
Many of the Top 20 players are developing better game plans to attack the stars. For instance, Djokovic’s blueprint to defeat Nadal has been modified by the methods of Alexandr Dolgopolov, David Ferrer and Kei Nishikori.
They have forced Nadal to run for more wide forehands. They have carved out sharper angles. Above all, they crush any ball hit short, and they powder all lazy floaters in the middle of the court.
Second-tier players are strengthening their belief. Recently, nobody has demonstrated this better than No. 3 Stanislas Wawrinka, who in tandem with Coach Magnus Norman has specifically cited confidence as being the engine in his drive to the top.
Other players also sense that they can break down the fortress walls that have long separated the Big Three from feeble attacks. When they defeat a top player, they use words like “belief” and “confidence."
"Confidence" has become an expression of sorts, a way to explain everything and nothing at all. It’s an all-purpose term that expresses: "I’m feeling good. I defeated my opponent because I played well, not because he beat himself."
"Confidence" is also used to feed the press and forego lectures about tennis Xs and Os. It’s a state of mind that is manifest through actions and body language, and it's well understood by observers.
Best of all, it becomes self-fulfilling. The player who talks enough about confidence will inevitably feel it grow within himself. He can bring this magical power onto the tennis court. Armed with belief, he will be tough to beat. He is ready for war and willing to battle for the next huge win.
Other players are also improving their risk-efficiency. This means taking a more aggressive shot at the right time. If Philipp Kohlschreiber trades groundstrokes with Djokovic and waits for his opportunities, he will be blown off the court by a baseline barrage. He must create his advantages and deal from a position of strength.
Risk-efficiency also pressures the opponent or takes away the opponent’s preferred patterns. If talented but turbulent Jeremy Chardy can get the time to pull his racket back and whip his forehand, he can produce a tremendous combination of heavy topspin and speed; he can trouble his opponents in multiple ways.
Chardy upset Federer with more risk than others are willing to take (and through windy conditions that fouled up both players). It was more difficult for Federer to set his feet inside the baseline for the forehand that he wanted.
Dangerous Any Given Match
Few players have the consistency to win big titles, but many can win one big match against a top star.
The combustible No. 17 Ernests Gulbis will not last for a two-week run at the French Open title, but one great middle-tournament match could knock off one of the top players.
Nishikori has questions about his durability, but would anyone want to play him in the fourth round?
A big-serving performance from No. 10 Milos Raonic or No. 11 John Isner could wipe out one of the top contenders.
And when the second-tier players collide, it’s anyone’s match. At Madrid, World No. 6 Tomas Berdych defeated No. 14 Grigor Dimitrov. One week later, Dimitrov returned the favor at Rome against Berdych.
Nadal and Djokovic are still favorites to win the Italian Open, but it’s also less of a surprise when they do struggle. Nadal was flirting with a loss against Mikhail Youzhny, down a set and a break before storming back to vanquish the No. 16, 6-7(4), 6-2, 6-1.
At the French Open, we will also see the stars endure survival matches before the final weekend. The title cannot be won in the first week, but it can be lost. Survival against the second-tier players will be necessary.
But there are plenty of caution signs now lining the road to Roland Garros. The way 2014 has traveled, it could be the wackiest French Open tournament in 10 years.