As we perch on the brink of August, seven months of the ATP calendar have already come and gone. The players began their seasons on the hard courts of Asia and down under in Australia. Then were the back-to-back March tournaments of Indian Wells and Miami, followed by the switch to red dirt for a tour of Europe, culminating in the French capital. We’ve now emerged from the grass-court swing, centered on the All England Club, and the players find themselves looking for success on the hard courts of steamy North America.
2014 has been absolutely fascinating thus far, with many of the players’ form surging up and down, creating different stories every single week. It all really started off back at Melbourne Park, where an earthquake struck the Top Four in the shape of the perennial Swiss No. 2.
Stan Wawrinka showed some signs of emerging from the rest of the pack in New York in 2013, beating then defending champion Andy Murray and almost ousting Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. His time finally came in Australia in January, where he avenged that loss to Djokovic to make the semis. He outplayed a sore Rafael Nadal in the final, defying the odds to win his first Grand Slam title.
What has given Stan that 5 or 10 percent, though, to get over the line in a Slam? Firstly, his coach Magnus Norman installed him with the belief that he could do it, as Pat Cash has suggested to the BBC; he could beat these top guys and belong alongside them. His powerful serve hits its spots; we all know about the beautiful backhand, but his forehand is majorly effective now, too.
It hasn’t been plain sailing since, though, for the Australian Open champion. Apart from a terrific win over compatriot Roger Federer in the Monte Carlo final, there hasn’t been much reason for cheer. A first-round exit at Roland Garros was followed by a pretty convincing loss to Federer in the last eight of Wimbledon. He’s now back down to being the second-best Swiss, at No. 4 in the rankings. No one said it would be easy to steamroll through the ATP field and win title after title.
The usual suspects have wrapped their hands around the other big trophies in 2014. Djokovic dominated March, winning the two hard-court events in Indian Wells and Miami. Then, he shared some of the spoils on the clay with Nadal, who wasn’t quite as unbeatable as usual on the surface he basically owns. Nadal took Madrid, but it was the Serb who claimed the spoils in the Italian capital. But, of course, Rafa came through at Roland Garros for his ninth title there.
The “changing of the guard” motif that has been running throughout this year amongst the media came to the forefront again when the Wimbledon fortnight dawned. The two young starlets who many believe are unlatching the stranglehold of the Top Four on men’s tennis, Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic, both reached the semifinals at SW19.
Dimitrov brutally thrashed a woeful Andy Murray in front of an expectant Centre Court crowd in the quarter finals. Putting aside the defending champion’s weaknesses, it was a confident, assertive performance from the Bulgarian. Under the guidance of taskmaster Roger Rasheed, his fitness and thus his defensive abilities on a tennis court (which are so important to win these days—see Djokovic, Nadal and Murray) have improved dramatically.
Dimitrov and Raonic reaching the semis against Djokovic and Federer, respectively, prompted this BBC article on the possible end of the Top Four. However, fascinatingly, the old timers got it done again, and they made sure that there wouldn’t be a new name on the famous board just inside the Centre Court locker room. Dimitrov pushed the eventual champion extremely hard in their semifinal, wasting four set points in the fourth set tie-break. On the other hand, Raonic was well beaten by the greatest grass-court player of all time. The “aura” is most definitely still there. But whilst it’s still going to take some time for the young boys to break through, Stan Wawrinka has shown that it can be done.
The man who ousted Rafa Nadal in the fourth round, Nick Kyrgios, is another young gun to watch out for. Is he just a one-hit wonder though, a bit like Lukas Rosol?
Jimmy Connors summed it up perfectly (via Sam Sheringham of BBC), with maybe a touch of repetition:
These young guys are not afraid…the future of tennis is great. You have these young guys coming up who think it is their time. Eventually we all move over for the young guys. The older guys now have to fight to hold on to their place and the younger ones will be fighting to get them out of there. It's very exciting.
So, we beat on then to more hard-court events, where those same names will undoubtedly be knocking at glory’s door. With the news that Nadal pulled out of upcoming Toronto and Cincinnati through injury, Novak Djokovic has surely become the even bigger favorite to win the two pre-US Open Masters tournaments.
Roger Federer has rebounded in a strong way in 2014, winning Dubai (beating Djokovic in the process) and Halle, and will definitely have a say in this North American swing. Not getting No. 8 at Wimbledon would have been heartbreaking for the Swiss maestro, but it showed him how he absolutely still belongs at the top of the game. Also, he has won in Cincinnati on five previous occasions and is suited to the quicker surface there.
One man who is desperate to claim a morale-boosting title is Andy Murray. He’s won these next three events before, including the US Open in 2012, and hard-court is his best surface (grass isn’t too shabby either, though) because he’s such a wonderful mover with amazing variety. After a few weeks of solid training in Miami with Amelie Mauresmo, including throwing a barrel of icy water over her head, look for there to be a few tweaks in his game. He certainly needs to be more aggressive than he played at Wimbledon recently and attack second-serves on the return as he did in Paris.
The Scot doesn’t have loads of ranking points to defend in these upcoming tournaments and then absolutely nothing post-New York (as he was injured in 2013). Thus, it’s a pivotal time to do well and get back to the heights of the previous two seasons. A ranking of No. 10 is an insult to a man of Murray’s level. Britain is holding out for a big last few months of 2014 from Andy.
So, lots of questions can be asked: Will Rafa be fit and ready for New York? Can Novak get back to his 2011 domination? Can Andy and Roger get in the mix? Stan to add another hard-court Slam? Or will one of the young guns finally smash into that quartet of greats? It’s going to be a hectic, exciting and maybe unpredictable end to the 2014 ATP calendar.