Just this weekend, the two men who continue to attract fans, viewers and inspire the club players reflected on the question of dominance in men's tennis. The world No. 1 and No. 2, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, were not alone in this speculation. A former all-time great, Andre Agassi, also gave his five cents on the matter.
So, what did they say and what's the current outlook for dominance in men's tennis?
The always modest Nadal said that his and Federer's monopoly at the top of the men's game was over and had been over for quite some time.
"In 2005, 2006 and 2007, perhaps you could say there was a bit of a monopoly, but it was down to Federer. I was also there, but a little less. For sure, I think this monopoly ended some time ago. There are many players ready to challenge now" Nadal said.
In this case, I think Nadal is being overtly modest as he often is. After all, he maintained that he wasn't a bigger favourite than Robin Söderling at the Australian Open when he was going for his Rafa Slam. Federer and Nadal have still won a combined 21 slams of the last 24 played. It might be over now, but certainly their dominance didn't end in 2008.
Federer, as always when he doesn't win three slams a year, is being doubted.
This time, perhaps there is something to it, as he hasn't been in a slam final for four consecutive slams now for the first time since 2003. Nevertheless, Federer thinks he's still able to dominate, though he concedes that the top has been looking very good for the past six months and that Novak Djokovic looks the dominant player at the moment.
The No. 1 player for 285 weeks refuses notions of him being surpassed just yet.
And Agassi? Well he sees the game this way:
"I think you’re going to see more winners of Slams this year. I think the door’s starting to open. For a while Nadal and Federer left nothing for anybody else, and now we have a few that are sneaking in, one or two; let’s see if it can continue."
So, three of the all time greats are all sort of saying the same thing:
It's no longer all about Roger and Rafa.
Are they right? Are we witnessing a changing of the guard? Is the field of potential slam winners deeper than it has been since 2003?
Prior to the Australian Open 2010 there was a similar feeling in the air. This slam looked to be the most "open" slam in years. Andy Murray was playing incredibly well, Juan Martin Del Potro had just won the US Open, Söderling seemed to have developed into a contender, Nikolay Davydenko seemed hotter than ever and many considered him a genuine bid for the title and Djokovic was always lurking around.
Yet, in the end, Federer won the tournament in very convincing fashion, giving Murray a huge blow in the process. Nadal won the next three and Federer then finished off the season with some of the most compelling play of the year when he won the WTF.
Asked whether the gap between Fedal and the rest had increased, Federer answered: Perhaps.
One observer wrote he was being polite, and he wasn't alone with this feeling.
Yet only a few months into 2011 the feeling has changed. Djokovic is the in-form playing, undefeated, hardly losing sets and having won five straight sets against the Mighty Fed.
The Australian Open final featured neither Nadal nor Federer, the first time that has happened in a slam since Australian Open 2008.
Del Potro is coming back, Murray was looking very strong until he deflated against Djokovic in the final, Söderling is as strong as ever, young upcoming stars like Milos Raonic and Alexandr Dolgopolov are rising and the ever-grinding David Ferrer is in the shape of his life.
So, are the days of Federer and Nadal's dominance over?
After his Australian Open defeat, Federer said: Let's talk in six months. Point wise, he and Djokovic have done best since Wimbledon last year, yet the way Federer lost to Djokovic this weekend in Dubai surely left many with a feeling of "the king is dead, the king is alive."
While Federer still is good enough to dominate for short stretches of time, as his 2010 fall campaign demonstrated, it is hard to see him consistently dominating the five, six and seven-years younger opponents over the course of an entire season.
I think most existing evidence points to Federer's days dominating men's tennis being over. Even though he has been to the semis or better in his last 11 tournaments, he's lost key matches to Djokovic and the latest one in Dubai in a very lopsided way. He may still win a slam or two and he'll always be in contention for them—but it will be as one of many instead of the overarching favourite.
With Nadal, however, it is another matter.
All existing evidence doesn't point to his days of domination being over. On the contrary, the evidence speaks of a player in his prime winning three of the last four slams and resting firmly atop the rankings in the men's game.
As I pointed out in a recent article, with just a little bit of spin it is possible to argue that Nadal hasn't lost a slam nor a WTF while healthy and fresh since Australian Open 2008.
Just because Nadal yet again lost a match while injured doesn't indicate his years of domination are finished. 2011 may very well be as dominant for the Spaniard as 2010 was.
That said, there's no doubt that Djokovic has evolved quite a bit and Del Potro should be back as a contender at the US Open at the latest. According to Agassi, in the same interview as above, Federer and especially Nadal probably wouldn't have had the same year had Del Potro been around in 2010.
As of now, though, we have no definite reasons to assume that Nadal's days of domination are over. He may be more challenged than he was in 2010, as players like Murray and Djokovic are reaching what should be their prime.
Rather than being finished dominating men's tennis, the more likely scenario to me seems that he will continue at the top one or two (more one than two) and have a variety of players battle it out just beneath him, with Djokovic looking better than everyone else at the moment.
It may even end up being a Nadal-Djokovic monopoly, but that seems a bit too premature to predict just yet.