Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Next Generation

By Angus Saul

The Big Four have been around for a while now.

At first, it was just Roger Federer, head and shoulders above the crowd, but soon he was joined by the teenage Rafael Nadal, and the two dominated both the world rankings and the grand slams, giving nothing away for three years.

Not long after came Novak Djokovic, and then Andy Murray joined the fray. These are now long established as the Big Four — top in the world rankings and the main contenders in every slam.

Of course, occasionally someone tries to rock the boat. Robin Soderling, with two good runs at the French Open, along with a few indoor titles, broke into the top four for a brief period. But this was him playing at full pelt, on top form, whilst Andy Murray chose to play exhibition tournaments instead of ranking tournaments at the beginning of the year. Once the Australian Open came and went, Murray was back on top.

Juan Martin Del Potro has a similar story, though his trophy cabinet now boasts a grand slam trophy. Murray is the only member of the top four without a major title to his name, but he backs up his status in the Big Four with seven Masters 1000 titles. The huge Argentine has none.

Contenders like Soderling, Del Potro, and others like David Ferrer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will come and go, but the Big Four are resolute in their places.

But the time of such dominance is surely waning. Murray and Djokovic are both 25, and while they have a few years in them, and they can hope to challenge for the big titles, they can't expect to do that week-in week-out.

Federer is 31. He has proven that he is still capable of winning grand slams at his age, but how long will that last? Two years? Maybe three?

Rafael Nadal has always been a ticking time bomb. Because of the sheer physicality of his game, and the knee injuries that have plagued him, it was always certain that an injury would call time on his career, rather than an inability to keep up with the youngsters. His recent knee problems bring an air of doubt. Will he ever be fully fit? Will he return to No. 1 in the world?

These four players have dominated for so long now, that it is almost impossible to foresee a future without them. But in time they will fade away, and someone will have to take up the mantle.

I don't think we will see an era like the current one for a long, long time. To have four players so far ahead of the rest of the pack was unprecedented, and so I think it better to go back to a more commonly seen rivalry between two players. Rivalries like Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi; Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. Isn't that something to be excited about?

Who will these two players be? Well, for now, it is impossible to predict. We have to look four or five years ahead to see who will be dominating, and therefore one of my two may still be 15 or 16, meaning they are not yet on the main circuit.

But if I am to pick one player who has the potential to go a long, long way, it is Milos Raonic.

In his recent match against Andy Murray, he showed that he has a lot of firepower and a lot of weapons. He has the ability to be a great champion, and to win multiple slams.

He does have a lot to improve on, however. He is exceedingly cocky (didn't do Andy Roddick any harm, of course), stating in a press interview before the match that he wouldn't have to adapt to play Murray, but Murray would have to change to play him.

Maybe that was the case, but the problem was that Murray had the ability to change his game, and he did. He had a formula for beating Raonic, and he executed it perfectly. Murray changed his game because he had a Plan B. Murray has Plans A all the way through to F, and can change his game to suit each player. Raonic has only a Plan A.

His Plan A is good, mind you, but he just needs a little more variation in his game, and some of those close losses suddenly become comfortable wins.

My other player, for now is Bernard Tomic. He is a year younger than Raonic, and has all the same weapons. Tomic's Achilles Heel too is an over-confidence. That, and his laziness. I have never before seen a player whose footwork is sloppier than school tapioca pudding. He swats at the ball from the baseline "T," and doesn't come in to finish off points when he should, preferring to stay back and risk being played into a corner.

But Tomic's worst flaw is that other players find him so easy to read. He tries to second-guess where his opponent will serve, and moves early. Top players see that movement, and simply serve to the other corner.

For these two players, improvements must be made, but they have the skills to be champions. Whereas many pundits are tipping Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock to make a big step forward, I am not seeing it just yet. Good players, but just lacking a certain je ne çais quoi. But after all, these are the pundits who backed Ernests Gulbis, Kei Nishikori, and Marin Cilic to win slams. And we saw what happened there, didn't we?

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