Andy Murray is the toast of men’s professional tennis. Novak Djokovic remains the sport’s top-ranked player. The rising rivalry between the two is among the top storylines coming out of the 2013 Wimbledon Championships.
If Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer hope to keep the top of the men’s game about the “big four” rather than the “new two,” the duo had better get to work reversing recent trends and elevating their games.
On Sunday, Murray became the first Brit to win Wimbledon since 1936 by besting Djokovic in straight sets at the All England Club. The triumph was Murray’s second Grand Slam victory in less than a year, and his Centre Court battle with Djokovic was the third between the two men in the past four Slam finals.
By stark contrast, both Federer and Nadal were kicking up their heels during the majority of the Wimbledon fortnight following stunning first-week losses.
Those early exits have raised doubts about whether two of the sport’s most dominant stars for the past decade have the game, the health and the energy left to keep up with Djokovic and Murray. Meanwhile, the sport turns headlong into the hard-court season and onward to the 2013 U.S Open in August.
We know the form Murray and Djokovic will bring to Flushing Meadows in about six weeks. Their talent and dominance were on full display the past two weeks at Wimbledon.
Undoubtedly, the sport’s two hottest players will be favorites to meet in the finals of the season’s last Grand Slam, just as they have done in the past three Slams they have competed in together dating back to the 2012 U.S. Open.
Things are far less clear when it comes to Federer and Nadal—the other half of what was the “big four” of men’s tennis—who have combined to win 29 major championships between them since 2003.
Federer hasn't won a Grand Slam since the 2012 Wimbledon, which he took in four sets against Murray, and has suffered earlier-than-expected losses in his past two major championship efforts.
Despite his record 17 career Grand Slam titles, there’s a growing feeling that the window to win an 18th is closing quickly. That's especially apparent given the high level of tennis being played by Djokovic and Murray at the top and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, David Ferrer and Juan Martin del Potro just a notch below.
To be fair to Nadal, he was in pretty good form prior to his Wimbledon wash-out, having won his record eighth French Open title just two weeks before.
That victory capped an active spring for the King of Clay in which he won seven of the nine tournaments he entered after coming back in February from a seven-month layoff due to a leg injury. That layoff cost Nadal an opportunity to compete in the 2012 U.S. Open and the 2013 Australian Open.
While the classy Nadal wouldn't admit it, lingering effects of that same injury as well as his busy spring tournament schedule and grueling French Open run likely played key roles in his early Wimbledon ouster.
With only two weeks separating the end of the French Open and the beginning of Wimbledon, there simply wasn't enough time for Nadal to recover and threaten for a third Wimbledon title. It’s not an excuse for the Darcis loss, but it is an explanation.
The good news in the wake of a difficult Wimbledon is Nadal now has plenty of time to rest, heal and prepare for a significant U.S. Open run.
Provided he didn't suffer any additional injuries during that march through the French Open, and there is no indication that he has, we can expect Nadal to return to form well in advance of the U.S. Open, which he has only won once.
Finding redemption and reversal of fortune at Flushing Meadows isn't quite as clear a task for Federer, who at age 31 is suffering through his second Slam slump in the past several years.
While he's still among the top players in the world, there’s little doubt that the other three members of the former “big four” have moved past Federer. It’s hard to see how he can close that ever-increasing gap.
It’s a fact that the Swiss star now lacks the power of Djokovic and Murray and the court coverage and angles of Nadal. He is having increasing difficulty with other elite players he once dispatched easily.
Before his stunning four-set Wimbledon loss almost two weeks ago to Sergiy Stakhovsky, Federer dropped a quarterfinal match to Tsonga at Roland Garros.
The bottom line: For a man who measures success in terms of Grand Slam victories and has limited his schedule to be prepared for all four majors, Federer has won only two since the beginning of 2010. During that same stretch he has only advanced to one other final—a 2011 French Open loss to Nadal.
It’s not an affront to the greatness of Federer to say he has been passed by Djokovic, Murray and Nadal, all of whom almost assuredly have more Slam triumphs left. It happens to every great champion. Federer himself usurped Pete Sampras years ago.
Neither is it foolish to wonder aloud how much energy and tread on the tires Nadal has left after such an amazing run of tennis since his first Grand Slam victory at Roland Garros way back in 2005. Injuries and physical stress take their toll on an aggressive player like Nadal, and that most certainly has been the case in the past 12 months.
For both elite champions, the upcoming U.S. Open will serve as a measuring stick not only as to whether they remain on or even near the same level as Murray and Djokovic, but also if they retain the hope of adding to their impressive Slam totals.
There’s little doubt that a healthy and rested Nadal does. As for Federer, it’s hard to imagine another championship run from one of the sport’s greatest champions.
That said, two weeks in New York will tell the tale for both.