A pecking order well tuned

Novak Djokovic... how well will he sight the ball in 2013?-AP ?

For the first time since 2003, the top four in men’s tennis split the four Grand Slams amongst themselves in 2012. The world’s first, second, third and fourth ranked players at that particular time won the Australian, the French, Wimbledon and the United States’ (US) crowns — in that order. What can we expect in 2013? N. Sudarshan ponders.

Often it’s the ringside view of things that lends a better perspective than the cursory overall bird’s-eye view. So for a superior understanding of the ‘Big Four’ in men’s tennis, who better to look at than the world’s fifth best player, David Ferrer?

Ferrer in 2012 had his finest year till date. He won a tour-high seven titles, including his first Masters tournament in Paris in November, and his win-loss record read 76-15. He reached the quarterfinals or better at each of the four Grand Slams. Yet, for all the achievements, he ended the year where he started — behind Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal.

For the first time since 2003, the top four in men’s tennis split the four Grand Slams amongst themselves. The world’s first, second, third and fourth ranked players at that particular time won the Australian, the French, Wimbledon and the United States’ (US) crowns — in that order.

With one look it would be easy to dismiss it as something of a stranglehold established by the top four and nothing outside it. However, there was more to it, enough to make the year an epic one in arguably the golden era of men’s tennis.

There were compelling storylines — most within the top four and a few outside — that emerged to make the game richer with each passing day. Of records being broken, history being made and dreams being fulfilled. Of fully formed rivalries continuing to intrigue without having to search for new meanings to define them — like those involving Federer and Nadal and Djokovic — and of a fledgling one taking shape — like the one between Djokovic and Murray.

If Djokovic had dominated the rivalry between himself and Nadal in 2011 — the year in which it really took off — the latter had managed to pull it back in 2012 by beating Djokovic in two of their three meetings before going on to win his record seventh French Open title by beating the Serb for the third time.

On his part, Djokovic won one Grand Slam by beating Nadal in the longest ever final, reached the final of two others and ended the year as World Number one — the year-ending ATP Championships being the icing on the cake. Federer, at 30, ended a two-year drought and won his seventh Wimbledon, clawed his way back to the number one spot in the world and broke Pete Sampras’s record of 286 weeks at the top.

In spite of all this, it was really Andy Murray who stole the show after a summer of disappointment and triumph. At the start of the year, there was a feeling that Ivan Lendl, his coach, had instilled in Murray what no other coach could. The resolve not to crack in situations where the Murray of yesteryear would have.

He went out in five sets to Novak Djokovic in the semifinal at Melbourne last year in a performance which one would have struggled to associate with him earlier. Next came the loss in the Wimbledon final against Federer, again a gutsy effort.

His improvement was rapid and he kept hitting the inner, but it took him until the US Open to hit the bull’s eye. After four hours and fifty-four minutes of mind-boggling tennis, Murray, battling the weather, overcoming physical strain and carrying a nation’s expectations, beat Djokovic for his first Grand Slam title. In between he also won the Olympic gold medal by thrashing Federer in straight sets. The Big Three now became the Big Four.

But Nadal’s absence for almost the whole of the second half of the year due to lingering knee problems since his shock loss at the Wimbledon to Lukas Rosol slightly tarnished what was truly a terrific year for world tennis. Yet he stayed on in the top four, due to the weight of his performances when he was on the court. But the other three played their parts in the spectacle and before the year-ending Championships, they had even head-to-head records against each other.

So going into 2013 what do we expect? Will there be more of the stuff that characterised 2012? Each of the ‘Big Four’ still has a logical chance to be the World number one. Federer is into his 32nd year, but his stupendous technique and unmatchable understanding of the game means that he is still a threat. Djokovic seems fresher than he was at the start of 2012 after a brilliant 2011 and Murray has just come of age and is yet to hit his peak.

However, one thing that is sure to happen, with his withdrawal from this year’s Australian Open, is Nadal’s dropping out of the top four for the first time since 2005. This means one among the tier-two players in men’s tennis — David Ferrer, Juan Martin del Potro, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga — will break into the top four. Will that player be able to withstand a challenge from Nadal as and when he returns?

For inspiration he need not look beyond Djokovic and Murray. When Federer and Nadal established a duopoly at the top of men’s tennis, these two were treated as minor irritants and were often swatted aside like flies. But 2011 and 2012 have shown what one can achieve if he has the drive and backs it up with sheer hard work. With Federer not expected to mount challenges for far too long and Nadal’s comeback looking ever so uncertain, these very players — Djokovic and Murray — will in all probability head the new order at the top of world tennis.

Almost a year back, Andy Bull, in his column in The Guardian wrote about his inability to understand Pakistani spinner Saeed Ajmal’s doosra: “life is richer if you leave room for a little magic here and there.” 2012 gave us such moments of magic with many things inexplicable. Will 2013 deliver the same? The answers will be revealed as the tour unfolds and the quest for the same will begin on January 14. Over to Melbourne.