Fabulous four go missing in action

Whatever, it's bizarre. Of the four men to precede ROGER FEDERER as the best player in the world, only one sits in the top 10. They're losing to players they'd blush to lose a set to, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

Blame it on injury. Put it down to a virus. Explain it as a repercussion of marriage and babies. Fault it on slowly leaching self-belief. Shrug it off as coincidence.

Whatever, it's bizarre. Of the four men to precede Roger Federer as the best player in the world, only one sits in the top 10. They're losing to players they'd blush to lose a set to. Between them they haven't won a tournament this year. And at 24, 25, 23 and 26 it's not quite that they're reaching for their dentures in the morning.

Marat Safin isn't even the hottest Russian any more. Nor Andy Roddick the highest ranked American. Nor Juan Carlos Ferrero the Spanish flavour that counts.

Only Lleyton Hewitt leads his nation's rankings and some of it is because a tennis country that once produced Grand Slam champions from a slot machine has fallen on hard times. Tennis needs someone to pound a few holes into the big Swiss cheese, but nope, everyone's leaving that heavy lifting to Rafael Nadal. For God's sakes, said a fellow called Pete who knows a little about these things, serve big, attack, don't let Roger own the baseline. Do something, dudes.

Do something? Hell, as of now some of these major talents (and all four are Grand Slam winners) have turned to such comparative mush they'd buy an entire continent a drink if they could get the ball back five times a row. As individual slumps go maybe they're not unusual, but collectively it's perplexing.

Ferrero, world No.1 in September 2003, the year he won the French, is now No.15, though it's a fair distance from No. 98 he got to in early 2005, a year in which he got further at Wimbledon than at Roland Garros. Huh? The Mosquito was all buzzing brilliance, now he merely gets swatted around, a lightweight hero who's just not the same player since chicken pox came calling in 2004 and he hurt his wrist. Say Safin and you shrug, you sigh, you throw up your hands, which is a fair impersonation of him on court. When he won the Australian Open last year (the last Slam won by any of the four), we giddily proclaimed him as the new Safin, the sober, steady, steely Safin, whereupon he did not win a tournament for the rest of the year.

Sure his knee has been prodded by surgeons more times than Henin-Hardenne has failed to apologise for quitting the Australian Open final, and a big man on a bum leg can only go so far, and he didn't play since August last year till after the Aussie Open this year.

But there's still a suggestion that the maverick Moscowite's real injury is far south of his legs. In the mood, he, No. 1 in November 2000, is the only man on hard court with Federer's measure. Now only if he can find it. If you're feeling uncharitable and, alas, it's not that hard for some when it comes to Lleyton Hewitt, you'd say the 2001 world No.1, former champion at the US Open and Wimbledon, was only filling the vacuum from the time Pete started to wane and Roger got ready.

Forget it, the kid, still only 25, can play, an under-sized, rugged warrior, who'd leave the Energiser bunny wetting its pants, and owns a heart bigger than his racket-head. Hewitt got hitched to an actress last year, had a baby girl, had his foot surgically repaired, his ribs broken, and the chip on his shoulder that provokes seemed to get blunted.

For long everyone said big lungs are only temporary compensation for a small game, and when Hewitt fell to fellows called Phillip Kohlschreiber this year, and Andreas Seppi, guys he ate for breakfast once without needing to even burp, something was up. Hewitt's train runs on the fuel of consistency, but he was missing lines, making friends too often with net, and if you're not going to smack winners then you can't afford to marry error. It's why he's No.12.

But of all four players, Hewitt, because he probably grins mirthlessly in his dreams while prying away a doll from a pack of terriers, is best equipped to return to the top five. He's got to two finals this year and has still got some snarl left in his stomach, enough you think to scratch, scuffle, claw his way into some sort of future contention.

Could Andy Roddick? We don't know, no one knows. He's still up there at a No. 4, but it's a ranking that belies a freefall that has its roots in a first-round US Open loss to Giles Muller. When the affable American, No. 1 in November 2003, said grimly last month, "I'm not the captain of team fun right now", it's serious.

Roddick was never the win-on-points, jab-away boxer, he was the go-in, one-two-you're-down pugilist, a left hook of a serve followed by a right cross of a forehand.

Then people started getting up from the canvas. Then Roger did a Muhammad Ali on him. Then he got confused. Stay back or go forward? Big shot or rally? Inside the baseline or play from the linesman's lap?

It didn't help you can buy a big forehand over the counter these days. Or that returning radars are more sophisticated. Or that as obvious flaws go his backhand is up there with Maria Sharapova's manners (go up a break, she'll take a toilet break). Only 23, a likeable kid has not reached a final in five tournaments this year, blown his top in a match and changed his coach. Maybe, though, Roddick's onto something when he says: "I tinkered and I'm getting back to untinkering."

For all the minor malfunctions of technique, the miscalculations in strategy, the ultimate betrayal arrives in the mind. Questions, questions, questions where once only answers flowed. On top of their games, everything is instinctive, talent released without thought, or as Hewitt put it recently: "I've just got to go out there and play on auto pilot like you do when you're in the top two or three in the world."

Now the natural has become difficult, doubt impeding the journey from idea to execution, a universe of certainty invaded by second guessing. The great player in control thrives on tension, eats it, wears it, he beckons the big point for it defines him.

Hewitt articulated it finely when he said: "At the moment it feels like I've got to work it a little bit more and push through some of the tougher times, where when you're playing your best tennis you go out there and it's a matter of you know what's going to happen on the big points and you expect to win those, and that's probably the biggest change."

Be a hero, write them off, look silly. Safin and Hewitt are arguably great players, Roddick and Ferrero very good ones.

They are not foreigners to brilliance and, hopefully, for a game crying for a rivalry, have only temporarily strayed from a familiar road to victory.