The cat among the Big Four pigeons!

Published : Jun 20, 2015 00:00 IST

Stan Wawrinka has opened up new possibilities in men’s tennis, but the women’s game is still controlled by Serena Williams. By Priyansh.

Around the end of last season, the majority of the tennis fraternity acknowledged that a storm was brewing. But some remained defiant. Stanislas Wawrinka and Marin Cilic had broken the glass ceiling to loosen the Big Four’s hold over the major titles. The detractors, including Roger Federer, were still coming to terms with the breakthrough.

“I don’t feel a huge threat from them. There are many good players from 5 or 6 to 20 (in the rankings). But they’re also somewhat exchangeable from 30 or 40. There are a lot of dangerous players around there. But I feel like if I’m playing well I can control the field to a degree,” said the Swiss legend, last July. To be fair, his argument seemed more reasonable then.

Now, only a deluded man will argue that the age of the Big Four isn’t over. As Wawrinka wrapped up the Roland Garros men’s singles title on June 7, it was the surest sign of the arrival of a different time. It may not bring the highest points of the Big Four rivalry, but on the evidence of the French Open final, tennis is going to enjoy it.

Last time when Wawrinka won a Slam, the 2014 Australian Open, his moment of glory was somewhat spoilt by the injury suffered by Rafael Nadal in the final. This time, no such murmurs were heard. The appreciation was delivered wholeheartedly. The significance of the win was amplified when one considered the opponent.

World number one Novak Djokovic had won 28 matches in a row and was gunning for a career Slam. After he had defeated Nadal in the quarterfinals, it would have taken a brave man to bet against a Djokovic triumph. It took some brave tennis to deny the Serb his glory.

43, 60 and 60 look like goal-scoring figures that Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Neymar may achieve next season, but they are the number of winners hit by Wawrinka in the last three matches of his successful Roland Garros campaign. The slightest hint of challenge was dismissed by this brave brand of tennis that the Swiss deployed.

Wawrinka’s fearlessness demands admiration. After all, it would take nothing short of courage and bravery to win both Slam finals a player has played. Although Wawrinka is seen as a relative outsider in the world of top tennis stars, there’s little doubt that he’s leading the charge for those who rarely feature among the favourites for a major tournament.

The 30-year-old has finally stepped out from the shadow of his illustrious compatriot, Roger Federer, as well. Although his resurgence has arrived late, it’s a testament to the developments in science and medicine that players can extend their prime and overall career by a few years. A decade ago, it would have been nearly impossible for anyone to match Wawrinka’s achievements.

This French Open win, however, should not blind us to the more human aspects of his play. Wawrinka remains prone to the occasional collapse and one could argue that the romance of his success would lessen if he were to become a more consistent performer like one of the Big Four.

While consistent success remains a target worthy of one’s aspiration, it eludes most players on the tour. Yet, it shouldn’t dim the value of the success they achieve. Instead, it may even add glitz to the glory. When consistency has eluded one for years, it must be a wonderful feeling to discover it for a fortnight.

The accompanying adrenaline rush remains difficult to fathom, but it perhaps feels like a cold shower on a hot summer day. Awashed in glory, one may finally get a perspective on those past years in the dark. Wawrinka, though, takes it to a further level. He isn’t satisfied with earning success by presenting a glimpse of what he can achieve. Rather, he unleashes his entire repertoire; the backhand down-the-line, the crosscourt forehand, the big serve and what not.

All these gifts were on display in Paris over the fortnight. You wondered whether he’d run out of them at some point. He didn’t. Instead, he kept bludgeoning the ball until you believed he can do it all day long. It was a measure of the man’s belief that he didn’t allow little failures to cloud his wide vision. More than Wawrinka’s big game, it was his big determination that ran out the winner.

Djokovic will be back but, like other members of the Big Four, he’ll be warier than before. There was a sense that the Serb’s Jedi-like calmness was disturbed by Wawrinka. Not only that, Wawrinka has also disturbed the long-standing order in men’s tennis.

However, Wawrinka’s inspiring tale of success is yet to give rise to a female counterpart. Women’s tennis continues to be Serena Williams’ bastion. While it may not match the quality or entertainment provided by the male competitors, it has a unique story to tell.

With 20 singles titles, Serena is only two behind Open Era record holder Steffi Graf. The rest of the active players on the women’s tour have 21 titles. It’s an age of Serena’s domination, the kind of control that doesn’t seem to be loosening with time.

It’s interesting to note the trajectory of the American’s career. After winning her first Slam at the US Open in 1999, Serena won five more titles by the time 2003 Wimbledon had ended. A barren phase followed — only two Slams were won of the next 20. At that point, before the 2008 US Open began, few would have dared to say that Serena would one day threaten Graf’s record. She was about to turn 27 and the twilight of her career was to follow. Or so most of us thought.

Since then, however, Serena has added 12 major triumphs to the list of her achievements. Defying age, prejudice and the occasional challenge, she has made every Slam tournament a foregone conclusion. The conventional wisdom goes — if Serena’s in the mood, good luck to everyone else.

That’s where the enigma of Serena lies. She replicates a Federer-like consistency but with a more human side to her play. In the lead-up to her latest triumph, Serena battled a flu that seemed to take her to the brink of collapse. Unlike those humanoids that have dominated men’s tennis for years, she could be brought down by a quotidian problem. Yet, Serena separates herself from everyone else by rising above such obstacles.

When it seemed Lucie Safarova had taken a decisive advantage at 2-0 in the deciding set, Serena just responded by winning the next six games. No sweat. It was almost as if she decided to care about the match and it went her way.

This is what makes one believe that status quo will remain in women’s tennis. For now at least, Serena looks good enough to deny her human fallibilities a win. No matter how many times she’s pulled down, she fights back and returns stronger. Three more Slams and she’ll be the strongest contender for the title of the best women’s tennis player ever.

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