Once King of Clay, but can he still play?

As the weather outside gets warmer, sports can finally move out of the hockey rinks and basketball courts and play outside. The Major League Baseball (MLB) season just began this week, and although there have been tournaments in warmer climates all winter, the Professional Golf Association (PGA) and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) will begin their seasons in earnest over the coming weeks.

The first major tennis tournament for the summer is the French Open, which is always played on the clay courts of Roland-Garros in Paris. The tournament, which begins May 19th and ends June 7th is highly prestigious and the best players in the world are always present. Despite the strong competition involved, Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal has managed to dominate the tournament over the last decade winning a record nine French Open titles and earning the nickname “The King of Clay.”

While he has remained the ruler on clay, Nadal has begun to lose some of the luster he once had over the past several years. He has frequently suffered knee pain, and he has also faced a few early-round exits in major tournaments. This past July, Nadal lost to Australian teenager Nick Kyrgios in the fourth round of Wimbledon. This upset came only a year after Nadal lost in the first round of Wimbledon to the unknown Steve Darcis of Belgium.

There is no doubt that Nadal is still a transcendent player, and when he is healthy there are few players in the world who can compete with him. Yet with the exception of clay-court tournaments, Nadal has begun to seem mortal. Nadal once had a chokehold on the number one singles ranking in the world, yet now he finds himself ranked number five. However, he is not the only tennis superstar who has begun to decline in recent years.

It is difficult to actually pinpoint a year, but since around 2008 men’s tennis has been commanded by the “big four” stars of the game. The group includes Andy Murray from the United Kingdom, Roger Federer from Switzerland, Novak Djokovic from Serbia and of course Rafael Nadal. From 2008 until about 2013 it was almost a guarantee that one of these four would be the champion of every major tournament. In those years there were twenty-four major tournaments, and the “big four” managed to win twenty-two of them. It almost became boring watching the early rounds of tournaments since it was so rare for one of these players to face an upset. Even if one of them did, it merely meant that the other “big four” players had an easier path to the title. Although the “big four” are still prominent, 2014 was the first year in a long time when the competition began to open up. Last year Swiss player Stanislas Wawrinka won his first major at the Australian Open, and last September, Croatian player Marin Cilic won his first major at the U.S. Open. The most amazing thing about the U.S. Open last year was that the final did not consist of any of the “big four” since Federer and Djokovic had both lost in the semifinals.

This year may be the first time in a while where there will be some serious doubt with regard to the “big four.” That being said, Djokovic is still unquestionably the best player in the world and his singles ranking reflects that. Djokovic will likely be the favorite at every tournament he plays in this year. Also, Nadal is still “The King of Clay” and he has a good chance of winning the French Open for the tenth time.

The outlook is not so bright for the other two members of the “big four.” Although he is still an excellent tennis player and an amazing athlete, Federer will be turning thirty-four this August and is certainly past his prime. Federer, currently the number two ranked player in the world, has not won a major tournament since Wimbledon in 2012. Although he played in the Wimbledon final last July, he ended up losing to Djokovic in an epic five-set match. This past January, Federer was upset by Andreas Seppi in the third round of the Australian Open. The loss ended Federer’s eleven-year streak of advancing to the semifinals or better at the Australian Open. Federer will still be a major threat at all of the tournaments he plays in this year, but he is beatable.

Murray has probably been the biggest disappointment over the last year. In 2012, Murray went from being known as the “fourth best player in the world” to being a superstar. That year Murray made it to the finals of Wimbledon, won the gold medal at the Summer Olympics which were played at Wimbledon and won the 2012 U.S. Open. In 2013 Murray won Wimbledon, becoming the first British Wimbledon champion since Fred Perry in 1936. In 2014 Murray fell off somewhat, failing to reach a single grand slam final and fell out of the top ten singles rankings. Although, clearly Murray has been inconsistent in the past and this year could see him rebound.

Again, the reign of the big four has certainly not come to an end, however, time is starting to get the best of them and other younger players are emerging. Bulgarian player Grigor Dimitrov has been labeled “Baby Fed” due to the fact that he shares a similar playing style to Federer, utilizing a one-handed backhand. Dimitrov, who is only twenty three years old is currently ranked number eleven in the world and has had impressive victories over the likes of Murray and Djokovic. Another rising star to watch is the Canadian Milos Raonic who is currently ranked number six in the world. Raonic, who is six-feet and five inches tall, takes advantage of his large size to hit incredibly powerful serves and groundstrokes. His aggressive play has led him to become the first Canadian to finish an ATP season ranked in the top ten. With new star players emerging such as these two along with several others, it will be interesting to see if the members of the “big four” can hold on to their spots at the top.

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