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Sony Open offers glimpse at an ATP without Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer

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Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer

Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer last week in their first quarterfinal meeting. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

When Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal took to Stadium Court last week for their Indian Wells quarterfinal, it didn’t feel like a match. It felt like an event.

With Guns ‘n Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle greeting the players and the well-heeled crowd packing the corporate seats and suites, tennis was brought to life. Tennis Channel had sent out press releases detailing its coverage plans for the match all day. Writers on the outskirts of tennis had tweeted their intentions to stay in for the night to watch. And as the match began, not a single journalist in the BNP Paribas Open press room was at his or her desk (a rare sight), choosing to sit in the stadium seats instead.

An hour and a half later the two men shook hands after yet another Nadal win, this time over an injury-hampered Federer 6-4, 6-2. The match was, in their relative terms, a dud. And all I could think as the two met at net for the 29th time in 10 years was, “What are we going to do when they’re gone?”

For 10 years, Federer and Nadal have set the tone for this Golden Era. Federer started it, of course, with his dominance from 2003 to 2007, until Nadal completed his quixotic quest to chase him down. In a seven-month period from 2008 Wimbledon through the 2009 Australian Open, Nadal went from being a clay prodigy to finally beating Federer on his own turf, in that epic Wimbledon final and then a few months later in the Melbourne final. That latter loss brought Federer to tears, a very public display of frustration, disappointment and sadness. Looking back, that final was the last great match of their storied rivalry. In 10 matches since then, six were won in straight sets and neither Grand Slam meeting went five sets. So was it a surprise that their clash in Indian Wells, their first in a year, didn’t live up to the pomp and circumstance? Not really.

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Of course, in the last two and a half years the spotlight has been yanked away from Federer and Nadal — at times seemingly by sheer force of will — by the impossibly fit, flexible, powerful and just plain gutsy Novak Djokovic. It speaks volumes that Djokovic was riding an 18-match winning streak into Indian Wells, after winning the Australian Open for the third straight time, and no one blinked. This is how spoiled we are in tennis these days, that the No. 1 player in the world can go through the first part of the season undefeated and we shrug because, “Meh, we’ve seen this before.”

But if the last 10 years needed a throughline, it’s been the story of the chase. Federer being inspired by Pete Sampras and working to match and surpass him. Nadal, full of the utmost respect for Federer, crafting his game to try to catch him and be part of the same “Greatest of All Time” conversation. Djokovic retooling his diet and training — even his personality — to turn the “Big Two” into a “Big Three.” And there’s Andy Murray, who’s made it a quartet.

Those have been the riveting storylines that have carried men’s tennis to new heights. Which is why as I sat down earlier this week to look at the men’s draw at this week’s Sony Open in Miami with the sinking feeling that it was a glimpse into the future, one without Federer and Nadal.

The Nos. 5-8 — or “The Little Four,” as ESPN.com’s Kamakshi Tandon once dubbed them — undoubtedly have the talent. David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have shown through consistency (Ferrer), bracket-busting wins (Berdych, Tsonga) and breakthrough runs (Del Potro) that they have the tools to compete for the biggest titles. And yet, they really haven’t. Between them they have just three ATP Masters 1000 titles, all won at the Paris Indoors at the end of the season that typically sees a depleted field and a lightning-quick surface. Del Potro is the lone major winner — the U.S. Open in 2009 — but he has yet to win a Masters title and made only two Masters finals.

There are matchup and consistency issues that can help explain each of “The Little Four’s” deficiencies, but it comes down to pure belief. Even when Nadal was struggling to solve the Federer puzzle on grass and hard courts, you never got the sense he didn’t believe he could find the answers. The same applies to Djokovic and Murray, two players who had their struggles and doubts but whose self-belief was hard to question.

The same can’t be said for the 5-8s. How many times have we seen them fight valiantly against Big Four members only to lose the first set and disappear for the rest of the match as though their not-quite-good-enough fate has already been determined? It’s a frustrating trend, and it’s the reason why Berdych’s recent wins over Federer or Del Potro’s back-to-back victories from a set down against Murray and Djokovic last week in Indian Wells are so invigorating. Maybe, just maybe, they’re starting to believe.

Given the weakened Miami field, I’m not sure what the results will tell us about the state of the current game. If this is a glimpse into the future, will Djokovic and Murray simply romp to the final and then duke it out to see who has the better day? Or will the field step up to embrace this opportunity? Here’s hoping for a week where the field keeps the top competition honest.

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  • Published On Mar 21, 2013
  • 7 comments
    ReymondoLeon
    ReymondoLeon

    As well as their transcendent tennis, the factor that has elevated the Federer/Nadal/Dojokvic era to sports legend is their contrasting styles and personalities.

     

    Federer, a right-hander who's Swiss poise, coolness and grace represent the traditional tennis game elevated to it's pinnacle. All the effort and power focused into a rapier wielded by the most skilled hands in the history of the game. Freeze the camera on any of his shots and you have a breath-taking glimpse of tennis as it must be played in heaven. 

     

    Then came Nadal, a Spanish lefty with the most extreme and exotic topspin ever generated. He flails his forehand with such force that the ball strike is like the crack of a whip, the racquet whirling a full 360 degrees round his head. At the cost of his own health and longevity, his game was painstakingly forged into the one weapon brutal and unyielding enough to reach Federer's Olympian heights and crack his ice with fire.

     

    And then Djokovic appeared. A gangly, quirky Serbian mimic. At first the fool in the royal courts of Federer and Nadal. Entertaining but fragile, with his career seemingly doomed by the era he was born into. But his many defeats and frustrations weren't breaking him. Slowly, ever so slowly, they were turning him into something new and exotic. Like a silver T-1000 compared to the Terminators of a previous generation - his elasticity, speed, and all-round game herald the future, and at their peak are unmatched today. Yet despite his rise, Djokovic's supple, humorous personality remains. The joy of the game and the joy of pleasing the spectators radiate from him, whether on the practice courts with awestruck children or claiming major titles under the most extreme pressure.

     

    Murray has added no personality, passion or fundamental change to the game.

     

    Tsonga has the fatal Gallic weakness that has afflicted generations of French players - he doesn't care enough.

     

    Ferrer cares a great deal, but was not blessed with the physical gifts necessary to reach the top.

     

    And while Ferrer has not quite enough power and height, Del Potro seems to have too much.Lacking Nadal's durability, his game is breaking down before he can achieve his full potential. 

     

    Tom14
    Tom14

    The problem seems that players turn pro at a young age and often with much hype and not allowed to grow. When results do not come quickly they are sent to the underrated columns. When and if these players succeed the top players who they began with are older or retired marking the next generation as weaker then the preceding generation. Doesn't it seem that Tomic, Raonic and Harrison seem to have been around for ever?

    Buhweet1
    Buhweet1

    I would think the flaw in your article is the age factor. Remember Andy and Nole are practically the same age as Rafa and have yet match his the records he has set, much less that of the Fed-X.  Of the "Little 4"; David is good but he is Rodger's age. Who's to say who will fill the void by those two GOATs playing at the same time. I don't see it in the next crop.

    Chanidry Lundy
    Chanidry Lundy

    By the way...! My fave...tennis player in the world..is..one & only...'RAFAEL NADAL'... Any questions?...:)..I thought so...:)

    SingleAlley
    SingleAlley

    Please remember Rafa is only one year older than Murray and Novak.  Despite rumors that Rafa is retiring after 2016 Olympics (which was denied by his camp?) I believe he would be competing against Andy and Nole after that.  I personally think that in fact the next couple of years, the rivalry is going to be Rafa and Nole, while Andy Murray will not be much of a factor until he proves that he is not a one-slam wonder like the other retired Andy who also won multiple Master Series shields but only one major title. 

    SingleAlley
    SingleAlley

    By the way, let me clarify my position: my favorite tennis player is Andy Murray. 

    MaglaverasVasilis
    MaglaverasVasilis

    @SingleAlley

    EXCUSE ME SIR...how u can put loser murray in the same league with THE BIG THREE ?

     There is not a big four. there was a big two from 2005 to 2009 and then in 2010 it became a big three with the addition of nole.

     Murray was far away from those 3 players until last summer when he won the olympic title and especially when he won his first (and so far last) slam in US OPEN beating nole in the final although he almost lost it again even though he was 2-0 sets ahead and nole won the next 2 sets only to be beaten in the fifth set.

     So murray won 1 SLAM and in australia he beat a tired roger in the semis in 5 sets for the first time in a slam AND THIS GIVES U THE RIGHT TO EQUALIZE LOSER MURRAY WITH THE TRUE CHAMPS ?

     Are u nuts ?

     If murray deserves to be in the state u described then also del portro deserves it who beat roger in the US OPEN final in 2009. both have 1 slam title and u seep elevating murray and decreasing del portro.

     Your post is a joke.

     THERE IS NO BIG FOUR. ONLY A BIG THREE. get over it.