Professional tennis has been ruled in recent years by an elite handful of players who have been jousting among themselves for the rights to the sport’s most coveted hardware.
Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, along with Andy Murray more recently, have combined to win 38 of the past 42 Grand Slam titles since 2004. And when it comes to the French Open, which begins Sunday in Paris, Nadal’s supremacy has been rarely challenged, with eight championships in nine years.
But winds of change have started to kick up a little dust. Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and other talented young players are beginning to challenge the existing order. Journeyman Stan Wawrinka crashed the party in Australia and has climbed to No. 3 in the world, reducing 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer to the role of second-best player in Switzerland.
Could a changing of the guard finally be in the offing after a decade of dominance? Maybe, but don’t expect the old guard to go down without a fight.
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“I think there’s definitely some signs that the outsiders, the contenders, are more than just pretenders at this point,” ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe said. “That being said, if you go down the list of who has won not only the majors, but the Masters events, at least on the men’s side, it’s pretty much the same, the same two guys. Federer has had a darn good first half of the year as well. But Nadal and Djokovic are the two players to beat, clearly.
“That being said, even if you look at their results this year on the clay, they’ve been threatened a lot more often. Obviously, they’ve still been able to win. Nadal, at least for him, has had a relatively unsuccessful clay-court season, only winning one big event, getting to the finals of another. If you look at their results match in, match out, they’re certainly getting threatened a lot more.”
No. 1-ranked Nadal’s lone clay-court title this year came in Madrid, where he was all but beaten by No. 10 Nishikori, a 24-year-old rising star who became the first Japanese man to reach the top 10 this month. Nishikori dominated the first set against Nadal, was up a break in the second at 4-1 and appeared to be cruising when he aggravated a back injury and eventually retired after three games of the third set.
Nadal began to find his form in Rome, only losing to Djokovic in the finals 4-6, 6-3, 6-3. That was something of a positive for Nadal’s clay-court season, which has been marked by quarterfinal losses to fellow Spaniards David Ferrer in Monte Carlo and Nicolas Almagro in Barcelona. Those were rare occurrences for Nadal, who has won 168 of 180 matches and 23 titles at the French Open tune-up tournaments of Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome since 2005.
But it is on the red clay at Roland Garros where Nadal has been at his best. The 27-year-old is 59-1 since his first appearance there in 2005. His only loss came against Robin Soderling in 2009.
Djokovic has been the only player to consistently exploit any Nadal weakness. The No. 2-ranked Serb has won four of their past eight meetings on clay since 2011, including the victory in Rome two weeks ago.
Djokovic, however, was hampered early in the clay-court season by a wrist injury that forced him to skip Monte Carlo. And the six-time Grand Slam winner has lost the past two years to Nadal at the French Open, including last year’s thriller 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7.
Also playing well are Federer, the 32-year-old father of four who is the only player other than Nadal to have won the French Open since 2005, and Murray, who has won two of the past six Grand Slam titles and pushed Nadal to three sets in the quarterfinals in Rome.
But some of the best tennis of the clay-court season has been played by some players who are starting to live up to some lofty expectations.
Nishikori, coached by former French Open champion Michael Chang, won the clay-court tune-up in Barcelona and had victories over Raonic, Feliciano Lopez and Ferrer in Madrid to reach the finals.
Dimitrov, a 23-year-old Bulgarian coached by Roger Rasheed, won in the clay-court event in Bucharest, Romania, last month and reached the semifinals last week in Rome, and the big-serving, Canadian 23-year-old Roanic, who pushed Djokovic to three sets in the semifinals in Rome, enters the French Open ranked No. 9.
“I think there’s such a tremendous pool of talent when I look on the men’s side,” said seven-time French Open champion Chris Evert, who is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first of her 18 Grand Slam titles in Paris this week. “The way that Andy Murray played last week, the way that Raonic played last week, Nishikori all year, Dimitrov, the way he’s come on, I think it’s incredible.
“But I agree with Patrick. I think when you look at the top two, Nadal and Djokovic, they’re not letting anybody in. They’re not opening the door yet. But in two years’ time I think it’s going to be a different complexion.”
On the women’s side, there are also plenty of challengers, but it is Serena Williams who continues to the rule the game with an iron fist and a massive serve.
If healthy and focused, Williams has no equal, even on clay, once considered her weakest surface. She arrives in Paris as the defending champion and looks in peak form, having defeated 2008 French Open champion Ana Ivanovic and French Open finalist Sara Errani in the semifinals and final, respectively, to win the Italian Open last week.
“She’s still dominating.” Evert said. “She gets injured, a few losses, but still the dominant player. But you have a rich pool between Li Na, [Simona] Halep, Maria Sharapova and Ivanovic.
Sharapova won at Roland Garros in 2012, and she defeated Halep in the final in Madrid and Ivanovic for the Stuttgart title before making an early exit in Rome after losing to Ivanovic in the round of 16. Sharapova, however, is 2-16 against Williams and hasn’t beaten her on any surface since 2004.
Ivanovic, who won the French Open in 2008, is making a bid for comeback player of the year. In addition to pushing Williams to three sets in the semifinals in Rome, she reached the final in Stuttgart before losing to Sharapova. Ivanovic defeated Sharapova in the round of 16 in Rome.
The No. 4-ranked Halep of Romania shot up the rankings last year with six titles, second only to Williams. She also reached the finals in Madrid but pulled out of Rome with an abdominal injury.
There will be plenty of challengers in Paris. Young and talented, but yet to prove they have what it takes to push their way all the way to the top. And the old guard will not step aside easily.