What we learned
Is the era of the 'Big Four' over? How many years does Serena have left? We attempt to answer the pertinent US Open questions
By Alex Williams
Last Updated: 11/09/14 6:31pm
Has the dam finally broken? Many are predicting that in future years we will look back on Marin Cilic’s victory in the US Open as the moment that heralded a new influx of stars to the top table of men’s tennis.
Cilic beat Kei Nishikori in the first final in over nine years which did not feature a member of the ‘Big Four’, a landmark result in many ways.
The women’s game has welcomed plenty of new faces to the grand slam elite this year but at Flushing Meadows it was the the tried and tested Serena Williams who took her third straight title.
So exactly what has fortnight of twists, turns and upsets in New York taught us about the current tennis landscape? We attempt to pick the bones out of it…
‘New generation’ is finally here
‘What we learned’ argued after the Australian Open that Stanislas Wawrinka’s victory in Melbourne did not necessarily herald the end of the ‘Big Four’s’ total dominance of the men’s game. But now, alas, this column has to admit its mistake and yield to the overwhelming evidence after an extraordinary final weekend at Flushing Meadows. Novak Djokovic looked in fearsome form until being comprehensively out-hustled by Kei Nishikori in the semi-finals, while Roger Federer was played off the court by Marin Cilic at the same stage.
Although members of the ‘Big Four’ - former monopolisers of grand slam titles - have been beaten by players outside their cadre at the major tournaments before, there has not been such a significant pair of defeats since the term came into tennis parlance. This year’s US Open final was the first grand slam title match in almost 10 years not to have Djokovic, Federer, Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray playing in it. When one has faltered another picked up the slack. Until now.
There have been other signs too. This year also produced the first two ATP finals between players born in the 1990s, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov continue to rise in the rankings while teenaged Nick Krygios made a mockery of Nadal’s vaunted defences at Wimbledon. Djokovic and Nadal are still setting the benchmark but for the first time there is a host of players who have both the talent and mentality to challenge them consistently.
Serena still dominant when on form
A changing of the women’s guard has also been talked about this year. Serena Williams had failed to even reach a grand slam quarter-final before the US Open, Maria Sharapova had struggled with inconsistency and Victoria Azarenka saw her ranking plummet due to injury problems. If Williams faltered again at Flushing Meadows - her happiest hunting ground in recent years - serious questions would have been raised about her tenure at the summit of the game. The 32-year-old responded with one of the most dominant grand slam campaigns of all time.
Not only did Williams not drop a set throughout the tournament, none of her opponents managed to take more than six games off her in any of her seven matches, which she breezed through in a total of 7 hours 49 minutes. The American’s groundstrokes were simply unstoppable and you would need a heart of stone not to feel sorry for Caroline Wozniacki as she hopelessly chased them around Arthur Ashe Stadium in a one-sided final.
Williams now stands level with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert on 18 grand slam titles and Steffi Graf’s Open Era record of 22 is the next target. Surpassing that will be difficult considering Williams’ age and her recent penchant for inconsistency over the first half of the season, but at the US Open she showed she is still capable of reaching a level none of her contemporaries can come close to.
Women’s game in state of flux
Beside Williams, the US Open continued to produce interesting storylines on the women’s side of the game. Although the tournament failed to produce a maiden grand slam finalist like the year’s other three majors, it did follow the lead of the preceding events by given us a first-time semi-finalist. Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova, who would go on to win the women’s doubles, joined Lucie Safarova, Simona Halep, Andrea Petkovic and Eugenie Bouchard in reaching uncharted territory by making it to the last four.
Bouchard and Halep seem best placed to sustain such success - evidenced by the face they went on to reach major finals this year - but both fizzled out in the early rounds at New York, perhaps showing they are not yet ready to play at a high level throughout the season. Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova both fell relatively early, the former to Makarova and the latter to Wozniacki, a player written off by many as a completely spent force before the New York fortnight. The tournament reinforced the impression given by the rest of the year: that the big tournaments are wide open without Williams, Azarenka and Sharapova having not been consistent enough to maintain their status as the most prominent of the secondary challengers.
Murray performance hard to analyse
The British No 1 ends the US Open having made a step forward but plenty of questions still remain over a player who has dropped outside the world’s top 10. Now almost a year removed from back surgery, Murray clinched his first victory over a top 10 player since he returned to the Tour from his injury absence. The win was achieved in some style as well, Murray confidently seeing off the dangerous Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets in the fourth round.
In the quarter-finals he went toe-to-toe with Novak Djokovic for two thrilling sets before fading away as the world No 1 went on to complete a four-set victory. Murray was ‘out-physicaled’, rather than outplayed by Djokovic. If he had been able to keep up after the second set, he was hitting his forehand so sweetly that he could well have pulled off the upset. For Murray, who also suffered from severe cramps in his first-round match with Robin Haase, the relative lack of conditioning must have been a concern, especially as Kei Nishikori more than matched Djokovic in that regard in the next round.
Whether he can reach the top of the game again may well depend on if he can reach the same level of fitness he did prior to surgery.
Bryan brothers the best doubles pairing ever
Doubles does not tend to get the accolades it deserves these days but the victory of Bob and Mike Bryan certainly struck a chord with the American public in the closing days of the US Open. The American twins won for a fifth time together at Flushing Meadows - their 16th grand slam victory as a pairing and 100th title overall.
Afterwards they embarked on an extensive media tour of New York City, gaining some much-deserved exposure for their often overlooked achievements on the court.