Big Four No More? Reflections on a Potential Changing of the Guard

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BIG FOUR NO MORE? Some say a sea change is beginning to occur in men’s tennis. After years of dominance, do the big four—Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, and Murray—no longer have a stranglehold on the game? Is a younger generation finally arriving? The murmurs began to pick up volume at the Australian Open, where 22-year-old Grigor Dimitrov made his first Slam quarter and gave Rafa a scare, and veteran Stanislas Wawrinka defeated both Djokovic and Rafa to become the first player outside the big four to win a major since 2009.

That theory has gotten some backup at Indian Wells, with younger players taking out older Slam champs. Defending champ Rafa was knocked out in his second match by talented 25-year-old Alexandr Dolgopolov. Today, the door cracked open further, with current No. 4 Wawrinka beaten by South African Kevin Anderson, and Murray defeated by another heir apparent from the Dimitrov generation, 23-year-old Milos Raonic. After his victory over Murray, Raonic spoke about the early signs of a changing of the guard:

QUESTION: Is there a belief system changing in the locker room [now] that players like you [and] Dolgopolov are starting to win matches against the Murrays and the Nadals?

MILOS RAONIC:  Yeah, there is. The moment that put the most light on it happened earlier this year, with Stan beating Novak and Rafa in the Grand Slam stage … Everybody in that top 10 range, [and] also a little bit outside trying to break through, took a deep breath and said, “Why can’t that be me?”

Q: Is it actually a topic of discussion amongst you when you’re in the locker room or player lounge areas, or is it more like a perception that you all feel that way?

MR: I don’t know if it’s a topic of discussion, but it’s something that sort of gets around, never being said directly. I guess the best way to feel it and to describe it is [that] guys going into a match don’t feel like they’re facing somebody that’s invincible … They know that the window is still very small, but at least they see a window of opportunity.

MUSCULAR, SINEWY, FAST, EXPLOSIVE: That would be Novak Djokovic.

BILLIE JEAN SPEAKS OUT: Billie Jean King met with the press in Indian Wells, and after her visit to Russia as part of President Obama‘s delegation to the Sochi Olympics, she continues to criticize Russian president Vladimir Putin‘s anti-gay laws. “They’re OK’ing hate—you can’t OK hate in any society,” she said. “But we have to work on it at home, too. It’s easy to look that way [to Russia], but we also have to look at ourselves in the mirror and make sure we keep doing the right thing.

I met a gay kid there who was going through a very hard time. He was getting bullied every day … I was told a story of five kids who had been friends since childhood and one of the kids came out to the other four. They killed him that night. There’s a lot of challenges from a human rights point of view.”

Inside Tennis asked King whether Maria Sharapova‘ should use her high profile and influence to fight for change in Russia. “You have to understand, Putin is very powerful, so she has to be very careful,” she said. “I was in the locker room when she won Wimbledon [in 2004], and he called her. He said, ‘I would like for you to go out and talk on Russian TV.’ She hopped to it. She’s still connected to her homeland. It’s not easy. It’s easy to talk about it, but not easy to live it.”

THIS ONE’S FOR BUD: In the wide world of tennis, there is only one Bud Collins. The legendary and colorful commentator and historian received the Alan King Passion for Tennis Award at Indian Wells today. BNP Paribas Cpen and IW Tennis Garden CEO Ray Moore presented the award to Collins. “I personally met Bud in the ’60s when I was just arriving in the United States as a teenager from South Africa,” said Moore. “I have never met anyone who has the knowledge and passion for the game that Bud has. Of course, his dress code had never been seen [before].  His commentary on PBS in the late ’60s is the foundation for the game we know today.”

Collins addressed the crowd at Stadium One with characteristic warm humor, cultural flair, and an eye for changes in the game (and the greater world). “Thank you very much Ray,” he said. “I’ve known Ray since when he was a player for South Africa, and he’s very brave. As a resident, he stood up against apartheid.

I don’t know what I’m doing on this warm floor (laughter), because I live in Boston. Boston is having another blizzard today. I’m delighted to be with you. I’ve been a very lucky person to get this award, remembering that he [entertainer Alan King] was a master, a marvelous portrayer of things that make us all laugh.

This tournament—I’ve been coming here for about 40 years and it’s different this year. It’s like Coleridge the poet said, the dome of Kubla Khan. We’ve gotten two domes—this court, and next door is number two. I think you’ll find that everyone who comes here will realize that, with the weather and all the other benefits, this is the finest place for tennis on Earth.

Now you know that I could stay out and talk all afternoon (laughter). You’re very nice to show up … It’s just a magnificent place to be. I hope you’ll be here the rest of your careers, because this is the place to watch and enjoy this great sport of tennis. Thank you.”

QUOTEBOOK:

“It’s tough to pinpoint … it’s a feeling. Just seeing other guys do well probably makes it a little bit easier to believe and to feel like [the tour’s] not just dominated by the top guys … It’s exciting … Seeing some new faces—I think that’s great for tennis.”—Kevin Anderson

“People are believing a little bit more that you can go out and beat the [top] guys. They’re not running through tournaments like they have in the past. You know, for me, I have always thought I can take the court and beat anyone.   think everyone is sort of realizing that, and maybe closing the gap a little bit.—John Isner, the last American man in the draw at Indian Wells.

“I knew they could think for themselves, I knew it.”—Mary Carillo on the fact that neither Agnieszka Radwanska nor Jelena Jankovic called for their coach to come out on court during their quarterfinal match.

“I’ve never been fast enough to get fuzz on my shoes.”—Lindsay Davenport, after a discussion about fuzz on the BNP Paribas Open court.

SI SI SIMONA: Romania’s Simona Halep was the WTA’s Most Improved Player in 2013, winning six tournaments. Halep was the only player on either tour to win titles on clay, grass, and outdoor and indoor hard courts. With a flexible forehand, strong defense and point construction, and clutch consistency, she’s built on that performance this year, reaching the Aussie Open quarters, winning Doha, and now reaching the semifinals at Indian Wells with a run that includes a victory over another, younger—and more hyped—rising player, Eugenie Bouchard.

In the press conference after her fourth-round win over Casey Dellacqua, Inside Tennis asked Halep (who says she’s eating at The Cheesecake Factory this week) about some Romanian tennis connections:

IT: One famous story in tennis is about how Serena’s and Venus’ father Richard was watching your manager, Virginia Ruzici, when she won the French Open in 1978.

SIMONA HALEP: I heard this, yes. Virginia told me about this.  Because of her they started to play tennis, I think, the Williams sisters. Yeah, it’s amazing to hear this. I’m happy that I have her close to me, to be my manager. We already have six years together. I think she will be my manager maybe all [my] career.

IT: So if Virginia didn’t win that tournament, maybe women’s tennis would be completely different, yes?

SH: Maybe (smiling). I don’t know. Yeah, maybe, but the Williams sisters are great champions. They are the best, I think. Serena is the best.

IT:  A tough question—who creates a better tournament and is better for tennis, the Romanian banker, Ion Tiriac, with his Madrid tournament, or Larry Ellison, the computer billionaire here? What’s a better tournament?

SH: What’s the better tournament, Madrid or this one?

IT: Yes. And who has more of an impact, Tiriac or Ellison?

SH: Tough question (smiling). Oh, I think both of them. For me, it’s like Tiriac is Romanian and it’s good for us, because there I had a chance to play on main draw [through a wild card in Madrid] when I couldn’t.

Here, it’s one of the biggest tournaments in the world, and, you know, I want to thank everybody who is doing everything [at] this tournament. It’s amazing here … So both of them are very important for us, for the tennis women.  And, yeah, it’s really great to have big tournaments.

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