Was this the begining of the end? Yeah, every Grand Slam not won by Roger or Rafa throws up this inevitable question. Such instances are bloody rare. We witnessed one such instance in January, when the top two couldn’t get the act together to reach the second Sunday of a Grand Slam. The next two tournaments in Dubai and Indian Wells didn’t end up in the trophy cabinets of the Swiss maestro or the Spaniard. Yet, is it time to start thinking of the end of the Roger-Rafa era? It could very well be. But hold on, will you?
The beauty of the tennis season is that the clay-grass season lies right at the centre, sandwiched amongst the hard court legs. And that is a major reason why one shouldn’t write off the big two yet. The red dirt belongs to the Spaniard, as much as the green lawns belong to the Swiss. More importantly, they are second best, and by a distance, on the surface the other is best at. If one were to fail, its more than likely that the other would be there to pick up the spoils. Its as if they are looking out for each other. Ask Robin Soderling who knows this experience first hand in consecutive finals at Roland Garros. You can trust Nadal to be fully fit come the clay season, and even a misfiring Nadal is tough to dislodge on clay. Federer might look at this season as being that final chance to beat the Spaniard on clay, and when he gets his mind on something, only a Rafa Nadal has managed to stop him. That is, till today.
Where the twist in the tale could very well come from is a young Serb who’s on a hot streak, and looking poised to topple the duopoly at the top. He’s already wrenched away the world no.2 crown from Federer, and has his eyes set on Nadal’s throne in the coming few months. He looks fitter, more agile and most importantly believes in himself to beat the best in the biggest of occasions. Murray still lacks the belief to win the big match on the big day, and that’s why he’s not factored into the equation. But, where for years we have assumed that the name on the cup would be either of the top 2, are we now on the cusp of a new era? An 18-0 start to the season, is phenomenal, and aptly put by Rafa as being better than impossible, no? What’s more, these 18 victories contain 3 scalps of Federer,1 of Nadal, 1 of Murray. Tough to think of a better possible start to the season isn’t it? Yet, by his own admission, Djokovic isn’t doing anything special. He is just being more consistent than the others, moving better than the others, playing the important points better than the others, serving better than the others and returning better than the others. Is there anything else he could do better?
What might stand against Djokovic is that he brings nothing new to the game. His style is based on consistency, and a great backhand. His forehand, with all due respect has nothing to be feared of, nor does his serve have that penetration required to earn free points. Roger succeeded because he changed the way the game was played, and brought with him artistry never seen before on courts. He made no errors on groundstrokes, and came up with magical shots out of nowhere to bamboozle opponents. Nadal brought with him the next generation tennis player, a supreme athlete and a determination to run down everything Federer’s magical wand showered at him. Make no mistake about it, Djokovic possesses immense retrieving skills and phenomenal shot making abilities, but anyone would tell you that in both the departments he falls short of Rafa and Roger individually. If a passing of the baton was really on, it would have been more likely to have gone the way of an individual who would be the prototype of the next generation superstar. Djokovic also has been susceptible to ghost injuries in the past, and that could be a bit of a worry as well for him.
Which brings us back to whether it is really that there is a dent in the Roger-Rafa dominance. 25 slams of the last 30. 35 ATP masters titles. Yet, 3 months into the year, Rafa looks a bit jaded. We all saw the perils of writing him off around the same time last year though. Roger is playing better than the whole of the last 2 seasons taken together, and its not easy to change one’s style of play like he has done in the last few months. With a little luck he can win quite a few more of those slams. One thing is for sure, the Djoker is far closer to breaking the dominance than anyone else in the past 6 years has been.
As Roger himself said after the Australian Open when asked about the passing of the baton: Yeah they say that a lot, let’s talk in 6 months time.
Let’s then decide: Are the kings really dead?