It was never meant to end how it did; whimpering out of the spotlight rather than the glorious climax we were promised. But with Roger Federer’s withdrawal from his highly anticipated final against Novak Djokovic, end the 2014 ATP Tour did. As a result of this, Djokovic was crowned champion of the World Tour Finals for a third successive year and this victory, despite the ambiguous circumstances, only helped solidify the Serb’s position atop the summit of men’s tennis; a position he now seems to have an increasingly singular hold over.
Despite this, Djokovic has not been the only story of 2014 – far from it. This was a season characterised by emerging talent, maiden Grand Slam victories and the shake-up of tennis’s ‘Big Four’. It is hard to argue that, for the last five or so years, men’s tennis has been blessed with some of the finest players to ever swing a racquet, battling it out in their prime. In the period 2004 to 2013, Federer, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray had a stranglehold on the game, winning 37 out of a possible 40 Grand Slams.
But, in 2014, for the first time since 2003, two players outside of this ‘Big Four’ claimed Grand Slam titles: Stanislas Wawrinka at the Australian Open and Marin Cilic at the U.S. Open. Couple this with the ever-improving young talent on tour, such as Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov, and it is not crazy to think that the quadrumvirate could face a possible decline in 2015. While it is hard to picture Djokovic falling from grace anytime soon, the rest of the ‘Big Four’ finds themselves in much more precarious positions.
Federer has had a renaissance year, and despite finding himself without a Grand Slam title in 2014, his consistency has seen him become the closest challenger to Djokovic’s throne. His work with Stefan Edberg and new found confidence at the net saw the Swiss veteran rack up five tournament victories, and narrowly miss out on a record eighth Wimbledon title. However, age can catch up to even the greatest of players and Federer is no exception. He has been written off more times than boy-racer’s Vauxhall Corsa, only to bounce back and show that an old dog can indeed be taught new tricks, but his withdrawal last weekend serves as an ominous sign that perhaps he may be starting to feel the effects of a schedule involving eighty-plus matches per season. How long can we realistically expect Federer to keep defying the odds?
Federer’s injury woes are of course nothing compared to Rafael Nadal’s however. The brutal ferocity of his tennis, akin to that of a raging bull standing in the red paint section of a B&Q, has helped cement his place in the pantheon of tennis greats, but it has undoubtedly come at a price. Repeated knee injuries, likely brought on by his rampaging style have plagued his career and, more recently, problems with his wrist have seen him forced to take time away from the court. A fit and healthy Nadal is unquestionably a match for anyone on the circuit, but his struggles to stay healthy for a whole season means he could find it difficult to consistently compete at the top as he nears his 30th birthday.
And then there’s Andy Murray; for so long the odd one out in a group of multi-Slam winning champions. It was not long ago that his rivalry with Djokovic was being seen as the battle that would define tennis for the foreseeable future. But, as Murray struggled following back surgery and a split with coach Ivan Lendl, Djokovic continued to improve and the Scot now finds himself trailing behind the leading pack. This was perhaps best exemplified at the Tour Finals when Federer ruthlessly dispatched him in under an hour to inflict his worst defeat for seven years. Fatigue may have played a part but it signified the gulf in class between Murray and the very best. A significant turnaround will be needed if Murray is to return to the top.
With the likes of Wawrinka, Cilic, Nishikori and Raonic all looking to upset the established order, the stalwarts of the game face a stern test to remain the dominant force in men’s tennis. 2015 could prove to be a defining year for them all, as they look to stop Djokovic from turning the ‘Big Four’ into a more solitary group.