In this era of the Big Four, the merciless patricians of men’s tennis, the US Open has been the kindest of the grand slams towards the plebeians of the tour.
Back in 2009, in the heydays of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, New York, the city of opportunities, saw a gangling 20-year-old Juan Martin del Potro fight back from a set down to beat Federer, the French Open and Wimbledon champion that year, and become the first grand slam winner not answering to the name of Federer, Nadal or Novak Djokovic since Marat Safin’s triumph at the 2005 Australian Open.
|Marin Cilic of Croatia serves to Andy Murray of Great Britain during the final of the Western & Southern Open tennis championships at the Linder Family Tennis Center in Mason, near Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, Sunday, August 21, 2016. Tannen Maury / EPA|
Those three – Federer (11), Nadal (6) and Djokovic (1) – had won 18 majors on the trot before Del Potro’s crazy win at a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium brought that amazing streak to end.
Then in 2014, a year that started with Stan Wawrinka’s stunning win over Nadal in the Australian Open final, Marin Cilic drubbed Kei Nishikori in the US Open final to deal a further blow to the reign of the Big Four.
That 2014 US Open was the first grand slam final since the 2005 Australian Open, where Safin had defeated Lleyton Hewitt, not to feature a member of the Big Four. For 38 majors in succession, at least one of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Andy Murray had reached the final of a major. In 24 of those, both finalists were members of the illustrious club.
The 2014 US Open, then, can be deemed as the turning point in this struggle against the domination of the Big Four, and New York is the capital of what we could possibly describe as the "99 per cent" movement of men’s tennis, because two of the four grand slam triumphs not involving any of that elite group since the 2005 Australian Open have happened there. Wawrinka has accounted for the other two: the 2014 Australian Open and the 2015 French Open.
The Big Four are still here, of course, but are not the collective force they once were. Injuries have jinxed Nadal in recent years. Federer, meanwhile, is dealing with possibly his greatest adversaries – the growing number of candles on his birthday cake and, for the first time in his career, injuries, which have forced a premature end to the Swiss’s 2016 campaign.
Djokovic, the undisputed world No 1, has looked fallible since completing an emotional career grand slam at the French Open in June, although Murray haswon Wimbledon and the Rio Olympic gold this year.
Murray’s 22-match winning streak, however, has just been brought to an end by the 2014 US Open champion Cilic in the final of the Cincinnati Masters.
The Croatian, who parted ways with long-time coach Goran Ivanisevic following his Wimbledon quarter-final exit, replacing him with Murray’s former coach Jonas Bjorkman, looked in absolute control as he cruised to his first ATP Masters 1,000 title in straight sets, becoming, alongside Wawrinka, only the second active player outside the Big Four to win both a grand slam and a Masters 1,000 title.
"I felt that this week I played really great tennis," said Cilic, whose Cincinnati triumph has brought a streak of 18 straight Masters titles for Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray to an end. "That’s obviously a big sign for me for moving forward."
Djokovic was not present in Cincinnati, and both Murray and Nadal were probably exhausted following the Olympic Games, but Cilic’s triumph should add some spice to the US Open starting on Monday.
The presence of world No 142 Del Potro adds to the intrigue too. The Argentine, who along with Cilic is the tallest grand slam champion in history at 1.98 metres, has been given a wild card following his heroics in Rio, where he was responsible for Djokovic’s teary first-round exit and Nadal’s semi-final loss.
Notmany were thrilled with that decision. As Steve Johnson, the No 1-ranked US player pointed out, the decision to give Del Potro a wild card could leave "a lot of American fans upset" if he beats one of the top home players in the opening round.
The ceremony for the men’s draw then promises much excitement. So buckle up. Allured by the spirit of New York, Cilic and Del Potro, both giant-killing former champions, could really liven up the US Open.