By Richard Evans
It’s the supporting cast that changes – often surprisingly –but there seems there is not much to be done about preventing the stranglehold that members of the elite Top 4 in the men’s game have on Grand Slam Finals.
There are eight spots open every year for a player to battle his way through to a Slam final. That makes 40 over the past five years. In a show of consistency that the game has never seen before from a quartet of super stars, 35 of those places have been claimed by either Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray. Only Robin Soderling with two final appearances at Roland Garros; Andy Roddick and Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon and Juan Martin Del Potro who became the only one to actually grab a title, in 2009, at the US Open are the sole infiltrators.
So the game for the past few years has been to try and figure out who might be the most likely gate crashers. At the start of the US Open, the favorites would have been David Ferrer, Berdych, and del Potro with American hopes resting, not unreasonably, on John Isner. But only Ferrer made it as far as the quarterfinal. For the rest, Berdych went down in round four while del Potro and Isner lost a round earlier.
And, as we noted in an earlier column
, any chance of a Young Gun making a breakthrough vanished before you could blink with Grigor Dimitrov, Jerzy Janowicz, Bernard Tomic and Kei Nishikori winning just one match (Tomic) between them.
So step forward those players who offered some sort of challenge and, in doing so, provided a US Open that was not big on thrills and upsets with most of its talking points. Apart from the 32-year-old Lleyton Hewitt who delighted his supporters with his shock second round win over del Potro, there were four well known names who stepped up – Richard Gasquet; Stan Wawrinka; Tommy Robredo and Mikhail Youzhny.
All four are battle hardened veterans who have been regular members of the world’s top twenty for years and, as such, all four represent what is happening in the men’s game at the moment. With the bar having been set so high by the quality and consistency of the Top 4 and the physical level a player has to reach to compete at the summit of today’s game, this is the group, ranging in age from 27 to 31, who are best placed to make the next step up – provided they can maintain their desire and work out new ways to improve their game. All four showed, at the US Open, that they were capable of doing that.
They can only have been inspired by what Rafael Nadal has achieved this year. Returning from seven months off with his knee problems to win a string of clay court titles in South America and Europe was a fine effort but, given his career-long dominance on clay, not totally surprising. What has come as a shock is the way he has swept through hard court tournaments at Indian Wells, Montreal, Cincinnati and the US Open.
Just as he did when he sets about conquering Wimbledon’s grass, Nadal has adapted his game to hard court tennis and become much more aggressive. It speaks volumes for the relationship he has with Uncle Toni that the pair of them have always been able to adapt and advance.
Sometimes a tennis player is blessed with being able to find a life-time coach as a child. Youzhny is another who, like Nadal, has never felt the need to change. Boris Sobkin started working with him at the age of 10 and Youzhny is still getting better – his quarter final showing in New York was his third Slam quarterfinal since 2010, the year he also reached the semi-final at Flushing Meadows.
Others need fresh voices to guide them. And there was a co-incidental link in the fourth round match that saw Gasquet take on the only under 24 player to make any sort of a mark on the championships, Milos Raonic. Gasquet is now coached by Riccardo Piatti and Sebastien Grosjean while Roanic has recently taken on Ivan Ljubicic as his coach. Ljubicic was, for 17 years, mentored and coached by Piatti.
I asked Ljubicic how much he had taken from Piatti’s teachings into his new job. “Well, I consult Riccardo on everything, not just tennis things,” the Croat replied. “The most important thing he taught was patience, not just in tennis but generally in life.”
So it is not surprising to hear that Ljubicic is “satisfied” with the gradual improvement that has been discernible in the 22-year-old Canadian’s game over the past few months. Despite winning titles on the ATP tour, Raonic has yet to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final but the more he and his coach develop their relationship the sooner that moment, and bigger ones, will arrive.
“The most difficult aspect I have found about coaching is finding the balance between listening and giving orders,” says Ljubicic. “It requires a great deal of understanding of the person so that you can make the right calls.”
Gasquet has clearly benefited from Piatti on that score and, with the confidence he gained from reaching his first ever Slam semi-final, there is no reason to suppose that the shy Frenchman can take more steps forward and do further justice to his beautiful game.
Connoisseurs of the beautiful game were delighted to see players with one handed backhands progressing again in a Slam. Wawrinka not only shares that technical aspect with Gasquet but is also benefitting from a new coach. Magnus Norman’s input was visible in the way Stan attacked Murray during his startlingly decisive straight victory over the defending champion and he carried that aggressive attitude into his semi-final with Djokovic, too, much to the Serb’s discomfort.
If this US Open has taught us anything, it is that, in the men’s game, experience and the best advice are priceless commodities and that, armed with both, there is always time to improve.
Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 160 Grand Slams. He is author of 16 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." He was the play-by-play commentator for BBC Radio at Wimbledon for twenty years.