When Marin Cilic’s backhand winner sailed past Roger Federer, completing a straight sets rout of the five-time champion, Cilic raised his arms in victory, a look of near disbelief on his face.
He had reached the promised land: a Grand-Slam final. Similarly and just hours earlier, Kei Nishikori had stunned the Arthur Ashe crowd with a battling four set victory over world number one Novak Djokovic, by also reaching his first Grand Slam final.
At the start of this year’s US Open, it seemed almost impossible to talk of the final not including Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray. The defending champion Rafael Nadal would have also been a strong favourite had he not had to pull out due to a wrist injury.
The Cilic and Nishikori triumphs mean that for the first time since the 2005 Australian Open, a Grand Slam final won’t include any of the Big Four.
Why such lengthy dominance?
So why has it taken nine years and thirty eight Grand Slams for the Big Four’s monopoly to be broken? Answers can be found in the form of the Big Four themselves. Since Wimbledon, Djokovic’s form has been erratic and below-par compared to his normal scintillating best. Early exits in Toronto and Cincinnati were followed by a flat performance against Nishikori.
Perhaps his mind wasn’t with it as he’s expecting his first child next month. Murray has not been able to recapture his Grand Slam winning form since a back operation last year, failing to even make a final in any event.
Another missed opportunity
As mentioned earlier, Nadal is out injured, with injuries plaguing him constantly, meaning 2011 was the last time he managed to compete in all four majors in a calendar year. Finally, Federer has enjoyed a fruitful 2014, but it’s another year without Grand Slam success, his last coming in 2012 at Wimbledon. He must have thought he had a real chance of finally ending that barren run going into his match with Cilic; however, he was simply outplayed from start to finish.
That leads to the performance of the rest of the field. There is no doubt that Cilic and Nishikori have vastly improved this year, especially under the guidance of their former Major-winning coaches Goran Ivanisevic and Michael Chang respectively.
Others stepping up
Furthermore, 2014 has also seen other players such as Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov and Ernest Gulbis, playing their best tennis to reach Grand Slam semi-finals. To be the best, you have beat the best, and challengers to the Big Four have all raised their games, acquiring unlikely victories at crucial times.
All of this aside though, one thing that’s crucial in the mind of any athlete is belief. For years now, all Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray have had to do was to walk on court and their opponents were beaten before a ball was even struck.
When Stanislas Wawrinka won the 2014 Australian Open, defeating both Djokovic and Nadal along the way, he gave the rest of the tour confidence that such a triumph was possible.
Similarities to Stan
Much like Warwinka, a man who was standing on the precipice of greatness, never quite fulfilling his potential, Cilic has begun to believe that he has a right to win the big tournaments. Cilic never looked nervous or flustered against Federer in only his second Grand Slam semi, despite the magnitude of the occasion and the crowd cheering almost exclusively for the Swiss star.
Similarly, in Nishikori and Djokovic’s third-set tie-break, the Japanese star didn’t flinch at such a critical stage of the match.
With their rivals no longer fearing them, does this spell the beginning of the end for the Big Four? Only time will tell, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see a ferocious comeback from them next year