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Are grand slams more open than ever?

Stanislas Wawrinka's shock victory over Rafael Nadal raises question of whether the domination of the big four is over.

Last updated: 30 Jan 2014 16:05
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Rafael Nadal's loss to Stanislas Wawrinka at the Australian Open 2014 could signify the end of an era [Reuters]

In the late 1990s Swiss sensation Martina Hingis burst onto the grand slam scene at the tender age of 16. Despite her age, she notched up nine grand slams in a period of ruthless dominance. When Hingis lay down the racket in 2002, it wasn’t long before Roger Federer replaced her in the affections of Swiss tennis fans.

At the start of 2014, it seems Switzerland’s run of tennis success stories may not be over.

On Sunday Stanislas Wawrinka stepped out from Federer's shadow to become a grand slam winner.

Wawrinka’s first major win lifts him to world number three and above Federer in the rankings. But his triumph over Rafael Nadal is remarkable for many other reasons.

Wawrinka's mind was scrambled because it is very difficult to play an injured opponent in any match, let alone your first grand slam final.

Richard Evans, tennis commentator

Firstly, few saw it coming. In grand slam tennis, only the brave and foolish back a player outside the big four.

This is for very good reason. For the last ten years, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray have dominated the four slams. Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro was the last player outside the big four to win a grand slam at the 2009 U.S. Open.

There have been 16 grand slams, and over four years, between Del Potro and Wawrinka's victories.

Another reason the win will be remembered is the way Wawrinka blasted Nadal off the court during the first set. It was an achievement few players have managed and showed he had the best backhand in the game.

Unfortunately for Wawrinka, his feat comes with the sidestory of Nadal's injury in the second set.

Nadal said in his post-match press conference 'It is Stan's day' - but winning against an under-par opponent is rarely ignored in sport.

"It would be sad if there is an asterisk put against Wawrinka's name as Australian Open champion because of Rafael Nadal's injury," tennis commentator and sports writer Richard Evans told Al Jazeera.

"The Swiss who is obviously benefiting from the shrewd advice of coach Magnus Norman played brilliantly in the first set and, as things turned out, that was enough to win him the match.

"Wawrinka's mind was scrambled because it is very difficult to play an injured opponent in any match, let alone your first grand slam final. He got his head together again in the fourth set and thoroughly deserved his victory after putting out defending champion Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals."

Grinding it out on the ATP circuit for over 10 years, Wawrinka has left it late, at 28, to deliver his best.

The turning point came with the arrival of former world number two Magnus Norman to his team last year. Wawrinka went on to impress at the U.S. Open reaching the semi-finals and in under a year with his new coach has beaten Djokovic, Nadal and claimed his first grand slam. Wawrinka always had the ability but it seems Norman has given him the belief.

Open Opens

Wawrinka's victory should also give belief to players outside the big four.

Early signs suggest they could all struggle this season. Roger Federer is not the spritely youth he once was, Andy Murray is returning from back surgery, Nadal is fighting a body prone to breakdown and Djokovic is getting to grips with new coach Boris Becker.

"Hiring Becker has surprised many, and raised a few eyebrows, especially as Djokovic was on an unbeaten streak from last year. It was his worse Australian Open performance in four years, his forehand looked erratic and he was getting riled - just like Becker did in his pomp," BBC sport reporter Simon Mundie comments.

"It seems strange for Djokovic to change a winning formula. And with Murray and Federer out of the top four - they are now going to bump into difficult players in the quarter-finals. It will not be easy for them to get back up the rankings."

These are all good signs for veterans Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych who are still without major wins, and youngsters Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic who are rising through the rankings.

Unpredictable times lie ahead for the men's game. And if Serena Williams doesn't return to her scintillating 2013 form, the same can be said for the WTA. Both male and women grand slams appear more open than ever.

Other than Williams, a consistent feature of the women's game has been the insignificance of age. Last season Serena became the oldest player to reach world number one at 31, and on Saturday 30-year old Li Na claimed her second grand slam victory.

"Li Na is one of the more remarkable stories in women's tennis. Having almost quit last summer the work she has done with Carlos Rodriguez since has contributed hugely to a second grand slam success", according to tennis broadcaster and former professional Nick Lester.

Defeating 24-year old Dominika Cibulkova convincingly in the final, China's popular star is now eyeing up more grand slam victories and her coach Rodriguez believes Li Na will go far at Wimbledon. With her victory speech revealing a fun and amiable personality, more grand slams for Li Na could be great for the women's game. The speech, which resembled a comedy stand-up at times, quickly went viral as she thanked her agent for 'making her rich' and her husband who she said 'is a very nice guy' and 'lucky to have found her.'

With two popular outsiders lifting the trophies in Melbourne - the first grand slam of the season has not disappointed.

Next up, the French Open - where Rafael Nadal is unbeatable. Or is he?

 

Joanna Tilley is a freelance journalist for Al Jazeera English. You can follow her on Twitter @JoannaTilley or on her blog http://mythoughtonsport.blogspot.co.uk

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

 


 

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