And then there were two.
Men’s tennis has been dominated for the last three years by talk of a “Big Three” and a “Big Four.” Which camp you fell into depended on your feelings about Roger Federer’s decline and Andy Murray’s emergence. But as the 2014 tennis season kicks off in earnest with the year’s first Grand Slam in Melbourne on Monday, there’s the top two players in the world—Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic—and then everyone else.
Federer ceded his position among the game’s elite by winning just one title in 2013 and failing to reach a single Grand Slam final for the first time since 2002. At 32, he’s fallen to sixth in the ATP rankings and has shown few signs of regaining the form that carried him to an Open Era 17 Grand Slam championships.
Murray solidified his spot as one of the sport’s top athletes by becoming the first Briton to win the men’s championship at Wimbledon in nearly 80 years last July—his second Grand Slam title in as many years. Since then, the 26-year-old Scot has been hobbled by a bad back and hasn’t advanced beyond the quarterfinals in any of the four tournaments he’s entered.
This leaves the two men who have won 12 of the last 15 Grand Slam championships: Nadal and Djokovic. Perhaps even more so than when the two met in the finals at the 2013 U.S. Open back in September, the stakes in Melbourne will be incredibly high. For Djokovic, it represents a chance to win his fourth consecutive Australian Open title, and his fifth overall—no man in the Open Era has won more than three in a row or four altogether. No one other than Aussie Ray Emerson, who dominated the tournament during the 1960s with six titles when entry was still restricted, will have a claim to Djokovic’s honor as the greatest men’s player that Melbourne Park has ever seen.
For Nadal, the stakes are even grander. With a win in the finals, not only will he avenge his epic six-hour, five-set loss to Djokovic in 2012, but he will also become the first player in the Open Era to win two career Grand Slams. The knock against Nadal’s claim to the title of greatest ever has been two-fold: he still trails Federer in Grand Slam titles, and he’s never been able to dominate on hardcourt. A title down under will bring him to 14 Grand Slam championships—tied with Sampras and just three behind Federer, and also give him a total of four hardcourt Grand Slam titles. Those achievements, coupled with winning records against his two main rivals—Federer (22-10) and Djokovic (22-17)—should place him firmly in the Greatest of All-Time conversation.
Legacy discussions aside, picking a winner between Nadal and Djokovic is as difficult as it’s been since the last time the two met in Melbourne. Nadal dominated for much of the 2013 season including on hardcourt, going undefeated through his U.S. Open championship and wracking up a total of 10 titles along the way. With his victory over Djokovic in Flushing, he seemed to solidify the 2013 as his and his alone.
But a funny thing happened after the year’s final Grand Slam tournament: Nadal faded and Djokovic capitalized. The 26-year-old Serb was an undefeated 26-0 in 2013 after his loss to Nadal in Flushing, including a title at the ATP World Tour Finals in November. Despite the strong finish to 2013, Djokovic isn’t relying solely on that momentum and his past history in Melbourne to carry him to success over the next two weeks. He’s brought on six-time Grand Slam champion Boris Becker to serve as his head coach—a move seen by some as an effort to improve Djokovic’s tenacity in big matches.
That explanation might seem strange for those who know Djokovic’s reputation for possessing the best siege mentality in all of men’s tennis, but in recent Grand Slam finals, Djokovic has habitually barked at his players box and slumped his shoulders instead of hunkering down and fighting back. If Becker the coach at all resembles Becker the player, there’s little chance Djokovic will be allowed to fold in crucial matches.
So who will it be in 2014? Nadal won his Aussie Open warm-up in Qatar earlier this month (Djokovic didn’t play in one), but he’s still the challenger to Djokovic’s undisputed Melbourne throne. Then there’s the matter of the draw. Here’s who Nadal could have to face on his road to the finals: Aussie sensation Bernard Tomic in the first round, athletic Frenchman Gael Monfils in the third round, a resurgent Lletyon Hewitt in the fourth round, Del Potro in quarterfinals and then either Federer or Murray in the semis. It’s the worst draw a top seed has received in recent memory. Djokovic, on the other hand, doesn’t have much to worry about until a potential U.S. Open semifinal rematch with Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarters and what should be an easy victory over Berdych or Ferrer in the semis.
Djokovic may not be the 100%, no-doubt-about-it sure thing that Nadal is at Roland Garros, but at this point, he’s pretty damn close. Between his recent undefeated run to finish a strong 2013 campaign, a very favorable draw and the addition of Becker to his team, expect Djokovic to solidify his position as the greatest Melbourne Park has ever seen in the Open Era with his fifth Australian Open title on Jan 26.