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Thursday, March 13, 2014
Hierarchy uncertain in men's tennis

By Kamakshi Tandon
Special to ESPN.com

There's revolt in the ranks. In recent years, the masses in men's tennis have known their place: Get through a match or two, then lose to the Big Four in the later rounds.

Then Stanislas Wawrinka rewrote the script, won the Australian Open -- and got everyone else thinking they could do it, too.

"I think everybody sort of in that top-10 range, also a little bit outside trying to break through, took a deep breath and said, 'Why can't that be me?'" said Milos Raonic, recalling Wawrinka's win over Rafael Nadal in the men's final.

The 23-year-old Canadian had just beaten Andy Murray in the fourth round of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, and that thought had been lingering in his mind when he found himself a break down in the third set of the match. Raonic hung in there, and it was Murray -- a two-time Grand Slam champion and card-carrying member of the Big Four -- who folded.

Kevin Anderson
Kevin Anderson, who has a big, powerful game, has benefited from a bevy of upsets this week.
"I think that's an aspect of it," said Raonic. "I don't think there is really many matches that I've come back from a break down in the deciding set or in the second set after being a set down. That sort of happened today."

It's been happening a lot this week. Six of the top eight seeds have been knocked out before the quarterfinals at Indian Wells, and though it's too early to declare a new order, there might just be a new mindset.

Alexandr Dolgopolov provided yet another example, taking out Rafael Nadal in three sets in the previous round. He lost a 5-2 lead in the third set, but clinched in a tiebreaker.

Even the man who started the movement, the now No. 3-ranked Wawrinka, found himself ousted. He was beaten by Kevin Anderson in three sets shortly after Murray's exit. Anderson has also noticed the change.

"Just seeing other guys do well probably makes that a little easier to believe and to feel like it's not just dominated by the big guys," he said. "People are believing a little bit more that you can go out and beat these guys. They're not running through tournaments the way they have in the past."

Earlier, these third-set upsets might have gone the other way. The Big Four of Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Murray and Roger Federer had established an unprecedented dominance in the big events, not only winning 34 of the past 35 Grand Slams before this year, but also 63 of 76 Masters events (and six of those won by others came at the Paris Masters toward the end of the year).

Even behind the Big Four, there was a solid group of players like David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Martin del Potro to fill up the quarterfinals. There was a very clear hierarchy in place, and only rarely did someone else emerge from the field.

Recently, however, a few young(ish) talents have been making a move, producing some prospect of a new group finally breaking through. Apart from Raonic, Dolgopolov and late-blooming Anderson this week, others such as Grigor Dimitrov, Marin Cilic, Ernests Gulbis and Fabio Fognini have also been posting good results in recent weeks.

More established contenders also seem re-energized. Tomas Berdych has repeatedly upset top names and reached the later rounds of Slams, but he has kept falling short of victory.

"Stan showed us it is possible to win a Grand Slam," said the 28-year-old Czech.

"They are extremely difficult to win, but it is possible to beat the top guys. It was important to realize if you work hard, then everything can click together and you can make it in the end. It isn't only the right of two or three guys."

There is little sign that any are ready to consistently challenge for titles in the manner of Nadal or Djokovic. But greater self-belief may produce more upsets -- which, apart from a few days at last year's Wimbledon, have been in short supply over the past few years.

"You watch the match and you see somebody that feel like you can compete with or maybe feel like you can beat in a situation, and they beat one of the top guys, and the feeling is, 'Why can't I do that?'" said Raonic.

"I think that makes those important, crucial moments where the top guys really step it up, it just gives you a higher percentage of opportunity in that moment.

"When you give somebody a little bit to grasp on to, they are going to try to take it all."

But the shakeup isn't being driven entirely from the bottom up. It has been enabled by increased vulnerability at the top, where injuries and inconsistency have weakened the Big Four, as well as a few right behind them like Ferrer and del Potro.

"I think maybe a few things have happened this year, where the top guys are playing, " said Anderson. "A couple of injuries here and there, and, yeah, it's opened the door for a few more others players to step it up.

"I think it's exciting, you know, this week, seeing some new faces."

The old faces are taking note. "The [players ranked] between 10 and 20 are as good as the top players game wise," said Djokovic, who has gone three sets in his past two matches at Indian Wells. "It's just a matter of self-belief and a few points that decide the winner.

"So Wawrinka won his first Grand Slam at the Australian Open. That's a first time in a long time that one of the players who is outside the top four wins it, so he's now No 3.

"You've got new faces and new players who are able to challenge the top guys, and this is good for the sport. It makes it more difficult for us, obviously. On a positive note, it also makes us work harder and improve trying to get our game to a higher level."

The game does not yet have a new order, but it might just be becoming a little less orderly.