Commentary

Battle lines being drawn in Slams

In post-Federer age, specialization is key when it comes to winning majors

Originally Published: January 18, 2013
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

For two sets and seven games, this one was a ballgame.

Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray split two tiebreakers to begin the Australian Open final, then Djokovic won a routine best-of-three-sets match, three and two.

"It's very thrilling," said Djokovic afterward, sounding slightly less than thrilled.

He did not tear off his shirt and exult, as he did a year ago after defeating Rafael Nadal in that epic 5-hour, 53-minute classic, the longest Grand Slam singles final on record.

"I'm full of joy right now," Djokovic added after his 6-7 (2), 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-2 win Sunday. "It's going to give me a lot of confidence for the rest of the season, that's for sure."

Lovely. Confidence is a wonderful thing, but recent history says that, going forward, it might not make a bit of difference.

For the one thing we now know is that tennis, in this post-Federer age, has joined the world at large. Specialization is everything when it comes to winning majors.

The last four Grand Slam singles titles have gone to four men -- the Big Four is truly as good as its name.

Djokovic has always thrived Down Under. He won his first major in Melbourne five years ago -- at the tender age of 20 -- and now he's become the first man of the Open era to win three consecutive Australian Open titles. Djokovic has taken four Aussie titles in six years, a fact that may sneak up on casual tennis fans. Maybe it's the low-key atmosphere that pervades the grounds or his eagerness to escape the offseason training grind. Whatever, his game meshes perfectly with the blue court in Rod Laver Arena, even though it was playing faster than in recent years.

[+] EnlargeNadal
Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty ImagesAs he showed last year, it's not safe to write off Rafael Nadal in Paris.
It seems much longer than nine months ago that a fit and still-ferocious Nadal won the French Open, the seventh of his career. To this day, he has lost only a single match at Roland Garros, to the (figuratively) late, great Robin Soderling. A torn patella tendon has forced Rafa to lay low since losing, shockingly, in the second round at Wimbledon last year. After a seven-month layoff, he is scheduled to return to the ATP World Tour next month in Brazil. If he is healthy -- a big if, considering he elected to pass on surgery -- Nadal steps into the opening of the clay-court season, and no one would be terribly surprised if he won his eighth French Open title in nine years.

Last year Roger Federer broke a 0-for-9 streak in Grand Slams with his seventh title at Wimbledon. Even though he'll be a month shy of his 32nd birthday at this year's fortnight at the All England Club, his startlingly diverse skill set suggests he might be a threat to win there for another two or three years. Still, in his last 12 major appearances, Federer has won one, lost in the final once, the semifinals six times and the quarterfinals four times. Like it or not, that is the new normal for Federer. Someone on a very short list (of, say, two) may wrest that crown away in July.

That someone could well be Murray, who fell to Federer in that Wimbledon final but one month later won the Olympic gold medal on the same court. Murray, of course, broke through with his first major victory at the U.S. Open, beating Djokovic in the final. Murray, for a number of reasons, seems suited for success in New York, and one wonders if this will become his signature major.

And so, these peerless players have carved the majors into four very distinct fiefdoms. Each man is the reigning champion of the major that best suits his peculiar skills. As long as their careers remain viable, their best opportunities will likely come on their favorite courts.

"No one's ever won a Slam [consecutively] after winning their first one," Murray said after losing to Djokovic. "It's not the easiest thing to do. And I got extremely close.

"I have to try and look at the positives of the last few months, and I think I'm going in the right direction."

Indeed he is. Both 25 -- and born within a week of each other -- Djokovic and Murray seem destined to dominate for the next several years.

Unless Juan Martin del Potro or Tomas Berdych or Jo-Willie Tsonga suddenly elevate their games, it will be so. Until the Grigor Dimitrovs and Milos Raonics and Bernard Tomics arrive -- if, indeed, they ever will -- Djokovic and Murray will be joined at the hip.

They have won the last five hard-court majors between them, and that number should grow. They are also the leading candidates to fill the void when Federer and Nadal cede their exalted territory in London and Paris.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.