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Outsiders catching up to big four?

The Australian Open had winners and losers, new faces and old names, but perhaps no one in the men's draw left with his reputation more enhanced than Stanislas Wawrinka.

From the spellbinding tennis he showed to go up 6-1, 5-2 against Novak Djokovic in their fourth-round match, to the fight he showed in battling until 12-10 in the fifth, Wawrinka took over and made the tournament his stage for five hours.

When he returned to the site the following day, tired but smiling, he got a hero's welcome. The grounds still reverberated with talk of his winners, his guts and his one-handed backhand.

Imagine if he'd won.

But even though he lost, Stan the Nearly Man sent a ripple through the tournament. The big early-round upset is a rare thing in the men's draw at Grand Slams these days, so a near-upset becomes a happening in itself. There was, of course, the shock of Rafael Nadal's loss to Lukas Rosol at the second round of Wimbledon last year, but putting aside Rosol's stream of winners in the fifth set, that result has been folded into the injury saga from which Nadal is only this week making his return.

Beyond that, it's been slim pickings the past couple of years. There was Tomas Berdych's win over Roger Federer at the U.S. Open quarterfinals and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga doing the same at Wimbledon a year ago, but both were clearly dangerous. David Ferrer's defeat of Andy Murray in the French Open quarterfinals was hardly a surprise. Ferrer was ranked only a spot below and having the better season on clay. And otherwise, the big four have pretty much been the final four. Even Ferrer, stepping into the No. 4 seeding position during Nadal's injury absence, has kept up the practice and made the semifinals of the past two Slams.

It's a long, long way from the time when the likes of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Marat Safin could all lose on the same day at same the tournament, which happened in the second round of Wimbledon in 2002.

The trend helps explain why Wawrinka, despite being a former top-10 player with some notable wins, wasn't expected to do much against Djokovic, who has had fewer bad losses than anyone since the beginning of 2011. In the usual practice of Australian television, the two players' odds of winning the match were shown beforehand, and one interested observer was struck by what a long shot Wawrinka was.

"When I saw the odds going into the match, 1.01 for Novak, I was like, 'Come on,'" said Federer, wincing for his compatriot. "Little bit more respect for Stan."

By the end of the match, there was a lot more respect. "I hope it sends a big message to all the players, the fans," Federer said. "His reaction -- he showed after being up so much in the first two sets, to end up losing the second and still come back and push Novak to the brink of losing, I mean, that was tough."

Wawrinka wasn't the only one to get close to pulling off a big surprise during this tournament. Tsonga took Federer to five sets in a bruising quarterfinal. Nicolas Almagro shut out his dozen losses against Ferrer to go up two sets in their quarterfinal -- and served for the match three times.

Could it mean the field is finally starting to fight back?

"A lot of the top four players, they've made it through to the semis at a lot of these big tournaments and no one's taken a knockout of them," ESPN analyst Darren Cahill said. "I think it's been wonderful to see Wawrinka, Tsonga, all these guys go after the top guys and beat them around a little bit before they get to the semifinals. And that's going to send a big message to the locker room, that they are beatable."

Beatable is one thing. Beating remains another. Still, by rising to the occasion, these Nearly Men of the Australian Open may have shown the way. All three possess the power and shot-making abilities to take a match into their own hands, and all stepped on court looking to take the first strike. All finished with more winners than their higher-ranked opponents -- but more unforced errors as well.

Wawrinka, for example, finished with 69 winners to Djokovic's 51, and 93 unforced errors to 66 for Djokovic.

The important thing was that it was daring rather than desperate, Cahill said. "He played aggressive tennis, somewhat fearless tennis, but not silly tennis. Because these guys hit the ball so well, you don't have to go for the lines every single shot. But you have to have the confidence that laying the ball in the middle of the court's not going to get it done; you have to take it to them."

Jim Courier, watching the matches unfold as a commentator for Australian television, became a firm advocate of the go-big approach. Even the chance of losing in a flurry of errors was preferable to coming out with "arms down" and "getting beaten to a pulp," he observed in the booth.

In the end, though, it still wasn't enough. The top seeds prevailed. How do they do it?

"To be honest, I have no idea," a puzzled Tsonga said after his defeat against Federer. He also had match points against Djokovic at the French Open and lost.

Djokovic's coach, Marian Vajda, has seen his player get out of many tight situations but still struggles to explain it. "They believe more, probably somehow," he said. "They can relax more, or they can pump up more, or they can gather the energy more. Somehow they know how to do it."

And each time they do, it helps them do it again. "They have a lot of confidence because [of] the winning [they've done]," Vajda said. "They know the situation better, how to deal with it."

It's yet another barrier to taking down the top four. But the standard they have set has forced the rest of the players to try to push their limits as well, with Wawrinka being just the latest example. The perennial Swiss No. 2 called his battle against Djokovic "the most accomplished match I've ever played" and tapped into that resilience again over the weekend by going over seven hours in Davis Cup doubles and returning the next day to play 3 hours, 15 minutes in singles.

But keeping Djokovic on court for five hours was more than just a personal achievement for the player who once had a reputation for checking out of matches. He also left the world No. 1 in a weakened state going into the next round.

Djokovic recovered, and Berdych didn't quite play well enough to take advantage of any lingering fatigue, but earlier battles did seem to affect the other two semifinalists who got in trouble the round before. Federer, playing his second straight five-setter, wilted against Murray, while Ferrer was subdued for his match against Djokovic after all the drama from two days earlier.

"I think Stan dug in more than I've ever seen him dig in," Cahill said. "And they can all help each other by making sure when they get on court they believe a little more and fight it out till the last point."

The other players are still struggling to bring down the top four individually, but if this keeps up, maybe they can do it collectively.