Will the first Grand-Slam event of 2019 let us finally witness the oft-touted changing of the guard? In the wake of Andy Murray’s announcement that his hip will no longer permit him to play high-level tennis, and that his retirement is imminent, it seems that the era of the Big Four is drawing to a close.
When Roger Federer won the 2004 Australian Open, we already knew he was a genius. But no one could imagine the domination that he, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic would impose on the men’s game. Of the subsequent 60 Grand Slams, those three players won 50. Murray and Stan Wawrinka have won three each, while Gaston Gaudio, Marin Cilic, Juan Martin del Potro and Marat Safin have won 1 (though Safin had won a major before that).
Murray earns his place alongside the best of his era thanks not only to his three Slams, but his 14 Masters 1000 titles (which places him fifth on the all-time list behind the three superstars and Andre Agassi) and, of course, his two Olympic gold medals.
Nadal seems to be solely a clay-court player these days, pulling out of hardcourt tournaments more often than he plays them; he is unlikely to be a genuine contender over the next fortnight on the physically wearing acrylic-based Plexicushion surface.
Federer and Djokovic look set to renew their rivalry. Federer has won the past two Australian Opens, but Djokovic holds a 3-1 career advantage over the Swiss in Melbourne. Djokovic also looked very much the player to beat during the second half of 2018, though Federer has shown the sharper form at the start of this year.
Germany’s Alexander Zverev is thought by many the most likely from the next generation – he already has three Masters 1000 titles to his name and in November achieved the exceedingly rare feat of beating Federer and Djokovic in successive rounds when he claimed the year-end ATP Finals trophy.
Zverev was well beaten by Federer at the Hopman Cup this month, but that is really little more than a glorified exhibition, treated more seriously by some than others. More worrying for the 21-year-old is that although he has proved he can beat anyone on his day, he hasn’t featured in the latter stages of a Slam. Until he starts to do that – not just once but regularly – Zverev will be considered an outside chance rather than a genuine contender.
There are definitely opportunities for someone to go deep into the tournament. Last year it was Kyle Edmund, with a run to the semi-final before he ran out of steam. This year, 10th seed Karen Khachanov, 11th seed Borna Coric or 14th seed Stefan Tsitsipas could be worth watching – all are in their early 20s and have the makings of serial winners.
But it’s hard to bet against Djokovic and Federer being the ones to beat. For my money, the Serb starts as favourite to take an all-time record seventh title.