The crowds at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center have thinned out, from the masses that rushed in at the end of August. Today, two very familiar names left the grounds, not to return until next year: Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
Expected to reach the final, as they or Rafael Nadal had for every single Grand Slam tournament since the 2005 Australian Open, Federer and Djokovic ran into two younger players who were able to break the stranglehold of the Big Three on the big prizes of the sport. A lot has been made of the fact that this is the first time that none of the Big Three will contend for a Grand Slam title in nearly a decade, and rightly so. In January 2005, Rafael Nadal had not won a single French Open title, Novak Djokovic had not made it past the third round of a major, and Roger Federer had only won four of his 17 Grand Slam titles.
In reality, at the time of the 2005 Australian Open, the Big Three were more like that talented Swiss guy with the weird hairdo who’s played well for a year or two, a promising Spanish teenager who had beaten Federer and Roddick once, and that funny Serbian kid. How times have changed.
Many will debate which of Saturday’s semifinal stunners was more surprising, but to me, it would have to be Kei Nishikori’s four set win over Novak Djokovic in the first semifinal. Nishikori has beaten top players before, but on the heels of two five-setters and with a history of injury, it was not clear that he would be able to outlast Djokovic, who has been tennis’ ironman over the past three years. And, it seemed that Djokovic, following his win at Wimbledon this year, had regained the mental strength that had failed him in losing 4 out of the 5 Grand Slam finals he reached in 2012 and 2013.
But Djokovic came out flat, breathing hard, and missing the sharpness that had carried him through the earlier rounds, including his convincing win over Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. While Nishikori did what he had to do – stay consistent, not miss, and use his mobility to neutralize Djokovic’s groundstrokes, Djokovic will likely walk away with this loss very disappointed in his performance, and his inability to raise his level, because doing so would have greatly changed the complexion of the match.
Moreover, Djokovic is in the heart of his peak years, and has found a way to move past the field in majors – before Saturday’s loss, since his 2011 breakthrough, Djokovic had not lost a Grand Slam match to a player outside the Big Four except for his 2014 loss to eventual champion Stan Wawrinka at the Australian Open. This is the part of the career when the bulk of his success will likely come, so missing out on a Nadal-free path to the title will surely sting for Djokovic, especially when he had his chances.
Roger Federer, on the other hand, will certainly drive away from Queens wishing he had played better, but also understanding that, when facing a big hitter who is firing on all cylinders, there is not a lot he could have done when facing such narrow margins.
Marin Cilic showed signs that he could dominate in his three-set loss to Federer in Toronto, but on Saturday, Cilic never let up mentally or physically. Cilic didn’t so much outplay Federer as completely neutralize him, rendering Federer simply unable to make an impact on the match or its outcome. Watching Cilic’s groundstrokes, one could see that each one was hit with such downward force that it could be a smash, and the serves doubly so. Playing at lightning speed, he raced out to a two set lead in little more than an hour, and had dispatched Federer in well under two hours.
Like at Wimbledon, Federer, confident in his achievements, noted that winning the title would have been a wonderful moment, but not doing so would not crush him. One has to believe that, given where he was a year ago, having the questions be focused on winning majors and not retirement is a victory of sorts for Federer. And, ever the ambassador for the sport, he noted that, while he would have liked to win, he was happy that two new people would be in the final and encouraged those at his press conference to tune into Monday’s final.
It’s always hard at the changing of the guard to anticipate whether a final featuring two new finalists will be the beginning of something new, like the meeting between first time finalists Rafael Nadal and Mariano Puerta at Roland Garros in 2005 or a flukey one-off, like Gaston Gaudio’s win over Guillermo Coria at Roland Garros in 2004, where neither player reached another Grand Slam final afterwards.
But for those who have loved the consistency of the ATP tour over the past decade, it’s time to get used to a bigger cast of characters at the business end of tournaments. For those who found the hegemony of the Big Four tiresome, your time has come. For the first time in a long time, there will be four people who haven’t usually been watching joining us on the sidelines.