For the first time in a while, 2012 saw the Grand Slams shared out amongst four different players. From 2004 to 2010, they were almost entirely dominated by just two – Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, before Novak Djokovic came through in 2011. 2012 felt like a crossroads.
Where does the sport go now? It looks as if tennis will be ruled by two men again – but this time it’s Djokovic and Andy Murray. It is that duo who have etched their name on the last three major tournaments (Murray winning the Olympic Games and the US Open, Djokovic triumphing in Melbourne). It’s those two who have stolen a march on the other two, benefiting from Nadal’s injury and beating Federer in crunch clashes.
Djokovic and Murray are the first generation of players who have played their whole life in the ‘new’ court conditions. All surfaces have slowed in the last decade, and the courts have been homogenised somewhat. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that these two players have similar profiles: remarkable court coverage, high efficiency on their service returns, and excellent conversion of points when they've got the first ball back into play. Their risk-taking is measured, and as such they play most matches with precious few unforced errors.
It’s all about preparation – their intense winter camps allow them to match any opponent. Adversaries who try to shorten the points are met with counter-punches, but they are also almost impossible to outlast and wear down.
Their pre-eminence poses a question for the ‘purer’ ball-strikers, the more attacking competitors – do they still have a chance to flourish in an era where Djokovic and Murray seem primed for the conditions?
Federer produced some of his very best tennis at the Australian Open. He was fast, explosive, his forehand effective, his serve marvellous. However, he had to bow to Murray. Nole and Andy are like improved versions of Lleyton Hewitt at his peak.
Like him they counter opponents and cover the court perfectly, but they serve better and return exceptionally well. Murray put 75% of Federer’s first serves back in play in the Australian Open semi-final, giving Federer far fewer free points than he ever used to get in the past. And Murray fired 21 aces down in comparison to Federer’s five. In rallies, Djokovic and Murray are more powerful than Hewitt ever was, and have a more powerful weapon with their forehands.
How to respond? Attacking players need to give a bit more thought to their aggressive approach. The tactics of Federer – and also someone like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – are too predictable in the face of blocking players of this calibre. It seems essential to me to make some tweaks – the first of which is to exploit the second serve. Murray’s second serve is often considerably slower, and Federer, too systematic with his chopped return, did not take full advantage. The same applies when Murray blocked the ball back into play – Federer didn’t exert early control, and slowly Murray worked his way back into points.
But if Federer and Tsonga were to accept the challenge Murray and Djokovic present and make these changes, I am convinced they have a future against the leading duo.
And where is Nadal in all of this? Pronouncements before he completes his return from injury are dangerous – his absence raises a lot of questions about his long-term future. His knees have suffered, and his physical intensity on the court has always been his strongest asset. Perhaps he has been paying the price for all the demands he has put on his body.
But if his troubles are truly behind him, I could see him rediscovering his game in the second half of the year and shaking things up once more.