NEW YORK— “For all those other players who are working hard, this is a big sign and big hope that if you are working hard things are going to pay off.”
This was the message that Marin Cilic sent out on Monday night to his fellow travelers on the lonely pro-tennis road. At 25, the Croat had just done what the vast majority of his tour mates will only dream about: Win his first Grand Slam title, by demolishing Kei Nishikori in three quick sets, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. Cilic’s words were certainly more memorable than the one-hour, 54-minute match. While the Croat was very good in victory, Nishikori, energy-less, slump-shouldered, and error-prone from start to finish, was just as bad in defeat.
Cilic is one of the game’s nicest guys, and it was a surreal thrill to see the 14th seed celebrating a major title—he had never been to the final of one, and he had never beaten the man he straight-setted in the semis here, Roger Federer, in five tries. But if the ATP was looking for an advertisement for the post-Big 4 era, which may or may not be starting as we speak, this was not it. Less than half an hour into the match, a fan in the upper deck called out, cheers and laughter, “Allez, Roger!” He was echoed two sets later by a hoarse bellow of “Vamos Rafa!” This time, though, for the first time in nearly 10 years, the Big 4 weren’t walking through that door.
The question on many people’s minds is whether the decade-long era of top-down domination by Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, and Federer has finally drawn to a close. There are plenty of signs that point in that direction. This was the first Grand Slam not to feature at least one of those players since 2005. And this season was the first since 2003 in which two of the majors were won by other players—Stan Wawrinka at the Australian Open, and now Cilic at Flushing Meadows. Beyond that, it’s difficult at the moment even to justify the term Big 4 when the fourth member, Murray, is about to drop out of the Top 10 for the first time since 2008.
With his words of hope for his colleagues, Cilic was echoing the thoughts that he and other players had while watching Wawrinka win the Australian Open this year.
“Wawrinka opened the doors for us from the ‘second’ line,” Cilic said after he had thumped Federer in the semis, “and I think most of the guys have now bigger belief that they can do it on the Grand Slams. I think it’s gonna be extremely interesting for the next several, for sure, Grand Slams.”
Cilic was then asked whether Stan’s insurrection had made him think, “Hey, that means it can happen for me, too.” He wouldn’t go that far.
“He was close [before],” Cilic said of Wawrinka. “Last year semis here. But sort of he made that huge jump in a short period of time. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, I can do it,’ but I knew I had to work and it’s possible. So that, I feel, brought a different win to the game.”
The shift in second-tier attitudes, according to Cilic, was subtle but significant. What about the first tier? What do they have to say about how 2014 has played out? A few minutes before Cilic came to the interview room on Saturday, Federer let his own, somewhat different opinion be known.
A reporter in Federer’s presser started to ask a decline-of-the-Big-4 question:
“This is the first time in a long time without either you, Nadal, or Djokovic playing final. Does that mean something, or...”
Federer cut him off right there.
“You create your stories,” he said coldly. “You said the same in Australia, everybody; and then we know what happened at the French Open final, Wimbledon final. But this is another chance for you guys, you know. So you should write what you want.”
Before moving on to the next question, Federer finally gave his opinion on whether there’s a changing of the guard on the horizon: “I don’t think so.”
No one would expect Federer to agree that the Big 3, of which he is a charter member, are on their way out. But he also has a point. Wawrinka’s win was fully deserved, and by all accounts inspiring to other players, but it came against an injured Nadal. More important, things went back to business as usual afterward. As Federer said, the Big 3 filled up the finals at the French Open and Wimbledon, and they’ve combined to win five of the seven Masters events played this year. One of them has reached the finals of all seven.
As for the current world No. 4, Wawrinka, he went on to win his first Masters title, at Monte Carlo, but he hasn’t been back to the semis at any of the majors, and he hasn’t won any other tournaments since Australia. In other words, he’s still Stan, rather than Novak or Rafa or Roger; for a guy who’s 29 years old and has been on tour for 12 years, that’s not all that surprising.
Cilic will be 26 at the end of September. He’s certainly a different player than he was last year, or even last week. But even with coach Goran Ivanisevic in his corner, can we really expect him to maintain the level he reached over the last three rounds, when he hasn’t shown anything like it in the past? Before Monday night, Cilic had never reached a Grand Slam final, never reached a Masters semifinal, and never won an ATP 500 tournament. All of his 11 career titles were at 250s, and six of them came either in Chennai or his home event in Zagreb.
In fact, Cilic’s record is strikingly similar to Wawrinka’s. Before this year’s Aussie Open, Stan had won just five career titles, all of them 250s (two of them had also, strangely, come in Chennai). Maybe it helped both men not to have had any experience losing at the game’s highest levels. Like Wawrinka, Cilic will be a threat for big titles going forward, but he’ll also still be Marin Cilic.
Federer is right: Saying that the Big 4 (or Big 3) is in decline may not be “creating” a story out of whole cloth, but it does overstate the case. The “future” certainly hasn’t arrived: Wawrinka is older than all of the Big 4 except Federer, and Cilic is just a year younger than Djokovic and Murray. Nishikori has been a pro for seven years.
While I believe Cilic and others when they say the Wawrinka win changed perceptions in the locker room, I wonder whether that also isn’t slightly overstated. It isn’t as if the other men had never seen the Big 4 lose before. Stan or no Stan, the day when they stopped winning every major and Masters title was bound to come; what’s amazing is that their stranglehold lasted this long. Even this year, the Top 3 men have won two of four majors and five of seven Masters; that's a pretty dominant run by most measures.
If Cilic’s and Wawrinka’s stunning wins show us anything, it's that lightning can strike twice—but that doesn't mean it's going to start happening every day. If there's a trend in the making, it isn't a changing of the guard. It's the Occasional Revenge of the Lost Boys, the generation that grew up alongside the Big 4, and has labored deep in their shadows. The game has aged, and so have its breakthroughs. Whose might be next? This year, we’ve seen progress from 28-year-old Gael Monfils, 25-year-old Ernests Gulbis, 25-year-old Alexandr Dolgopolov, and at times from 29-year-old John Isner. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, also 29, put together his own sparkling, surprising title march in Toronto last month. You also have to think that Juan Martin del Potro, a longtime rival of Cilic’s and a fellow gentle giant, will take heart from this win. If Tomas Berdych can secure the services of Ivan Lendl as his coach, he’ll probably begin to turn things around again. How about Fabio Fognini, Grand Slam champ? And what is the long-suffering David Ferrer thinking right now?
All of these players will have seen Cilic’s win and heard his words of solidarity and encouragement. But so will Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray.