There’s a change coming in men’s tennis, and it’s arriving in the form of even bigger forehands, more overpowering serves and all-court attacks.
Those two have relied, for years now, on their consistency, defensive prowess and ability to effectively blunt the power of their opponents. They've also mastered the art of hitting winners from compromised positions, often in dominant fashion. From Wimbledon in 2015 to the 2016 French Open, Djokovic captured four Grand Slams in a row, while Murray finished 2016 on a 24-match winning streak that took him to the top spot for the first time in his career.
However, even though we’re only a month-and-a-half into the 2017 season, those achievements are starting to seem like somewhat of a distant memory. The two contested a riveting final in Doha to kick off the year, but they both flamed out early at the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the season.
Instead of the road to the final going through them, it was the more aggressive-minded players that carved their own path. Roger Federer, the premier all-court player of his generation, took home the title, his first major in nearly five years.
Federer, who defeated three Top 10 players on his way to the final, hit 73 winners in the title match against Rafael Nadal, his longtime rival. He also racked up 57 unforced errors, which reflects the aggressive mindset he took into the match.
He wasn’t the only player making waves with an all-out approach in the tournament. His quarterfinal opponent, Mischa Zverev, kept Murray off balance in the fourth round with what might be considered an anachronistic serve-and-volley game, dashing the world No. 1’s title hopes.
And by the time the semifinals rolled around at the tournament, a viewer could be forgiven for doing a triple take, as it looked like there were three Federers left in the draw.
The original beat his big-hitting compatriot, Stan Wawrinka, while on the other side of the draw, Grigor Dimitrov—who’d been hitting winners all over the court en route to a 10-match winning streak—fell to a resurgent Nadal in five sets.
Dimitrov, arguably the most stylishly gifted player since Federer, rebounded from that loss with a win at the Sofia Open in Bulgaria, running his record to 14-1 on the year.
While he was doing that, Alexander Zverev, the leader of the ATP tour's youth movement and Mischa’s younger brother, was capturing the second title of his career by defeating veteran Richard Gasquet at the Open Sud de France. Zverev, who stands at 6’6”, plays the game with a lot of easy power at his disposal and, given his rise in the rankings, he knows how to use it. He’s not the only young player that’s managing to power through the slower court conditions and heavier balls that have become prevalent on the tour in recent years.
Jack Sock won his second career title in Auckland before the Australian Open, right after helping the U.S. reach the final of the Hopman Cup. Nick Kyrgios has yet to make an impact this year, but in 2016 he won three tournaments.
The timing could be just right for the next wave. Players like Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga were unable to break through the stranglehold of the ATP’s Big Four.
Odds are that Murray and Djokovic will go into the French Open and Wimbledon as the top two seeds, as thousands of ranking points separate them from the No. 3 spot. However, they can’t be considered the immediate favorites for those titles. If Nadal remains healthy and is playing like he did in Australia, where he was a set away from winning his 15th Slam, then he’s a safe write-in for the French. While the Spaniard’s not exactly dashing off to the net to put away volleys, his forehand is such a weapon that even when he’s not hitting outright winners, his opponents are often in uncomfortable positions when returning it.
At Wimbledon, provided he stays healthy, as well, Federer—the seven-time champ—would be a safe bet to win the title. Last year’s finalist, Milos Raonic, should be a contender based on his all-court prowess and big serve. And the same should be said of 2014 semifinalist Dimitrov.
With the results that have already happened in 2017, it appears the tide is shifting back toward the power game, which could leave Murray and Djokovic scrambling in the months ahead.
And just think: Juan Martin del Potro—one of the game’s hugest ball-strikers—hasn’t even played yet.