Last summer the top four players in men's tennis posed for a photo crossing Abbey Road, mimicking, of course, the Beatles' iconic album cover. The image was used to hype the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, and it was a clever promotion: The year-end lollapalooza was held last week at London's O2 arena, not far from the site of the photo op, and when the shot was taken, anyway, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Roger Federer were the sport's Fab Four.
But the picture can change quickly in tennis. After four years of oligarchy—a golden era during which Federer and Nadal combined to win 17 of 18 major titles—the game is suddenly looking a lot more democratic. If there's not outright parity, we're a long way from the days when the top four players reliably reached the semifinals of tournaments.
The first real sign of a shift came last spring when Nadal, the four-time French Open champion, was upset in Paris by Sweden's Robin Söderling, who wasn't even ranked in the top 20 at the time. Then Federer, the U.S. Open champ for five years running, lost in the final in New York City to Argentina's Juan Martín del Potro. In the fall neither Federer nor Nadal won a solitary title. Finally, in London, Nadal couldn't win a set, let alone a match; Djokovic and Murray played well but didn't make it out of the round-robin stage; Federer lost in the semifinals; and the season's grand finale pitted ... the fifth-ranked Del Potro against No. 7 Nikolay Davydenko of Russia.
Federer's desultory end to 2009 was understandable. He's 28, a husband, the father of twins. And after he'd achieved his longtime goals of winning the French Open and eclipsing Pete Sampras's alltime mark for Grand Slam singles titles, who would expect his flame to burn as fiercely as it once did? Plus, his "decline" is relative. In London he locked up the year-end No. 1 ranking for the fifth time in six years. "Looking how deep the game is right now," he says, "to finish on top for me is phenomenal."
Nadal's circumstances are more problematic. Difficulties with his knees (and his psyche, prompted perhaps by the breakup of his parents' marriage) wrecked his summer. Since returning in August, he's had trouble locating his game and, thus, his self-belief. (Or is it vice versa?) In London he not only sprayed balls but also did it at pivotal times. "If you are not completely calm and playing very well in that moment," he conceded last week, "it's really difficult to win."
With the top players in at least temporary regression, still more fresh faces may crash the cotillion in 2010. And given the current state of the game—never more physically demanding—health, conditioning and movement will determine success every bit as much as pure ball-striking ability. Indeed, Sunday's final in London was a track meet disguised as a tennis match, which the faster, fitter Davydenko won 6--3, 6--4.
"I don't think I'm Number 1," Davydenko says, "but I think if I play well, I can beat anyone." Hear that? It's the new mantra of men's tennis.
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