IT is as if the tennis world was in a time warp for the two years that Andy Murray was away.
Metal hip or not, Dunblane’s most famous export felt emboldened enough by the early stages of his recovery yesterday to make bullish noises about his capacity to compete once again for the biggest prizes in tennis. nd why not, considering it seems as though the three men he must beat to achieve his goals are the same men, only older, that he overcame to claim three Grand Slam titles, two Olympic golds and rise to the summit of the world rankings.
Every single one of the six major championships which the Scot skipped in the vain hope his hip would respond to a less invasive form of treatment went to the insatiable trio at the summit of men’s tennis –Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal or Novak Djokovic.So too did the two slams – last year’s US Open and this year’s Australian Open – where he gave it a shot but clearly wasn’t in the physical shape to compete. And if the evidence of the first week at Wimbledon is anything to go by, the Scot will be sitting on the sidelines once again in seven days’ time watching one third of this tennis triumvirate adding to his haul.
None of the three have had things entirely their own way during the first seven days at SW19 – all three have dropped at least one set along the way. But all three nonetheless have hit a general standard which the rest of the field can’t live with. They then sat back and watched a catalogue of young pretenders falling by the wayside. Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alex Zverev didn’t last the first day. Roland Garros finalist Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka, the last man outwith this trio to claim a Grand Slam title, once again failed to deliver on the grass. Already with a soft-looking section of the draw, the departure of last year’s finalist Kevin Anderson leave the highest-ranked seed in Djokovic’s half is Milos Raonic at No.15.
Who better to put all this in perspective than Federer? The Swiss great has come to the conclusion that experience on the surface is the primary asset when it comes to being successful on grass. This is handy, as no-one has more of it than him.
It is also interesting when you consider his opponent today is a 6ft 5in Italian called Matteo Berettini who has reached the second week of a Grand Slam for the first time on the back of a storming grass court season which saw him reach the semi-finals of Halle then win the tournament in Stuttgart. Berettini, who has quietly snuck into the top 20, said last night he has the “weapons” to beat Federer here, an altogether more promising view of SW19 than his countryman Fabio Fognini, who was picked up on a courtside microphone pleading for someone to “drop a bomb” on the place.“We know how hard it is to beat Novak, how hard it is to beat Rafa here,” said Federer. “Me, as well. We obviously also have better draws because we’re seeded, and we’re away from the bigger seeds earlier. Our path to the fourth round is not as hard as maybe some of the younger guys on the tour.
“I think being at the top requires more hunger because in the beginning every number [in the rankings] higher you can get, it’s like ‘Oh, my God, I’m 50, I’m 25, I’m 13’. It’s just so exciting. It’s easy to stay motivated. But to be at the top … that’s a totally different ball game. I think staying at the top requires a lot of dedication, sacrifice and all that."What kind of player will it take to break the big three’s death grip on the game? If not a young one, then how about one who has done it before like Murray.
“It will probably be a good player, there are a couple of very good young players on tour but they need time,” said Nadal, who now takes on Portugal’s Joao Sousa in an intriguing all-Iberian affair.“Honestly, what we achieved in the Grand Slams and in tennis in general during the last 14, 15 years is something special. In the same moment, to have three players that achieved that much is something which is difficult to repeat. Of course, somebody is going to come along to beat us or we are going to leave because we are not young anymore. Djokovic had expected to face one of the hottest prospects in the sport in Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round; instead he faces another, albeit less hyped, one called Ugo Humbert. The Serb will leave nothing to chance.
“I’ve seen him in Roland Garros a little bit,” said Djokovic. “I’ve seen him last year US Open. I’ve seen him now [in the] first set here against Felix“ He has a big serve, very explosive, very dynamic player. He’s tall. Has a big game from back of the court. Flat backhand, very solid. He can play anything really. I mean, he’s an all-around player.“He has the really good slide serve wide and he uses his height very well,” Djokovic added. “He’s got a good technique and is one of the leaders of the next generation with Felix and Hurkacz. I think it’s great for tennis to have the young guys doing so well, showing the quality of the tennis they possess, but also showing the dedication, commitment, confidence they’re able to play on the big stage and challenge the best players in the world.
It would be nice to think the likes of Humbert or Berettini may come from the pack to threaten the established world order. But don’t be too surprised if the next man to mount a sustained challenge to the big three of tennis is a 32-year-old Scotsman with a metal hip.