Sony Open and major titles are no longer just for tennis' four superstars [Sun Sentinel :: BC-TEN-SONY:FL]
(South Florida Sun Sentinel (FL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. _ Finally, after a decade of dominance in Grand Slams by the Fab Four in men's tennis, there seems to be a crack in the window of opportunity for members of the next generation to hoist the trophy at one of the four majors.
And the second-tier players owe this collective confidence that will also be felt at the upcoming Sony Open Masters 1000 tournament in Key Biscyane to Stanislas Wawrinka, the other Swiss player not named Roger Federer, after stunning the tennis world by capturing the Australian Open title in January.
Wawrinka, 28, has shown blossoming players such as Milos Raonic, Ernests Gulbis, Alekandr Dolgopolov, Grigor Dimitrov, Kevin Anderson, Marin Cilic, Kei Nishikori and John Isner that Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray aren't super heroes.
"The moment that really stood out this year was Stan winning the Australian Open," said Raonic, 23, the 6-foot-5 big serving Canadian, after he notched his 11th victory over a Top 10 player when he took out Murray in the round of 16 at the Indian Wells Masters 1000 last week.
"I think everybody sort of outside of the top four that's very close to the top 10 or within the top 10 are saying, ' Why can't that be me?'
"That just gives a lot of people that deep breath and realization and makes doing the work a little bit easier and certainly those tough moments in those matches a little bit easier.
"The best way to feel it and to describe it was guys going into those matches don't feel like they're facing somebody that's invincible. They feel a little bit more vulnerability against those top guys, and they just have to exploit that.
"They know that the window is still very small, but at least they see a window of opportunity."
Prior to Wawrinka's shock Down Under, one of the big four had won the past eight Australians, nine French Opens, 11 Wimbledons and 10 of the last 11 U.S. Opens.
However, the physical and mental wear and tear of being on Tour for at least 10 years seems to be taking its toll, certainly on Federer, Nadal and Murray, who have all been dealing with back issues.
The 32-year-old Federer has dropped to No. 8, but he seems reinvigorated by his new racket, as evident from his 19-3 start that included his 78th career title in Dubai and this week's run to the finals of Indian Wells where he fell to Djokovic in a third-set tiebreaker.
Still, the all-time Slam champ with 17, hasn't reached a major final in his last seven attempts.
While Nadal, 27, bounced back from an injury-plagued 2012 with 10 titles last year, including two of his 13 Slams to retake No. 1 from Djokovic, this year he's struggling with a sore back that has weakened his first serve.
That said, Nadal has won two more titles in Doha and Rio de Janeiro, while grimacing in pain en route to a four-set loss to Wawrinka in the Aussie Open final.
Murray, 26, who finally cracked the Big Three Slam party with his first major at Wimbledon last year, hasn't regained his form since undergoing back surgery in September.
"I think it was always going to come to a stage where that was going to start happening," said defending Sony Open champion Murray, now ranked sixth after losing to players ranked outside the top 10 in four of his last five tournaments.
"Guys are coming through a few years later than when I came through with Novak, and Rafa was obviously pretty young, too."
Djokovic, who won his 17th Masters title Sunday, believes the playing field is becoming as level as the court surfaces.
"The competition is very high in men's tennis," said Djokovic, 26, who lost a five-set quarterfinal to Wawrinka in Australia, and has won two of his six Slams in the past two years.
"Everything has improved, technology and the players, the knowledge about the sport in general. I think the players, not just the top players, but the ones between No. 10 and 20, are as good as the top players game-wise.
"On a good day they can win. It's just a matter of self-belief and a few points that decide a winner. You've got new faces and new players who are able to challenge the top guys, and this is good for the sport.
"It makes it difficult for us, obviously. On a positive note, it also makes us work harder and improve trying to get our game to a high level because the guys are coming up."
The pony-tailed Dolgopolov, 25, who possesses huge groundies and a lightning serve, has wins over No. 4 David Ferrer this year and dispatched Nadal in the third round of Indian Wells before losing to Federer in the semis.
"For sure the guys lower ranked now believe more than a few years ago," Dolgopolov said. "That's not normal that they were playing at some unbelievable level, not dropping almost never.
"All of us get older, and that's normal. Every generation is going to [drop] and the younger ones are going to push."
(c)2014 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
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