While Novak Djokovic was busy winning the title in Beijing last weekend, much of the talk in Tokyo was of the new generation of players threatening to break through. Was Kei Nishikori’s victory over Milos Raonic in the final an indication that the end of the big four is nigh?
It is surely too early to say that. Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are all playing great tennis and when Rafa Nadal returns from injury, the Spaniard is confident that he will be back to his best once more.
But it certainly will not have hurt the new brigade’s confidence to see two of their own contesting a final – especially as Raonic had beaten Murray in the semi-finals before running out of steam against an inspired Nishikori on home turf.
Raonic, Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov, Ryan Harrison and Bernard Tomic have been talked about as potential stars of the future but when the top four have been so dominant over so long a period of time, the chances to break through are few and far between.
The US Open triumphs of Murray last month and Juan Martin Del Potro in 2009 were the only occasions in the past 31 grand slams that the title had not gone to Federer, Nadal or Djokovic.
To put the new generation into perspective, the furthest any of them have gone so far is the quarter-finals and Nishikori and Tomic are the only ones of the five mentioned to have done that. And it was no massive surprise that both Nishikori and Raonic should lose early in Shanghai this week after the efforts of the previous week.
While Boris Becker and Michael Chang won grand slam titles as 17-year-olds in the 1980s, Murray says the increasing physicality of the sport is the biggest factor to how long the youngsters are taking to get through.
“It's tough,” he said. “The game is so physical now. That's why it's taking longer for guys to break through. They will, eventually, but it's not going to happen kind of at 18, 19 like it was a few years ago.
"When I came on the tour, physically I wasn't great. I kind of understood quickly that was something that was very important.
“And I think in some ways that's a credit to how good some of the players have been from such a young age. Rafa was winning matches (in Monte Carlo) when he was 15 years old. That’s a very, very difficult thing to do.
“He did that because he's special. He's one of the best players of all time. And Roger, the same. They were winning at a young age because they're special. You don't see guys like them coming around every couple of years. It takes a good amount of time before you'll see a couple of guys like that again.”
Murray was in a good position to judge Raonic in Tokyo, where the faster court surface certainly assisted the Canadian’s imposing serve. But he also has been impressed by the 22-year-old Nishikori and believes they are capable of bigger and better things.
“It doesn't surprise me much,” he said recently of Nishikori’s improvement, the Japanese having recovered from a long-term absence through injury. “He's a very, very good player. He's not too far away from getting into the top 10 I would have thought.”
For young players, success breeds success and while Raonic has already won three titles, Nishikori’s second ATP Tour title, four years after his first, could well be the springboard for more.
“I always thought perhaps I was not mentally strong enough to (play well in Japan),” he said. “But in the (quarter-final) match against (Tomas) Berdych, something changed. I was able to play much better. On one side of my mind, I cannot believe I won the tournament, but at the same time, I feel that I’m happy I was able to do this.”
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