Federer and Djokovic

This year, there will be four different grand slam winners in tennis. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, this would happen all the time. Well the sport in those days was dominated by specialists.

Paris’ red clay belonged to topspin-laden sluggers like Gustavo Kuerten and Carlos Moya and Gaston Gaudio and Juan Carlos Ferrero and Albert Costa.

Huge servers like Goran Ivanisevic had a puncher’s chance on the Wimbledon grass.

Fit players who could withstand the heat tended to win the Australian Open — four of Andre Agassi’s eight Grand Slam victories were there.

And the U.S. Open was the emotional Slam, with the raucous crowd and the late night matches — it was the sort of place where an aging Pete Sampras could find the magic one more time.

So in those five or six years when there really wasn’t a dominant king of tennis, the men’s game was divided among princes and dukes. Each year from 2000-2003, the four slams were won by four different players.

You couldn’t help but wonder if the surfaces were SO different that tennis would never have a player dominate on all of them again.

Then Roger Federer came along. There has been a lot of talk lately about the way the different surfaces have come closer together — they took some of the fire out of Wimbledon’s grass, some of the mud out of the French Open clay — and a lot more talk about how the new equipment blunts many of the differences between courts. These things might be true, but there was also an all-court brilliance with Federer (his balance, his power, his speed, his touch) that made him superior no matter what the surface. Federer could win on ice.

The next four years, Federer won at least two slams every year.

He showed what was possible. Rafael Nadal seemed a pure clay-court specialist like his Spanish countrymen Moya and Costa and Carlos Ferrera, But, inspired I suspect by his hunger to beat Federer, he learned how to conquer the grass, then the hardcourts. In 2008, he beat Federer at Wimbledon.

In 2009, Federer won two Slams. In 2010, Nadal won three. In 2011, Novak Djokovic — hungry to break through the Federer-Nadal stronghold — built an invulnerable game based on fitness and return of serve and transforming himself match by match. He had one of the great year in tennis history and won three Slams.

Look at this run of finalists from 2011 through 2013:

2011 Australian: Djokovic beat Andy Murray.
2011 French: Nadal beat Federer.
2011 Wimbledon: Djokovic beat Nadal.
2011 U.S. Open: Djokovic beat Nadal.
2012 Australian: Djokovic beat Nadal.
2012 French: Nadal beat Djokovic.
2012 Wimbledon: Federer beat Murray.
2012 U.S. Open: Murray beat Djokovic.
2013 Australian: Djokovic beat Murray.
2013 French: Nadal beat David Ferrer.
2013 Wimbledon: Murray beat Djokovic.
2013 U.S. Open: Nadal beat Djokovic.

Twenty-four finalists in three years, and the only player to break the stronghold of the big four was the extroardinary David Ferrer, who has for a decade now has played his heart out with the fleeting hope that he could somehow, some way, overcome the relative smallness of his game and win simply by trying harder. Nadal dispatched Ferrer in three dismissive sets at the French, showing what happens when mere mortals try to play in the garden of the gods.

And you couldn’t help but wonder if tennis would be permanently dominated by a select few players with overpowering games.

This year has been very different. Yes, Nadal won the French, and Djokovic played Federer in a stirring Wimbledon final. But things have changed for big four. Some of those changes are obvious. Nadal’s injuries continue to plague him. Andy Murray lost ground after back surgery and a coacing change.

Some things, though, are not as obvious. Saturday, at the U.S. Open semifinals, Djokovic and Federer both lost to players ranked well below them. What was even more compelling is that Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic outplayed Djokovic and Fed in important ways.

Much of Djokovic’s brilliance has been tied to his ability to dig in on the big points and win those. When Djokovic engages, he seems to never miss a shot. Well, Saturday, Nishikori beat him regularly on the big points.

Much of Federer’s brilliance has been his glorious combination of power and grace — Cilic simply blew him off the court Saturday.

The announcers — at least the announcers on the U.S. Open channel since I no longer get CBS thanks to some war between DirecTV and Raycom, which owns the CBS affiliate in Charlotte — kept talking about how shocking it was. But I would argue that the most shocking part was how utterly NOT shocking it was, if that makes any sense.

Nishikori and Cilic obviously played at a very high level, obviously, but neither one played out of his mind. Nishikori hit the ball cleanly, with power, and he made few bad decisions, especially on those big points that are supposed to be Djokovic’s realm. Cilic served with force, beat Federer consistently on the backhand and pummeled Fed’s second serve. You do those things in tennis, you will win. There were no miracles here. These were no once-in-a-lifetime Chris Moneymaker wins the World Series of Poker things. Nishikori was better than Djokovic when it mattered. Cilic was way better than Federer.

My constant (and, admittedly, annoying) mantra in professional sports is this: The years never lose. It is true in every single sport — the players get older way faster than anyone wants to believe.

Sure, every now and again the great ones can hold off the years, the way Federer did against Gael Monfils this week or on his run to the Wimbledon final, but such triumphs are fleeting. Federer won his last grand slam when he was 30. Ivan Lendl won his last at 29, Jimmy Connors at 30. Sampras and Rod Laver won their last a few days after turning 31. Andre Agassi managed to win one at 32. Then, John McEnroe’s last was at 26, Bjorn Borg gave up tennis at 25, Lleyton Hewitt peaked at 21.

This is the stratosphere of pro sports — you only get so much time at the peak, and the air is thin, and you can only breathe for so long. Djokovic is only 27 and you would expect him to be at the top for a while longer, but three times in the Grand Slams this year he was outslugged by Stan Wawrinka, Nadal and 24-year-old Nishikori. The world catches up.

And Federer? This tournament felt like it could be magical for him. Nadal couldn’t play, Djokovic and Murray were on the other side of the bracket, he came in playing brilliantly well. But he needed to use all the sleight of hand and dry ice and trap doors in his magic kit just to get by Monfils. Then, no tricks worked against 25-year-old Cilic.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite scenes in sports movies — the scene in The Hustler where Fast Eddie Felson plays pool against Minnesota Fats the second time. The first time, Fast Eddie dominated Fats for 24 hours or more, and it was clear he was the better player. But he got drunk, and he got cocky, and Fats knew how to take out drunk and cocky challengers. Fats went to the bathroom, washed up, refocused his mind, came out ready for another 24 hours of pool. And Fast Eddie was beaten.

But the second time they played, Fast Eddie was changed. He had been through a lot of pain and no longer could be distracted. He played brilliantly and relentlessly, game after game, until finally Fats put down his cue and said: “I quit Eddie. I can’t beat you.”

The Cilic-Federer match had that feel. Federer had never lost to Cilic before — Saturday posed the question: Can he ever beat Cilic again.

Can Federer win another grand slam? It’s possible, of course, especially at Wimbledon. But I don’t think he will. It isn’t just two or three players who can beat him now. There are a few. And there are more on the way. There are always more on the way.