Wimbledon, England: Wimbledon is only one tournament, but in many minds it is the biggest, grandest stage in tennis. So let the speculation begin that cracks in the wall of dominance enjoyed by the group known as the Big Four of the men's game may have finally appeared during Wimbledon's second week.
On successive days on Centre Court, former champions were dismissed by younger players without a Grand Slam title to their names. After the 19-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios' four-set defeat of the two-time champion Rafael Nadal in the fourth round Tuesday, Grigor Dimitrov, a rising 23-year-old Bulgarian, thrashed Andy Murray, the defending champion, 6-1, 7-6 (4), 6-2, in the quarterfinals Wednesday.
Kyrgios' remarkable run ended when he collided with the huge game of the 6-foot-5 Canadian Milos Raonic, who at 23 is also trying to break through the wall. Admittedly tired after his upset of Nadal, Kyrgios watched 39 aces sail by him during Raonic's 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (4) victory.
Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 seed, advanced to Friday's semifinals, but he had to rally for a 6-1, 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-2 victory over 26th-seeded Marin Cilic of Croatia.
And do not schedule any requiems just yet for Roger Federer, the old man of the elite quartet. About a month before his 33rd birthday, Federer booked his place in the semifinals by ousting his Swiss compatriot and good friend Stan Wawrinka, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-4.
Playing for the third straight day, Wawrinka struggled physically after the first two sets, failing to find the form that earned him the Australian Open title in January, weeks before his 29th birthday. That victory was a rare interruption of Big Four rule.
One theme running through the first week of Wimbledon was the timetable for the emergence of promising new faces. When would they break through at a Grand Slam tournament after Djokovic, Murray, Nadal and Federer had won 35 of the last 37 and 38 of the last 42?
Kyrgios' out-of-nowhere run from a No. 144 ranking to a quarterfinal aside, the consensus remains that only the rarest of teenagers may be able to muscle their way to a major title in this era of elevated athleticism and advanced technology. As careers lengthened, it seemed more than ever that physical and emotional maturity were mandatory for boys to compete with men.
Dimitrov, whose best Slam result was the Australian Open quarterfinals this year, has the ability to push his way up among the stars. Formerly referred to as Baby Fed because his game resembled Federer's, Dimitrov had beaten Murray in their previous match, a three-setter in Mexico. He had also won the pre-Wimbledon event in London on grass, although before this week he might have been best known as Maria Sharapova's boyfriend.
Yet few foresaw the beating he administered Wednesday to Murray, who had won 17 straight matches at Wimbledon, including the 2012 Summer Olympics. Murray had not dropped a set in his first four matches while playing in his first major tournament since hiring Amélie Mauresmo to replace Ivan Lendl as his coach.
Dimitrov said he sensed that Murray's game "was not at the highest level" as they warmed up in front of the crowd, most of it expectant - or at least hopeful - of a Murray victory. Dimitrov also acknowledged that several practice sessions with Murray, whom he considers a friend, had helped him develop a familiarity with Murray's diverse game.
Though Murray later lamented a slow start, saying it gave Dimitrov confidence, it was Dimitrov who missed on a couple of ground strokes that gave Murray a break point in the first game of the match. But Dimitrov held, quickly got into a rhythm and broke Murray in the fourth game on the way to cruising through a 25-minute first set.
Dimitrov's service game was bigger. His ground strokes were bolder. And he feasted on Murray's second serve, with Murray able to win only 10 of 32 second-service points for the match.
The second set eliminated any thoughts that the magnitude of the day, along with the partisanship of the pro-Murray crowd, would ultimately get the best of Dimitrov. Having broken Murray for a 4-3 lead, Dimitrov had a game point for 5-3 when he suddenly played a few loose points, floating his sliced backhand, and was broken right back.
He had two more break points in the 11th game but failed to convert. Into the tiebreaker they went, with Murray thinking this was the time to pounce.
"When I got back into the second set, that was my opportunity," he said. "The momentum was switching - I couldn't do it."
Dimitrov took control of the tiebreaker with a backhand pass off a short Murray approach and iced it with a backhand volley off a deep and angled backhand approach. He turned to his coach, Roger Rasheed, in the players' box behind him, bent his knees and clenched his fists. Rasheed, who has worked with Dimitrov since October, has been credited for helping Dimitrov add purpose and smarter shot selection to his game.
Murray conceded that Dimitrov "was the better player from start to finish" and added - as is often the case when the next generation changes the competitive dynamic - that a contemplative reassessment was in order.
"I need to have a think about things, what are the things I need to improve and get myself in better shape and work even harder," Murray said. "Because everyone's starting to get better. The younger guys are now obviously becoming more mature and improving all the time."
Dimitrov, for one, had predicted earlier in the tournament that change was coming.
"Oh, as I said, it was around the corner," Dimitrov said, grinning. "I didn't know it was that around the corner. But, yeah, I mean, what can I say? We want to win. I mean, I think the younger guys, we want to come on that stage. We strive for this. I think we're thirsty for that."
While Federer will have to deal with Raonic, the next match in Dimitrov's coming-out party will be against Djokovic, who flirted with danger but took the last two sets easily against Cilic - much improved since he returned from a four-month suspension for doping last year and hired Goran Ivanisevic, a Wimbledon champion, as his coach.
"We have these youngsters coming up, fearless on the court, hitting the ball, you know, not caring who is across the net," Djokovic said. "You know, it gets more attention to new faces and to a new wave of generation that is able to challenge the best and be contending for Grand Slam titles."
It is one thing to ambush a champion on Centre Court and advance deep into the second week. It is quite another thing to have the perseverance and moxie to win it all.
"So exhausting - I have nothing left to give," Kyrgios said after falling to Raonic. "That's what Grand Slams do to you. I'm going to have to get a lot stronger."
Four years older than Kyrgios, Dimitrov and Raonic are on the verge of their tennis primes, but they will not be in Federer and Djokovic's league until they demonstrate an ability to go the distance. Four minus two does not equal zero: The reign of the Big Four is not over yet.
© 2014 New York Times News Service