There is an unmistakable buzz around the hallowed Centre Court when Grigor Dimitrov, the 23-year-old Bulgarian, steps onto the manicured lawn. It is not merely in anticipation that his special lady friend, Maria Sharapova, might make an unscheduled appearance in the player's box.
More than any of the touted young wannabes, Dimitrov has that special look, an all-too-apparent athletic pedigree.
"He has the most tennis ability, the most variety, he's incredibly flexible and limber," said Patrick McEnroe, an ESPN analyst.
This was audibly obvious in the first game Dimitrov played Wednesday, when he uncoiled a 132-mph first serve that flummoxed his second-round opponent, Luke Saville, and elicited a collective "ooh."
At 6 foot 3, Dimitrov is 2 inches taller than Roger Federer. His hair is darker. But he was not nicknamed Baby Federer early in his career for nothing. (Also read: Wawrinka steps out of Federer's shadow)
"Do I think he has the most upside out of the younger players? I do," McEnroe said before calling Dimitrov's 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 victory for ESPN. "I remember watching him when he was winning the U.S. Open in the juniors and saying to myself, this guy's going to be top five, for sure. He's 23 now, so that's been a solid five years. In olden days, it could have happened within a year. But the days of an 18- or 19-year-old breaking through and winning a major appear to be over."
Beyond the question of how long it takes for a burgeoning young talent to become a Grand Slam champion is a more vexing question: Has the current status quo, the yearslong dominance of what is commonly called the Big Four, become a somewhat stale dynamic?
Has what McEnroe called "a golden age of men's tennis" made the sport a little too predictable at its premier events?
At the highest level, the game is more physical than ever, more lucrative. Primes are being extended. Careers last longer. Across the years, the best players confront one another many more times than when McEnroe's brother, John, had a storied rivalry with Bjorn Borg in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They split 14 official tour matches. By comparison, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have already played 42 times. (Read: Perfect start for Murray, the returning hero)
"I like the rivalries and when we don't have them, we bemoan it and say, 'Where are the rivalries?'" Patrick McEnroe said. "Like in golf, you have all these different guys winning and people say, 'Where's Tiger? Where's Mickelson?'
"Tennis has gone the other way, where people are starting to say, 'Can somebody else please win one?' It gets a little tiring. Can't we find somebody who's young who can step up in a major and actually beat these guys when it counts?"
It is not as if the best are never challenged. The top-seeded Djokovic was anxiously extended to a fourth-set tiebreaker by the ever-feisty, 35-year-old Czech Radek Stepanek, in a 6-4, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5) victory that ended with Stepanek on his knees, hands clasped, futilely praying that an out call challenged by Djokovic would stand.
years ago, the 6-foot-6 Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, then 20, beat Federer in the U.S. Open final, before career ascension was sidetracked by injuries. More recently, Stan Wawrinka stormed past Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal to win this year's Australian Open but, already 29, his story must for now be considered a heartwarming episode more than a storming of the establishment.
Dating to 2004, Federer, Nadal, Djokivic and Andy Murray have won 38 of the last 42 Grand Slam tournaments and have also dominated the Masters Series events.
"As players get older, guys are going to catch up," said Murray, who breezed to a 6-1, 6-1, 6-0 victory over Blaz Rola of Slovenia on Wednesday. "The younger guys that are coming through are going to keep getting better. They'll keep getting stronger physically. They'll keep learning. But how long it's going to take, you don't know."
Bernard Tomic, a 6-foot-5 Australian with a flair for finesse, was considered to be a budding contender a couple of years ago. Still only 21, he currently is ranked 86th and was sent off Wednesday by No. 6 Tomas Berdych, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3), 6-1.
A year ago at Wimbledon, Jerzy Janowicz , a 6-8 Polish force of nature, powered his way to the semifinals. He returned this week having endured an injury-filled year and having lost 10 of his previous 12 matches until eking out a five-set, first-round victory.
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