Three aces figure to dominate U.S. Open: Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic

Andy Murray of Great Britain celebrates after defeating Andy Murray of Great Britain celebrates after defeating Novak Djokovic of Serbia at the All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, London at the 2012 Summer Olympics. (Aug. 3, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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In the standard telling, this is the golden age of men's tennis. That perception is only enhanced by Andy Murray's giddy slide down the Olympic banister to join Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the exclusive parlor of champions.

For years, these four players have been making the super appear natural on the sport's biggest stages. With few hints they won't continue to do so. Extrapolate: In the past 30 Grand Slam events, dating to the 2005 French Open, either Federer, Nadal or Djokovic has been champion in 29 of them. (Argentine Juan Martin del Potro won the 30th, the 2009 Open.)

Over the past five years, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray -- in some order -- have had a choke hold on the world ranking's top four spots. Men's tennis has plenty of depth, and thus some potential for early-round Open surprises. But, no other man, besides those four, has advanced to the last eight major-tournament championship finals.

So even with Nadal absent from this year's U.S. Open because of knee tendinitis, the narrative does not markedly change. "The favorites," declared del Potro, when asked about his own Open chances following extended rehabilitation for a surgically repaired wrist, "are Djokovic, Murray and Federer . . ."

There will be no stunt doubles, apparently. The closest thing to a revolution was Murray's gold-medal victory (over Federer), coming just weeks after Murray lost the fourth of his four Grand Slam finals (to Federer) at Wimbledon.

"So many titles and so much competition going on and so many great rivalries, great matches, history and all these things," Djokovic marveled. "There are different kinds of talk with the rivalries between Roger and Rafa, between me and Rafa, me and Roger. And then Andy.

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"Andy was always part of that group of top players. Now he has won the Olympic Games. He's played a couple of Grand Slam finals, so he deserves to be in there."

Murray, still only 25, has been knock, knock, knocking on the door to tennis heaven since his runner-up finish to Federer in the 2008 Open, when he was just 21. Simply by taking an early lead against Federer in this year's Wimbledon title match, Murray at last appeared to put himself solidly in the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic company.

At the time, Murray said, "I'm getting closer." Last week, he acknowledged that, despite that four-set Wimbledon loss, his outlook had changed -- from a figurative "Why?" to "Why not?"

"It made me want to get back on the court and start training much earlier than I ever have after losing a Slam final," he said. "My head was right much, much quicker."

Within weeks, he had his Olympic victory and, "in the short term, certainly," a new self-assurance.

That, and the hiring of eight-time major-tournament champion Ivan Lendl as coach last winter, have instilled a more aggressive approach. "I'm hoping it helps me . . . going into the U.S. Open and big matches in the future," Murray said. "I think it will give me that extra bit of confidence to probably feel a bit calmer going into them."

At 31, Federer continues to demonstrate his unique tennis cleverness gene; last month's Wimbledon crown added to his record 17 major titles and regained for him the No. 1 ranking lost two years ago. Nadal, though his career is in abeyance and his knee injuries chronic, still is only 26 and has won 11 Grand Slam events. Djokovic, at 25, is just a year past winning three consecutive majors -- giving him a total of five.

The three of them have been so productive for so long that even the slightest decline in results triggers a pretzel logic skeptical of a reprise. Djokovic's startling run of seven consecutive victories over Nadal -- three in major championship finals -- somehow led to demands to explain his three straight losses to Nadal this year.

"You know, it's normal," Djokovic said. "I didn't expect myself to continue winning against Nadal every single match we play. I'm confident we are going to have many more great matches. But it's normal that I win, I lose, and I move on."

What isn't entirely normal is how the sport's power has remained in the hands of so few for so long. That -- to Andy Roddick, the last man not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic to be ranked No. 1 (at the end of 2003) -- is proof enough that tennis indeed is experiencing a most princely era.

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"Is it conceivable [Djokovic] wins another big tournament? Yes," Roddick understated. "Yes, it's conceivable. I mean, he's pretty good. I know we're to the point where we're supposed to be asking questions, 'What happened to Novak?' when he loses in the semis, but I don't know that I am completely buying into that.

"It's the same as when we get questions about Roger: 'Well, is he as good as he used to be?' Well, does he have to be? He can still win majors."

From Federer comes a measure of sympathy for the all the serfs out there -- players ranked No. 5 and below -- so regularly lorded over by him, Nadal, Djokovic and, increasingly, Murray.

"People expect too much from young players at times," Federer said. "The problem [for them] is that the top guys all are so consistent, so whenever one guy loses one week, first or second round, people are, like, 'Guy can't play tennis anymore.'

"That's where I am so impressed by Novak and Murray and Rafa, how consistent they were at a young age already."

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Someday, it will change. Although, at this point -- and with Murray's building dynamism -- that seems merely conceivable.

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