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Men’s field at the Sony Open has a familiar feel at the top

For a few years now, we’ve been hearing how the Fab Four — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray — are on the verge of losing their stranglehold on men’s tennis.

Experts predicted that exciting Frenchmen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils were going to start winning majors. So were Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, and Marin Cilic. Tall promising Argentine Juan Martin del Potro won the 2009 U.S. Open, but hasn’t won a major since.

More recently, the list of potential party-crashers includes Milos Raonic, Grigor Dmitrov and Stan Wawrinka, who gave everyone hope by winning the 2014 Australian Open.

World-class players, every one of them. Full of promise.

And yet, as the 2014 Sony Open begins this week on Key Biscayne, it is still top-ranked Nadal, No. 2 Djokovic, resurgent 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer, and defending champion Murray who are selling tickets, drawing crowds at practices, and dominating the tennis narrative.

Sunday at the BNP Paribas Open final in Indian Wells, Calif., it was wily veterans Djokovic and Federer, a 32-year-old father of two (with a third on the way), slugging it out for three sets.

Just when the younger generation might have been counting Federer out, the Swiss maestro moved back into the top 5.

“Roger is as playing as consistently well as when he won Wimbledon in 2012,’’ said Patrick McEnroe, ESPN commentator and USTA manager of player development. “Even though he’s lost a couple of matches, he’s arguably out of top guys the most consistent, even though he doesn’t have a big title to back it up. He already has four wins over top-10 players, which is what he had all last year.’’

McEnroe feels Federer’s switch to a bigger racket is major factor, “because he’s getting easier power with it. It helped him in Australia until he ran into Nadal, and then it was same-old same-old. I could tell a noticeable difference in the power he was getting in wins over Tsonga and Murray.

“Obviously, Rafa’s the one guy who’s a matchup nightmare for him. But all four of those guys are still considered favorites going into any tournament.’’

The grip these four men have on Grand Slam titles is staggering. After Marat Safin's win in the 2005 Australian Open, 34 of the next 36 Grand Slams were won by the Fab Four. For nine years, the rest have watched in reverence — and frustration.

“What the men have created is one of a kind,’’ Maria Sharapova said Tuesday. “It really is so unique to anything the sport has experienced in so many years, and that’s what everyone has to realize. This might never be replicated, or it might take a really long time. The level of tennis they created, the rivalries, the expectations from the fans is amazing.’’

Despite the dominance of the Golden Generation, some younger players feel the tide is changing, the air of invincibility fading ever so slightly.

“I think for sure the guys lower-ranked now believe more than a few years ago,’’ said Alexandr Dolgopolov, who beat Nadal at Indian Wells. “But, I mean, that's normal that they were playing at some unbelievable level, not dropping almost never. So what can you do?

“But after time, you lose that momentum. I don't think it's possible to play like they played all their career. I think it's normal that they are starting some up and downs and some younger guys get chances to beat them. That's life. All of us get older, and that's normal. Every generation is going to go and the younger ones are going to push.”

Wawrinka’s remarkable run at the Australian Open gave an injection of confidence to other players who might have doubted whether they would ever get their turn.

“I think the moment that put the most light on it happened earlier this year with Stan beating Novak and Rafa in the Grand Slam stage, because I think it is the hardest in three out of five sets,’’ said Raonic, who beat Murray in the Round of 16 at Indian Wells. “I think everybody sort of in that top-10 range, also a little bit outside trying to breakthrough, took a deep breath and said, `Why can't that be me?’

“They know that the window is still very small, but at least they see a window of opportunity. I think the guys outside that top four group are trying to claw away and they're finding that little window.’’

Does that mean, then, that tennis is witnessing a changing of the guard?

“No,’’ Raonic said. “Because I think the other guys are still the best players on this world.’’

Dolgopolov agreed: “Still they are favorites and still at the top of the ranking, but the players know that there is always a chance now. Three or four years ago, guys went into matches thinking they could not win.’’

This story was originally published March 19, 2014 12:00 AM.

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