Alexandr Dolgopolov, the young Ukrainian tennis star who is providing some sporting distraction to his beleaguered country, was making a point the other day about the shifting sands of time – and how it relates to the long-established Big Four in the men’s game.
Dolgopolov had just beaten the world’s No. 1 player, Rafael Nadal, in the third round, and after a win over Fabio Fognini on Wednesday, he will play another rising star – Canada’s Milos Raonic – in the quarter-finals of the BNP Paribas Open.
Raonic of Thornhill, Ont., booked his ticket to the quarters with a 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 win over Andy Murray of Scotland.
Nadal, Murray, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have dominated men’s tennis (38 major titles among them) for so long now, no other player has been ranked No. 1 in more than a decade.
But there are a few cracks developing.
Murray was seeded fifth here, Federer seventh, and for Dolgopolov, the mood in the locker room is changing – there is hope among the next generation of players their time may collectively be coming, if it isn’t already at hand.
“I think for sure, the lower-ranked guys believe more than a few years ago,” Dolgopolov said. “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. Every generation is going to go and the younger ones are going to push.
“But I think that’s good for the [ATP Tour] – that the people see new people playing, new players. It’s more fun that way.”
Fun for Dolgopolov and for Raonic, too, who previously made the final of one Masters ATP Grand Slam tournament, last summer in Montreal, only to lose a one-sided match to Nadal.
Dolgopolov is the 28th seed here, Raonic 11th.
They are in the same half of the draw as Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland, who were playing their respective fourth-round matches late Wednesday.
According to Raonic, it was Wawrinka’s breakthrough win at the Australian Open in January that gave others a fresh glimmer of hope.
“I think everybody in that top-10 range or a little bit outside trying to break through, took a deep breath and said, ‘Why can’t that be me?’” Raonic said. “I guess the best way to describe it is: guys going into that match don’t feel like they’re facing somebody that’s invincible. They feel a little bit more vulnerability against those top guys, and they just have to exploit that.
“They know that the window is still very small, but at least they see a window of opportunity.”
Raonic defeated Murray by recovering from two lapses that might have been psychologically costly at an earlier stage of his career. In the first set, tied 4-4, he lost eight consecutive points and dropped the set with a thud.
After battling back to win the second, Raonic lost his serve early in the third, but immediately got the break back and then proceeded to break Murray again the next time the Briton served. Murray saved a match point on his own serve, but, leading 5-3, Raonic served out the match with a love game and finished with 15 aces.
Murray was unhappy with how he handled the final stages of a match that otherwise went pretty well for him, noting: “It’s tough to win matches like that, because against him, he obviously wins a lot of free points with his serve. So over the course of the set, if you give up enough unforced errors on basic shots, then with the amount of free points he gets on his serve, that’s going to add up to a negative result.
“It’s so disappointing.”
Raonic made it to the fourth-round here last year, but lost a tough three-setter to France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The Canadian’s belief system has improved significantly since then, and in the second half Wednesday, he played his ground strokes with far greater authority and confidence than in the past. He is doing a far better job of eliminating the negative energy that sometimes creeps into his game.
“I focused a lot more this event on my attitude and approach during the matches,” Raonic said, adding the win over Murray came on the 20th anniversary of his parents immigrating to Canada from Montenegro.
“That move for our family has given as much to me as it has to my brother, my sister, and my parents,” said Raonic, 23. “Great educations; great support system that my parents instilled in us was made possible through the Canadian system; my sister did her master’s [degree] there; my brother went to university there; they got great jobs; they are living very happy lives; my father is happily retired and getting a pension.
“Just everybody in the family is grateful and really appreciative of the move that was made.”
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