Linda Robertson

With top names out, next generation looks to take over at Miami Open

Although top seed Novak Djokovic defeated Dominic Thiem 6-3, 6-4 on Tuesday, Thiem, above, did cause a few headaches along the way.
Although top seed Novak Djokovic defeated Dominic Thiem 6-3, 6-4 on Tuesday, Thiem, above, did cause a few headaches along the way. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

The Miami Open has provided more proof that the Big Four’s stranglehold on men’s tennis is loosening.

Take a look at the main draw and you may strain your neck as usurpers have turned it into a Game of Thrones script. The familiar names of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray are missing, replaced by the likes of Nick Kyrgios, David Goffin and Milos Raonic.

Although it’s not exactly anarchy, it is another sign that the younger generation is growing up.

Dominic Thiem made No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic work Tuesday for his quarterfinal berth. Although Djokovic won 6-3, 6-4 to stay on track for his third straight Miami Open title and sixth overall, Thiem did cause a few headaches along the way. The Austrian nicknamed “Dominator” was willing to take risks and swing for the fences in an effort to disrupt Djokovic’s relentless fluidity. He extended the last game to 14 minutes before falling gallantly amid hearty cheers from the Stadium Court crowd.

Maybe next time. That’s been the mantra of the princes.

The average age of the Big Four is 29.75 — and it’s 29.8 including Stan Wawrinka in a Big Five. Thiem, who has ascended to No. 14, is 22. Among the other challengers, No. 26 Kyrgios is 20; No. 52 Alexander Zverev is 18; No. 46 Borna Coric is 19; No. 12 Raonic and No. 15 Goffin are 25 and Americans Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz are 18.

Tomas Berdych, 30, who slugged out a 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 victory over fellow veteran Richard Gasquet hears them coming.

“People get spoiled,” said Berdych, who might have won a Grand Slam by now if his career hadn’t coincided with a golden age of men’s tennis. “For the last 10 years there’s been no one else. So when it’s not the Big Four in the draw people say, ‘Wow, what’s happening?’ Well, we are not machines. Especially when you see how many young guys are moving up trying to hunt the top guys. It’s a nice, fresh change for tennis.”

It was intriguing to see Thiem fight off three match points in the final game and Gregor Dimitrov drive Murray into a racket-smashing temper tantrum on Monday. In the previous tournament, the BNP Paribas Open, Goffin defeated Wawrinka, Zverev got to match point against Nadal and Raonic advanced to the final, where he lost to Djokovic.

As much as fans have enjoyed gorging on the feast of the Big Four and their rivalries during an incomparable era, it’s delicious to sample a new cuisine.

“The Big Four made us practice harder and raise our level,” said Belgium’s Goffin. “When you lose 10 times in a row to Top 10 players, it’s tough. But when you finally beat one, it’s so good for your mentality and leads to more surprises.”

Consistency and opportunism are what the youngsters lack. Those are the hallmarks of the type of confidence Djokovic has honed since the years when he was prone to implosion. He even had a reputation of being a wimp.

The young guns are learning from their elders, who were also their idols. Goffin grew up with pictures of Federer on his bedroom walls. Coric, who ended 2015 as the youngest player in the top 50, grew up copying the fighting spirit of Nadal — and Mike Tyson. Hyeon Chung, the 19-year-old South Korean ranked No. 67, pursued tennis when his doctor told him looking at the color green would improve his weak eyesight. He admired Djokovic, who complimented Chung’s baseline game after beating him in the Australian Open.

“The Big Four are still there, still playing at an unbelievable level so it’s hard to say there is a changing of the guard yet,” said Kyrgios, a dynamic shotmaker whose upset of Nadal at Wimbledon 2014 made him the first teen to beat a No. 1-ranked player since Nadal did it to Federer at the 2005 French Open. “But all the young guys are capable of breakthroughs. To see Zverev go deep at Indian Wells woke me up and motivated me. You almost feed off of that. The guys are watching my run here and they’ll come back stronger.”

Kyrgios is the youngest man to advance to the quarterfinals here since Juan Martin Del Potro in 2009. Three of the quarterfinalists are age 25 or younger. But the men’s and women’s games are trending older. Gone are the days of the high school phenoms. Chris Evert says age 18 is the new 15 — the age at which she and Monica Seles, Steffi Graf, Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis first made their marks.

Djokovic, 28, echoed Brad Gilbert when he said the men’s game has gotten so much more physically demanding that it is more difficult to crack the top 10 than when he did.

“The way guys and women are taking care of themselves, it’s no problem now playing into your early 30s,” Gilbert said. “I think it’s taking longer to develop mentally and physically. Not to mention, the top players are making so much money they can afford all their own teams. It just makes them stronger.”

Horacio Zeballos, the 30-year-old lucky loser who benefited from Federer’s withdrawal due to a stomach virus and lost to Goffin, said more sophisticated diet and training regimens keep players thriving.

“You can be good at 34, not just at 24,” he said, citing Victor Estrella Burgos, who finished 2015 at a year-end high of No. 56 at age 35. “The young players have a lot more time to improve.”

Time may be on their side but the Big Four better not look back. Their emulators are gaining on them.

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