While the Big Four that has dominated the ATP World Tour for the past several years will continue to be major players deep into Slams, the theme this season was the emergence of new faces contending for the titles as well. Two of the four Slams were won by players not named Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray, and the US Open featured the first final since 2005 to not include any of them.
Here is a look at the six players who made major breakthroughs at Slams this year – two first-time champions in their maiden finals, a first-time finalist, and three first-time semifinalists:
Stan Wawrinka started the trend by clinching the Australian Open title in January, defeating Nadal in the final, Tomas Berdych in the semifinals, and Djokovic in the quarters. After making his first Slam semifinal at the 2013 US Open, it took him just one more major to clinch his maiden title. It was an impressive feat that helped to imbue a mindset in his fellow players that it was possible to overcome the Big Four and win a Slam. His triumph ended up being a bit of a foreshadowing for a surprising season to come.
One of the biggest surprises was probably Ernests Gulbis emerging as a semifinalist at the French Open as the talented but enigmatic athlete never seemed to be able to put his full set of skills together consistently. While he did have a Slam quarter-final to his name before his run in Paris, it came back in 2008 and since then he hadn’t made it past the third round at a major. Ranked world No. 17 at the time, he took down Federer in the fourth round and continued all the way to his first-ever Slam semifinal before being eliminated by Djokovic. He subsequently rose into the Top 10 for the first time in his career.
Tapped as a future champion since he won two junior Slams in 2008, Grigor Dimitrov has blossomed into that Top 10 talent this year. Fresh off winning his third title of the season and fourth overall at Queen’s Club, he took to the grass at Wimbledon and proceeded to make his maiden Slam semifinal. En route he ousted defending champion Murray in straight sets in the quarter-finals. Considered part of the next generation to lead the ATP World Tour, Dimitrov could be a major player deep into Slams for many years.
Milos Raonic took his first big step forward in the Slams by advancing into the quarter-finals at Roland Garros for the first time in June. Buoyed by that experience, he went one round farther at Wimbledon and became a semifinalist thanks to some impressive play at the All England Club – a result that made him the highest-ranked Canadian singles player in history at world No. 6. Though he was unable to replicate his performance at the US Open, where he lost to eventual finalist Kei Nishikori in the fourth round, Raonic looks to be a contender for years to come.
Kei Nishikori’s performance at the US Open this year was one of the best in recent memory. Not even sure ahead of time that he would be ready to compete due to a foot ailment, Nishikori made it through two intense consecutive five-setters in the fourth round over Raonic and quarter-finals against Wawrinka – his bout with Raonic becoming the longest match of the tournament at four hours and 19 minutes and tying the record for latest finish at the US Open at 2:26 a.m. He then ousted world No. 1 Djokovic in the semifinals to make his first Slam final, the first Japanese man to ever accomplish the feat. Though his many hours of play seemed to catch up to him in the championship match, Nishikori will no doubt have another chance at a Slam trophy more times in his career.
Marin Cilic joins Wawrinka and Juan Martin Del Potro as the trio to have been able to win a Slam during the Big Four era. Though he had been playing excellent tennis leading into the US Open – his third-round loss to Federer at Rogers Cup presented by National Bank was one of the best matches of the tournament – not many people could have predicted he would be the man to emerge victorious. But after coming through a tough five-set duel with Gilles Simon in the fourth round, Cilic was unstoppable and untouchable. He eliminated Berdych, Federer, and Nishikori in succession, all in straight sets, for his first-ever Slam trophy. If he keeps up this level of play, Cilic will certainly have a shot at another Slam.
While it’s been a golden age for men’s tennis with the world-class skills, dominance, and class displayed by Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, and Murray at the top of the sport, it’s also been a treat this year to watch others take their game to the next level. With seemingly more players in the mix for the trophies, next year’s Grand Slam season will be all the more interesting and intriguing.