After much hype and expectation, the new generation in men’s tennis has finally come to the fore at Wimbledon 2014. For more than five years the sport has been dominated by the “Big Four” of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, without any of the younger players being able to burst through and get to the latter stages of a Grand Slam, never mind win one.
But the signs have been growing this year that a shakeup could be coming, and on the grass of the All England Club is has finally arrived. The semifinals will see two members of the established guard -- Federer and Djokovic seek to stem the tide of the young guns -- represented by Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov.
“We want to win,” Dimitrov said. “I mean, I think the younger guys, we want to come on that stage. We strive for this. I think we're thirsty for that. We want to prove ourselves. We also want to prove to the big guys that we're around the corner.”
Dimitrov’s comments came after he knocked off one of the members of the "Big Four," and the defending Wimbledon champions no less, Murray, in the quarterfinals. More than any of the other emerging players in recent years, the Bulgarian has been touted as the next big thing. His tag of “Baby Fed,” due to the similarities in his game with the Swiss great, arguably proved to be more of a hindrance than a blessing. Now, aged 23, he is putting in the work needed to accompany his raw talent and is getting the results.
On Saturday he takes on world No. 2 Djokovic. The Serbian has now gone nearly 18 months since winning a Grand Slam, which is far from a drought for mere mortals, but for someone who was winning them at the rate of Djokovic it is an unwelcome dry spell. After losing to Nadal in the French Open once more, Djokovic has looked impressive at Wimbledon, dropping just two sets en route to the last four, one of those coming in a quarterfinal win over Marin Cilic. But Djokovic is not taking anything for granted against Dimitrov, simply because he won’t be facing his conqueror in last year’s final.
“I’m sure many people look at him as a potential Grand Slam winner,” he said of Dimitrov. “Maybe here, maybe in the Grand Slams to follow. But he has won I think tournaments on each surface this year, so it says enough about his quality on different surfaces, his ability to adjust to different surfaces.”
Friday’s second semifinal has a similar storyline. With a monstrous serve that is now arguably the best in the game, Raonic’s potential has long been evident. With such a weapon, it also appeared that he would be the biggest threat on the quick low bouncing grass of Wimbledon. Yet, his record at the All England Club has seen him eliminated in the second round on each of his three previous visits. Having risen up to the rankings to his current ninth position, he has now made his big Grand Slam breakthrough after getting the better of two of his fellow emerging stars.
Following his defeat of Japan’s Kei Nishikori, he ultimately had too much for 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios, the conqueror of Rafael Nadal, in the fourth round. Up next is a visit to Centre Court and the man who has made it a home away from home for the past 11 years.
“I'm going to step out there and I'm not playing the seven-time Wimbledon champion,” he said. “I'm not playing a 32-year-old man. I'm not playing father of two sets of twins, which is a very low possibility I bet to do. I'm not playing the guy that's won whatever he's won, which I could probably list quite vividly.
“I'm playing a guy that is standing in my way of what I want to achieve, and I've got to focus on everything that's there, on the situation, how best to deal with it to give myself the best possibilities to achieve what I want.”
For Federer, the surprises in the previous rounds have raised expectations that he could add to his 17 Grand Slam titles. Aged 32, and with the younger generation of players now on the rise, he may not get a better chance. But as he prepares to go up against a man he has beaten in all four of their previous meetings, Federer is not about to get ahead of himself.
“It’s Raonic that has won, so that's who I'm preparing play against,” he asserted. “It doesn't matter what happened in that section of the draw. I know there's always talk about possible matchups and all that stuff, but it really doesn't matter.”
Predictions: Djokovic over Dimitrov in five sets, Federer over Raonic in four sets.
Where to watch: The men’s semifinals at Wimbledon begin at 8 a.m. ET, with Novak Djokovic against Grigor Dimitrov. Coverage of both semifinals will be provided by ESPN, with as live stream available on ESPN3.