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The End of An Era /RafaFed Rivalry


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The end of an era
Chris Wilkinson March 2, 2011

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have dominated men's tennis in recent years © Getty Images
A couple of seasons ago Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were in a league of their own, but now tennis' top division has expanded to five.
For the first time in a while, we are genuinely looking at a season where there are no foregone conclusions, and that is great news for the game.
Federer and Nadal are great role models for the sport but I don't think they will be as dominant this year.
The Roger-Rafa rivalry created a fascinating storyline but now Robin Soderling, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are breathing down their necks and they all bring something different to the game.
Tomas Berdych is close, but I don't think he is quite there yet. With so many points to defend I think he will struggle this season, while Andy Roddick's time at the top is coming to an end. The likes of David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco and Mikhail Youzhny make up a strong top ten, but there is a definite gulf in class.
Soderling has really impressed me recently. Having seen him in action in Rotterdam he is hitting the ball harder than anyone else on tour and playing the big point well.
It could be a good year for him. He has come close before and with three titles to his name already this season he is really looking like a genuine grand slam contender.
But one man who could get in his way is Djokovic, who is in the form of his life. He has really upped his level since last year and you can trace his upward curve back to the US Open. Before the US Open he was never really mentioned as a serious contender but he raised his game and was narrowly denied by Nadal in the final.

Lack of match practice will be a major concern for Murray, who will have just one match under his belt when he arrives in California.
For me, that performance was the turning point and he started the year in a similar vein. The main difference between Djokovic now and 12 months ago is his serve. This time last year it was all over the place but now it is a major weapon in his armoury. Being able to rely on your serve makes a big difference - he is no longer under pressure on his service games and if he can maintain this momentum he can become No. 1 this year.
He has proven in the last three or four months that he has got what it takes. I think Federer will struggle to win a grand slam this year and as always it remains to be seen whether Nadal can stay fit and it is just a case of who is going to step up to the mark and to me Djokovic is the prime contender.
After the early excitement of the Australian Open, there is a bit of a lull in the season with a handful of lower-ranking tournaments before the first Masters series event in Indian Wells in March. For the top players this is a time to focus on maintaining their fitness and fine-tuning their game.
The key is to strike a balance between match practice and not overdoing it and to take as much confidence into the spring hardcourt season in the States. That is the major concern for Murray, who will have just one match under his belt when he arrives in California.

Novak Djokovic is in the form of his life © PA

He was cruising against Marcos Baghdatis in Rotterdam but suffered a mental breakdown and then he pulled out of Dubai with a wrist problem. It's starting to feel like déjà-vu - this time last year he had lost the Australian Open final and then struggled for form in the spring.
After his defeat to Djokovic in Melbourne he was threatening to take a couple of months off, and I said the best thing was for him to get straight back out on court, and I still stand by that. The big thing for Murray is to overcome this mental hurdle he has and he must learn to grind out results even when he is not on the top of his game. That is the crucial difference between Nadal and Murray - Nadal can still win games when not at 100% and Murray needs to learn to get on with it.
The danger is when he arrives in Indian Wells that he is not in the right frame of mind and he only has that defeat to Baghdatis to draw on. Hopefully we won't see a repeat of last year, where he only got his season back on track at Wimbledon, and a strong start at Indian Wells could be critical for Murray's 2011.
Keep an eye out for Juan Martin del Potro in the coming weeks. His victory at Delray Beach shows his comeback from injury is nearly complete, and he is a player I expect to work his way back into the top ten. It has taken the best part of a year to recover from a nasty wrist injury and he must make sure he doesn't rush things. He is still some way from his best and realistically I don't think we'll see him challenging properly until the US Open.
I think the French Open is too soon and I think he would struggle on clay having not played much in the past year, and grass is not his favourite surface so he should be looking at gearing his season to the American hardcourt season in August.
His first title in nearly 18 months will be a huge confidence boost for him and another couple of titles in the coming months will see him work his way back up the rankings. He will go into the Masters series in Indian Wells and Miami as a dark horse - players will be looking over their shoulders at him and will be desperate to avoid him in the draw. He could provide an upset or two.
Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1

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