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Beyond the Baseline

Sony Open offers glimpse at an ATP without Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer

Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer last week in their first quarterfinal meeting. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

When Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal took to Stadium Court last week for their Indian Wells quarterfinal, it didn't feel like a match. It felt like an event.

With Guns 'n Roses' Welcome to the Jungle greeting the players and the well-heeled crowd packing the corporate seats and suites, tennis was brought to life. Tennis Channel had sent out press releases detailing its coverage plans for the match all day. Writers on the outskirts of tennis had tweeted their intentions to stay in for the night to watch. And as the match began, not a single journalist in the BNP Paribas Open press room was at his or her desk (a rare sight), choosing to sit in the stadium seats instead.

An hour and a half later the two men shook hands after yet another Nadal win, this time over an injury-hampered Federer 6-4, 6-2. The match was, in their relative terms, a dud. And all I could think as the two met at net for the 29th time in 10 years was, "What are we going to do when they're gone?"

For 10 years, Federer and Nadal have set the tone for this Golden Era. Federer started it, of course, with his dominance from 2003 to 2007, until Nadal completed his quixotic quest to chase him down. In a seven-month period from 2008 Wimbledon through the 2009 Australian Open, Nadal went from being a clay prodigy to finally beating Federer on his own turf, in that epic Wimbledon final and then a few months later in the Melbourne final. That latter loss brought Federer to tears, a very public display of frustration, disappointment and sadness. Looking back, that final was the last great match of their storied rivalry. In 10 matches since then, six were won in straight sets and neither Grand Slam meeting went five sets. So was it a surprise that their clash in Indian Wells, their first in a year, didn't live up to the pomp and circumstance? Not really.

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Of course, in the last two and a half years the spotlight has been yanked away from Federer and Nadal -- at times seemingly by sheer force of will -- by the impossibly fit, flexible, powerful and just plain gutsy Novak Djokovic. It speaks volumes that Djokovic was riding an 18-match winning streak into Indian Wells, after winning the Australian Open for the third straight time, and no one blinked. This is how spoiled we are in tennis these days, that the No. 1 player in the world can go through the first part of the season undefeated and we shrug because, "Meh, we've seen this before."

But if the last 10 years needed a throughline, it's been the story of the chase. Federer being inspired by Pete Sampras and working to match and surpass him. Nadal, full of the utmost respect for Federer, crafting his game to try to catch him and be part of the same "Greatest of All Time" conversation. Djokovic retooling his diet and training -- even his personality -- to turn the "Big Two" into a "Big Three." And there's Andy Murray, who's made it a quartet.

Those have been the riveting storylines that have carried men's tennis to new heights. Which is why as I sat down earlier this week to look at the men's draw at this week's Sony Open in Miami with the sinking feeling that it was a glimpse into the future, one without Federer and Nadal.

The Nos. 5-8 -- or "The Little Four," as ESPN.com's Kamakshi Tandon once dubbed them -- undoubtedly have the talent. David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have shown through consistency (Ferrer), bracket-busting wins (Berdych, Tsonga) and breakthrough runs (Del Potro) that they have the tools to compete for the biggest titles. And yet, they really haven't. Between them they have just three ATP Masters 1000 titles, all won at the Paris Indoors at the end of the season that typically sees a depleted field and a lightning-quick surface. Del Potro is the lone major winner -- the U.S. Open in 2009 -- but he has yet to win a Masters title and made only two Masters finals.

There are matchup and consistency issues that can help explain each of "The Little Four's" deficiencies, but it comes down to pure belief. Even when Nadal was struggling to solve the Federer puzzle on grass and hard courts, you never got the sense he didn't believe he could find the answers. The same applies to Djokovic and Murray, two players who had their struggles and doubts but whose self-belief was hard to question.

The same can't be said for the 5-8s. How many times have we seen them fight valiantly against Big Four members only to lose the first set and disappear for the rest of the match as though their not-quite-good-enough fate has already been determined? It's a frustrating trend, and it's the reason why Berdych's recent wins over Federer or Del Potro's back-to-back victories from a set down against Murray and Djokovic last week in Indian Wells are so invigorating. Maybe, just maybe, they're starting to believe.

Given the weakened Miami field, I'm not sure what the results will tell us about the state of the current game. If this is a glimpse into the future, will Djokovic and Murray simply romp to the final and then duke it out to see who has the better day? Or will the field step up to embrace this opportunity? Here's hoping for a week where the field keeps the top competition honest.

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