NEW YORK: When Rafael Nadal pulled out of the US Open, his agony was sweet music to Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov and Kei Nishikori, tennis’s widely-hyped but under-performing next generation.
More than anyone else, Nadal, the 14-time Grand Slam winner, has proved to be their nemesis, leaving many in the sport wondering if the men trying to follow in the footsteps of the Big Four will ever achieve similar dominance.
Raonic, the big-serving Canadian, and Dimitrov, the high-profile Bulgarian, are both 23 while Japan’s Nishikori will be 25 in December.
In stark contrast, Nadal was a major winner at just 19, lifting the first of nine French Opens.
Nishikori has lost all seven times he has played Nadal while Raonic and Dimitrov have identical, depressing 0-5 records.
The three pretenders have been treated with equal contempt by Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray.
World number one Djokovic has a 3-0 winning record over Raonic, enjoys a 4-1 stranglehold against Dimitrov and is 1-1 against Nishikori.
Federer, looking for an 18th major in New York, is 6-0 against Raonic with two recent wins at Wimbledon and Cincinnati achieved without dropping a set, 1-0 against Dimitrov and 2-2 with Nishikori.
The only record against the Big Four which is in positive territory is Raonic’s 3-1 edge over Murray. The Scot, however, is 3-2 when facing Dimitrov and 3-0 against Nishikori.
“Tennis has changed so much in a way that it’s very hard for the younger generation to get out there and win majors and consecutive big tour titles. I think it is not as easy as it was before,” admitted Dimitrov.
The world number eight, dubbed “Baby Fed” for his playing similarities to the great Swiss and a picture-perfect one-handed backhand, was a semi-finalist at Wimbledon this year and made the last eight at the Australian Open.
But his three visits to the US Open have resulted in three first round defeats. “I think we, in a way, we are all aware of that. I give ourselves a bit of credit that at least we’re trying really hard for all those things, but I believe our time will come,” added the Bulgarian.
“It’s definitely slower. All the top guys that are out there now have been winning majors at 22, 23, 24.” Federer believes the likes of Raonic need to be on the offensive more and not defend constantly from behind the baseline in the hope of picking up scraps.
“I’ve seen it come and go a little bit, but I do believe for him in the future, if he wants to do well, he has to stay up on the baseline. Can’t move far back,” offered the Swiss star in an off the cuff tactical talk.
Raonic has made the fourth round at the US Open on his last two visits. He was buoyed by a title march in Washington where he fired 83 aces as well as a semi-final run in Cincinnati.
If he is to make a deep impression at Flushing Meadows, he knows the serve will again be crucial. “It has improved. I have put more focus on it, I would say, just getting out there and hitting more serves....it’s just been more difficult for my opponents,” said Raonic.
“I think my holding numbers are higher and winning on second serve points and saving breakpoints. I have a better understanding what I need to do.”
Nishikori, meanwhile, was a first round casualty at the 2013 US Open and it’s six years since he had his best run -- a fourth round place in 2008.
Like Raonic and Dimitrov -- and unlike Nadal, Djokovic and Federer -- the quietly-spoken Florida-based Japanese player is erratic on the Grand Slam stage.
His last-16 runs at the Australian Open and Wimbledon this year sandwiched a first round exit at the French Open.
But despite the trio of hopefuls all being in their mid-20s, there is always hope.
Stan Wawrinka was 28 when he won the Australian Open this year while Murray was 25 when he captured his maiden Grand Slam title at the 2012 US Open.
The days of a teenager winning the US Open -- Pete Sampras was just past his 19th birthday when he won in 1990 -- may be gone, but age seems to be little of a barrier to dreams.
Just ask Dominican Republic’s Victor Estrella Burgos who will make his New York debut next week at the age of 34.