2016 Year in Review: The No. 1 Battle in Two Matches

If the trajectory of Andy Murray’s career up until this point has told us anything, it was that he was never supposed to get to here. It didn’t matter if it was Federer, Nadal or Djokovic who was no. 1, he was always the “other guy”, the one who was good enough to test them, yet never good enough to surpass them – but with his win over Djokovic in the World Tour Finals, he finally has.

Murray may have taken the top spot after winning in Paris, but it was his fairly comfortable 6-3, 6-4 win over the Serb in London that removed any doubt as to whether he deserved to be there. That might seem a weird notion given he’s the reigning Wimbledon and Olympic champion, but it’s been a weird year – we lost Federer and Nadal to injury, Gael Monfils finally made a World Tour Finals, while Nick Kyrgios somehow became even more immature – so when you consider that the man who finished the year on top started it getting handled by the same opponent he rolled in the WTFs, you can see where I’m coming from.

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First facing each other in the Australian Open final, all signs pointed towards 2016 being more-of-the-same for Murray.  A 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 win for Djokovic, the match largely played into the narratives set up by their previous 30 encounters, with Murray being ground-down by the Serb’s brilliance, his own foibles not helping either. Nerves cost Murray any chance at the first set, but even as the match shifted back into balance it was Djokovic who was taking the initiative, establishing footholds with early breaks – a product of his consistent pressure in return games – and while Murray was able to claw his way back, he wasn’t able to match Djokovic’s level when it really counted, costing him a service game at 5-5 in the second, as well as the third-set tiebreaker. Perhaps had Murray escaped the third set it could’ve been a different story, but as it was Djokovic reigned supreme in almost every area statistically, winning 67% of his service points and 44% of return points for a dominance ratio of 1.32, per tennis abstract. And while Murray tried to take control of baseline rallies, he lacked the offensive consistency to do so – case-in-point, his 7 extra winners came at the cost of 28 more unforced errors. Stats aside, in almost every circumstance Djokovic was much more assured from the back of the court, taking full advantage of his more fluid forehand to keep Murray on the defensive. Afterwards, Djokovic acknowledged there was “no doubt” he was playing “the best tennis of my life”, and clearly Murray didn’t have an answer.

Fast-forward to London, and the tables had comprehensively turned. Despite their vastly different lead-ins to the final – Murray’s a three-hour slugfest with Milos Raonic, Djokovic’s a barely one-hour waltz past Kei Nishikori – it was Murray who rose to the occasion. It didn’t matter how he’d got to the final, let alone number one, Murray was playing like he deserved to be there. This time it was Djokovic playing catch-up, but when the opportunity came in the final, he simply didn’t have the goods to pull it off.

His rebuilt offensive game firing on all cylinders, Murray was now willing and able to step in and dictate off both wings, and it paid major dividends against Djokovic, who could never find a similar gear. Murray was getting the better of backhand-to-backhand exchanges, but more notably (and in a complete reversal of Melbourne), it was now the Scot’s forehand that was causing Djokovic all sorts of problems, as Murray was simply doing more with it, both in terms of accelerating through the ball and manipulating the Serb’s court position. Statistically Murray won 68% of service points (largely thanks to the first-strike tennis he played on made first-serves, winning 27/32 points) and 39% of return points, adding up to a dominance ratio of 1.22. In response Djokovic was inconsistent at best, and toothless at worst. His depth-of-return was still exceptional, but he couldn’t follow it onto the attack with any regularity, while gimme put-aways were missed at an alarming rate, leaving us with a picture of a player who was more exasperated than he was engaged.

It may have only been a best-of-three sets affair, but the win was undoubtedly one of the most important of Murray’s career. The match was set up as a final test of the player Murray had become over the past six months, against a man who knew him unlike any other opponent, and he passed with flying colours. London may have been only eleven months removed from Melbourne, but Murray made it feel like an eon with this victory. There’s no way of knowing how long it will last, but with a number one ranking, and now an entirely new outlook on his rivalry with Djokovic, 2016 was unquestionably the year of Andy Murray.

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World Tour Finals: Round-Robin Winners and Losers

Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic on top of their groups, who would’ve guessed it?

On a scale of probability, the world nos. 1 and 2 finishing on top has to rank somewhere between a Gael Monfils brain implosion and a Rafa Nadal undie-tug. Neither man has been perfect, but with their consistent quality, neither has to be, and its left the other six to fight over scraps.

That said, the round-robin games have been by no means farcical. Firmly in the midst of the transition phase away from the Federer-Nadal era, this week’s events have been something of a “State of the Union” for men’s tennis, as the question of who can keep the sport aloft gets ever more urgent.

In that respect, the question of who have been “winners” and “losers” in London doesn’t just come down to the scoreboard. Who succeeded? Who failed? Read on to find out.

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Losers: The Old Guys

A three-time slam champion in Stan Wawrinka and a debutant in Gael Monfils, it’s safe to say London didn’t go to plan for either man. Both men alternated between world-class shotmaking and some head-scratching play when they could least afford it. Against Dominic Thiem, Monfils had played some absoluting scintillating tennis to take it to three sets, only to throw it away with three double-faults at 4-5 and hand the Austrian the match. Taking out fellow slugger Marin Cilic in two tiebreak sets, Wawrinka couldn’t maintain his level against the grind-it-out style of Kei Nishikori and Murray, being comfortably handled when the quicker indoor courts should’ve helped him. Both will have plenty of time to sit back and reflect in their rocking chairs now.

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Winner: Dominic Thiem

He may not have made it out of his group, but Thiem made a fine account of himself in his WTF debut. His first set-tiebreak win over Djokovic was exactly the sort of scrap he has to win if he wants to move further up the standings – although the final two sets of that match (0-6, 2-6) showed the 23-year-old still has much further to go. He bounced-back nicely in his match with Monfils, before receiving a lesson in indoor hard-court tennis from Milos Raonic. Still, to walk away with a scalp in his first go-around, and having boosted his shot-making reputation in his first taste of prime-time tennis has to be worth a significant amount of confidence.

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Loser: Marin Cilic

A listless tournament for the Croat, who having proved 2014 was no fluke, could only manage two sets against a Nishikori who had already secured his spot in the semis. A career best no. 7, it’s hard to see how he goes any higher when these are the names he’ll have to face to do it.

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TBD: Nishikori and Raonic

The two “middle-aged” players among the eight, making it to the semis is impressive, but will be entirely coloured by what they do now they’re there. Neither has shown the sort of form this week that would indicate they’re ready to knock-off the Big 2, but should they pull it off, they have to be considered legitimate major-contenders in 2017.

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Winner: Finals Ticketholders

And yet, with the week staying well on-script for Djokovic and Murray, all signs point to the two meeting in the final on Sunday. Djokovic in particular has been heartening, as after his slip-up against Thiem, seems to have played his way into some form. Dropping only three games against alternate David Goffin was to be expected, but his 7-6, 7-6 win over Milos Raonic saw him withstand the very best the Canadian had to offer, displaying the sort of defensive brilliance that makes him such a headache. On the other side, the supposedly tougher group has failed to trip-up Murray, albeit after having survived an epic three-setter against Nishikori that could’ve easily gone against him. Having handled Wawrinka so easily the Scot should have no problem in his semi with the pace of Raonic, while in Nishikori, Djokovic will have a semi’s opponent who will allow him to work his way into his service games and should be at a disadvantage when lines start getting painted.

The prediction

Djokovic d. Murray

Not having played since their final at Roland Garros in June, there’s an awful lot of uncertainty hanging over this matchup. Will Murray’s new offensive mindset be a difference maker? Or does the match hinge on Djokovic’s form? With a 24-10 head-to-head record Djokovic has the advantage historically, while his finish to the round-robin stages seem to indicate he’s finding his footing. There’s no denying Murray is playing exceptional tennis, but it did just take him over three hours to put away Nishikori – who like Djokovic doesn’t rely on accelerating points and can take away much of his advantage counter-punching – meaning all things considered the Serb has to be a slim favourite, but a favourite nonetheless.

A week that has so far been as intriguing for what we’ve learned about the new state of tennis in 2016, Sunday looks set to return us to more familiar confines. Maybe Raonic or Nishikori can spoil the party, but it’s impossible to bet against Murray and Djokovic the way they’re currently playing. The matchup we’ve been waiting for is nearly upon us – get your popcorn ready.

Closing the Gap: Djokovic, Murray and Their Unlikely Battle for Number One

Among the 26 men to have been ranked number one since the ATP’s inception in 1973, few could put forth as complete a resume as Andy Murray: three major titles, eleven major finals, a Davis Cup trophy, and two Olympic gold medals. And yet, simply by the course of his rivalry with Novak Djokovic, he might be one of the most improbable.

You only have to look back to June, when Djokovic had beaten Murray for his maiden French Open title to see just how unlikely Murray’s ascendance has been. A 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory, it was the second straight slam final the Serb had defeated Murray in, but more importantly, gave him the distinction of holding all four major titles at once. Djokovic had proven to be literally unbeatable when it really mattered… at least until a subtle drop-off in form and a perfect storm of run-ins with the men who could take advantage had him abruptly dethroned five months later.

A quick glance at the results will tell you this is not the same Djokovic who dominated tennis for much of the past three years. Since Roland Garros, he has lost at five of the six tournaments he has played in, falling to a veritable who’s-who of the ATP’s premier gunslingers: Sam Querrey (Wimbledon third-round), Juan-Martin Del Potro (Rio Olympics first-round), Stan Wawrinka (US Open final), Roberto Bautista-Agut (Shanghai semis) and most recently, Marin Cilic (Paris quarters) – his lone title coming against Kei Nishikori in Toronto. That’s not a coincidence, where in the past Djokovic has been able to successfully blunt such power games and answer in kind, recently his own offensive game has been misfiring.

With perhaps the exception of Querrey – who on the speedy lawns of the All England Club played absolutely out-of-his-vulcan-mind in an exhibition of first-strike tennis – the result of each of those matches hinged largely on Djokovic. Against Wawrinka and Bautista Agut, he actually had a positive dominance ratio (per tennis abstract), but even against Del Potro and Cilic he didn’t lack for opportunities. His defensive skills have always allowed him to weather – if not completely neutralise – the sort of massive weapons each of those players possesses, but eventually, defence has to shift to neutral, and neutral has to shift to attack – since the French it’s become apparent he just hasn’t been able to consistently make those transitions. It’s not just an issue of missing aggressive shots either, but an inability to force his opponents into giving him more hittable balls. From the perspective of a Cilic or Wawrinka, that contentedness to maintain rallies – even as decent attacking opportunities appear – gives them the confidence they need to go for their own shots, and even someone as brilliant as Djokovic can’t fend off multiple 120kph+ thunderbolts.

In contrast, Murray hasn’t just maintained his year-on-year excellence, he’s gotten even better. Since the French, he’s gone 45-3 (not including walkovers) with seven titles under his belt, including Wimbledon and an Olympic gold medal. Counter-punching has always been a hallmark of his game, but he’s been able to mix in his own well-timed aggression to dictate points against even the biggest of sluggers. The best example of this was his own match against Del Potro in the Olympic final. Both Murray and Djokovic found themselves embroiled in constant ad-court-to-ad-court exchanges with the Argentine, but where Djokovic was looping his backhand into inside-out forehands, Murray was able to consistently push him wider and deeper with the same shot, eliciting Del Potro’s weaker backhand in return, and opening up more attacking opportunities in kind. If Del Potro did go on the attack, Murray was often able to completely blunt it and send him back to his backhand corner, or vary the pace on his shots, lull him into over-committing, and pass him once out-of-position. Even with Del Potro still in the scintillating form that had downed Djokovic, Murray’s ability to dictate – both in terms of court position and rhythm, made a vital difference.

In the end these two remain as closely matched as they’ve always been, if just with the roles reversed. That said, Djokovic fans have to prepare themselves for the reality that, as it did with Federer and Nadal, his dominance has started to take a more permanent physical and mental toll. The two 29-year-olds may have been born only a week apart, but their difference in “tennis age” is a lot wider. There’s only so long you can dominate week-in, week-out, before a player starts to wear down. It doesn’t mean he’s done by any means, it just means he’ll have to start picking his spots, in particular easing it back at Masters 1000s.

Despite being a week older, Murray hasn’t hit that wall yet, mostly because he’s been saving his legs, albeit unintentionally. In 2013 he missed the French with a back injury, which required him to have surgery that September, which in turn led him to miss the March-April hardcourt swing of 2014. Also performance wise, his occasional quarter-final-and-earlier slam exits would have saved him from playing multiple grinding matches against top opposition, and obviously it’s a lot easier to recover from the flight back home than it is going 8 hours combined with Djokovic and/or Federer and Nadal.

Of course, the question now is: what will happen as the two move to London for the World Tour Finals? There are multiple permutations, but essentially if either takes the title they take the year-end ranking with it. Right now, Murray has to be the favourite, but if it is indeed Djokovic across-the-net from him in the final, the grinding style of their matchups may give him a better chance to succeed. The throne could end having been Murray’s to borrow, or his to keep – let’s just hope their battle is indeed decided in the final, and we get a match as quality as the two players in it.

ATP World Tour Finals Preview: Is Nole gonna have to choke a bitch?

Yep, it’s that time of year again – the world’s eight best male tennis players are set to gather in London to compete for the vaunted title of “who looks most awkward in a suit?” (Spoiler alert: it’s David Ferrer), but after that’s been decided, we move onto the ATP Tour’s centrepiece event – the World Tour Finals.

As much as the ATP Tour would like to believe otherwise, the WTF has often struggled to develop any sort of real importance in the context of the tour itself. Situated at the end of arguably the most gruelling season in any major professional sport, players often turn up suffering from varying levels of fatigue – an issue compounded by the ITF scheduling the Davis Cup finals (a much rarer opportunity for most) the week after, each year forcing at least one top player to take it easy in London.

Unfortunately, 2015’s edition seems unlikely to break that trend. This year it’s Andy Murray’s turn to take it easy, before he faces Belgium on Clay next week. It’s a particular shame given he carried some nice form into the week, reaching the Paris final where he lost to Novak Djokovic. Speaking of which, the other intrigue-sapping factor is that Djokovic has already wrapped-up the year-end no. 1, having well-and-truly dominated this season from start to finish, with the only reprieve being his shortfall against Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final. What’s more, is that despite reaching all four slam finals, and a further eight of the nine masters finales he looks as fresh as ever, meaning as the lights come on at the 02, it seems everyone else is playing for second.

Perhaps the highest compliment can be paid to Djokovic’s 2015 season is that it’s almost a carbon-copy of peak-Roger Federer. His tennis in the last week of October at the Paris Masters was just as superb as it was in Melbourne back in January, with a resurgent Andy Murray looking more helpless than Pat Rafter trying to reel in Nick Kyrgios. What particularly stood out about that victory was just how supreme his return-of-serve was – with Murray having an average serving day, easy points were hard to come by, as Djokovic was on top of everything, even on ultra-fast indoor. As such, given that the WTF is played on the exact same surface, figuring out if anyone can actually dethrone Djokovic is a question of who can back-up some serious firepower with an exceptional serving day. Unsurprisingly, it’s a short list.

Stan Wawinka and Roger Federer. That’s it. The two Swiss are Djokovic’s biggest rivals on tour at the moment, and have proven in the past to have the shotmaking to take it to the Serb on any surface. Both come in with a modicum of form – Federer more so with his recent title in Basel – and they’ll need to be playing at their absolute best to have a chance. Merely “good” won’t be enough given the level Djokovic is currently playing at.

So what separates them from the rest? It’s either one of two things: 1. Murray (who would be on the above list otherwise) has the aforementioned Davis Cup final, and isn’t even practicing on the right surface, and 2. The rest don’t have the all-round firepower to do any more than take a set from the Serb. You might think someone like Nishikori or Berdych could pull the upset, but the surface is too fast for the former to out-grind him, and the latter doesn’t have enough consistency from point-to-point. Ferrer and – as sad as it is to say – Nadal, simply can’t ramp up the aggression to best Djokovic, who at this point, is a better grinder than either anyway.

Not exactly the prettiest picture is it? In fact right about now you’re probably saying: “well if Djokovic is gonna win, is it even worth watching?” My response is firstly, stop talking to your screen, you’re creeping people out, and secondly, of course! These are the eight best players in the world we’re talking about! There’s an old adage in boxing that ‘styles make fights’, and that can be true for tennis as well – watching Nishikori grind it out with Djokovic is sure to be a lot of fun, or Wawrinka play ‘paint the lines’ against Nadal. If for no other reason, it’s worth watching to see what made these guys special-enough to get there in the first place.

With a near-7000 point lead in the ATP rankings, men’s tennis is very much Novak Djokovic’s world right now. It would be silly to expect that to change in the next seven days. But who knows? Stranger things have happened. After all, we did see John McEnroe, Tim Henman and Pat Cash reach the 2014 final.

Life at the Top: Previewing the Big Four’s Second Quarter

I’ve never been a big fan of the ‘Big Four’ narrative in men’s tennis. From its earliest rumblings in late 2008, it was based on the premise that Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray had ascended to a level where they could play with the same consistency and quality that Federer and Nadal had embodied since 2005. Such a proclamation just seemed premature when you looked at the ’08 Wimbledon or ’09 AO finals, and saw Rafa and Roger take the game into the stratosphere.bigfour

Things started to change in 2010. Whether it was injury or difficulty adapting to an aging body, Federer wasn’t his usual self, and Murray and Djokovic both made slam finals. Still, it wasn’t until 2012 that for me, the Big Four was truly something to be believed. Murray broke through for his first major at Flushing Meadows, supplimenting Djokovic’s superb 3-major season the year before. Where before we merely hoped each man was capable of winning a slam (and going through the others to do it), now the certainty of their performances made it seemed impossible for anyone else to do likewise.

And yet here we are in April 2014, and it appears their reign is already over. For all their past accomplishments, the Big Four have failed to maintain even a modicum of their footing – Djokovic currently has no slams to his name, Murray is ranked 8th (despite a Wimbledon title), while Federer isn’t even the highest-ranked player from his own country. Their shortcomings have left Rafa Nadal essentially on an island by himself, but as we found in Melbourne and Miami, even he’s not without concerns.

For Nadal, Djokovic and Federer, the longest campaign of their season is about to get underway in Monaco, while Murray will join the fray in Madrid. So now’s as good a time as any take a look at what happened from January-through-March, and see if we can figure out where the Big Four are at, and where they’re headed.

Form

First the obvious – Novak Djokovic is hot shit right now. An Indian Wells-Miami double that saw him beat every other member of the Big Four at some point over those three weeks is mighty impressive. He’s once again hitting his backhand and serve with confidence, which was missing in Australia, and he still only lost to eventual champion Stan Wawrinka in an epic five-setter. The transition from hard court to clay means he’ll have to make some adjustments to the way he’s hitting the ball, but that should do little to lessen his confidence when he rides into Monaco the reigning champion.

For Federer, I think it’s fair to say he’s looking about as good as a 32-year-old can get right now. The reality is that at his age, he had to choose whether to push through in Miami and pay for it later in the season, or take it down a gear after great successes in Dubai and Indian Wells and take whatever the Miami draw gave him. This is by no means a knock against Kei Nishikori, who played a dogged final two sets to beat him there, but the reality is he was never going all the way in that tournament, and the first person of significance to play to their capabilities would beat him. He’s back in the top four, his job now is maintaining that through Wimbledon.

It’s weird that Nadal wouldn’t be closer to the top here because he’s the one who had the most success in Australia (reaching the final) and just finished runner-up in Miami. Where the knocks come from is how bad he’s looked in those two finals. He was simply being pushed around the court, and regularly found himself playing meek, ultra-defensive tennis. Frankly he hasn’t played like a number one in quite some time. However, this is Rafael Nadal we’re talking about, so he can almost sleepwalk to the final in several clay court tournaments to get his reps up before Paris.

Then there’s Murray, whose start to the season has been downright turrible. Coming off a back injury that kept him out of the post-US Open swing last year, he’s been less of a heavy hitter and more of a punching bag, losing convincingly to Federer in Melbourne, Djokovic in Miami and professional facial hair-curator Fabio Fognini in Davis Cup play. As if that wasn’t enough, Ivan Lendl – one of the few coaches on the tour who actually makes a difference – has left him for greener pastures (i.e. the golf course). All round, things aren’t looking too great for Andy.

Health

For Federer and Djokovic, things are as good as they could be. One is 32 and has obvious limitations on the amount of high-level tennis he can play, the other remains unimpeded, being at 26 in his physical prime. The real concerns are Murray and Nadal. Both have question marks hovering over them that may not just linger for the forseeable future, but the rest of their careers. Murray, with his back problems simply hasn’t been the same player since Wimbledon last year. And perhaps he knows this, which played a part in his split with Ivan Lendl in March – there would be nothing more robotic and uncompromising (and thus, Lendl-like) than him simply saying ‘you can’t win, I have no use for you’, if that is indeed the case.

Nadal’s case is just… Nadal. Since 2009 it seems he has firmly embarked himself upon a cycle of great success followed by abrupt physical decline. For as well as Stan Wawrinka played in Melbourne, this was certainly the case there. By the second set Rafa was essentially pushing his serves over the net, only to regroup a tad and take the third, but was helpless once Wawrinka overcame his nerves. Turning 28 before May is done, it may be fair to ask if the next injury to derail his career will also be his last.

Challengers

For as solid as David Ferrer has been the past five-or-so years, I don’t think anyone ever really considered him a serious contender at the majors, and for those same five-or-so years, he was as close as we got – that was until Stan Wawrinka broke through in Australia. At 28, he’s probably not going to be threatening for too many more runs to the final, but it does serve as an indicator that maybe we could see a few other names etched on the winners’ trophy. So does anyone in particular come to mind?

The most likely candidate is Tomas Berdych, who has consistently been making the second week of slams for several years now. He had a fine run to the final in Dubai, losing in three sets to Federer, and he certainly has the tools to take it to anyone on court. However, he often lacks the fitness – mental and physical – required to grind out best-of-five sets matches against the top players. Still, he’s the most likely candidate.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is possibly the most mystifying thing to come out of France since the battle of Dien Bien-Phu. He’s the epitome of Frenchiness, and for that reason I can’t see him ever winning a major at his advanced age (turns 29 in two days, if you can believe it). I can see him getting to a final if the draw falls his way, but unless he’s facing the equally-French Gael Monfils across the net, he’s got no chance.

I’m just gonna lump all the “next generation” (very sarcastic airquotes) guys together here. Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori, etc all have a feasible chance of breaking through, although as I’ve said before, it would more likely be a one-off than an indicator of something greater, considering their ages. I hope that’s not the case, as it’s probable such a slew of first time winners is really just mediocrity disguised as parity (something that deserves an article of its own). If you’re looking for a young guy with the potential to make some serious noise, keep an eye out for Czech Jiri Vesely, who pushed Murray to three sets in California, and could announce himself in a big way against any of the big four.

Outlook

First Federer, who at this point is really a novel outsider to win the French. Expect him to make at least one final as he’ll no doubt make a serious push, he’s obviously intent on making noise if he’s playing Monte Carlo for the first time in three years, but just enjoy whatever he gives us, Wimbledon is the ultimate goal here.

Murray only has two jobs here, neither of which is to win clay court titles. The first is to stay healthy, which will likely cut into his performances, and the second is to find a coach. Hopefully the latter is the reason he’s not in Monte Carlo, because he should be camped out on Andre Agassi’s doorstep until the all-timer says yes. Now that’s a partnership I’d like to see.

The reality is, for all the instability we’ve seen at the top, there’s still only two contenders for the French Open crown: Nadal and Djokovic. One has the resume, the other has the form. I’m a bit concerned Nadal won’t be able to stay healthy throughout – and if so, he may very well pay for it again at Wimbledon – but, I’m not expecting any drastic drop-off either. Still, if you asked me to pick right now, I’m leaning towards Djokovic taking the French when it’s all said and done. He should have won last year. He’s playing the best. And maybe Boris will have some tips about conquering Paris that actually relate to tennis and not picking up models.

The yearly sojourn from Monte Carlo to Paris in the Big Four era has traditionally been a time for them to assert their dominance. 2014’s edition begins with more questions than we’ve had in a very long time. Let’s just hope we find some answers.