Tremors from exits of Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal may mean shift in balance
While not quite seismic shocks, some surprise defeats at Indian Wells could pave the way for young guns to shine this summer
It seems like every day we wake up to another minor tremor rippling across Planet Tennis. Overnight damage from Indian Wells, which experienced an actual earthquake last year, included the meek exits of Andy Murray and Stanislas Wawrinka and, consequently – following the earlier departure of the defending champion and world No1, Rafael Nadal – there is no incumbent slam champion in the quarter-finals of the first ATP 1000 tournament of the season.
Does it represent a shifting of the sport's tectonic plate, which has been rumbling for at least 18 months? Are the young guns about to take over? Will Murray rediscover his Wimbledon mojo before he slips down the top-10 table?
Not so fast, Moriarty: Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, the only top eight players left in the tournament, are still punching – although there is cause to wonder.
The 17-slam Swiss, who won his first tournament since Halle in 2013 (his German grass Wimbledon warm-up) when he beat world No6 Tomas Berdych in Dubai, has carried his form to California.
Still the crowd favourite, he looked good again when dismissing his friend Tommy Haas (three years older than him, at 35, and the oldest player in the top 100) in straight sets to book a quarter-final with Kevin Anderson. The tall South African, with the booming serve and coming off two clay finals, broke the 13-match winning run of Federer's compatriot, Wawrinka – convincingly.
Stan, who was so upbeat after beating Djokovic and Nadal on the way to his first slam title in Melbourne in January, giving outsiders everywhere reason to cheer, was hard on himself in defeat. "I was negative the whole match," he said. "I was tired mentally."
That is not good; Wawrinka should have been as fresh as the nearby mountain air in his return to the Tour after a decent break. Strangely, it echoed Murray's pessimism after playing his worst set of tennis in a long time when losing for the third time in four outings to the young Canadian Milos Raonic. Murray put it down to, "a lack of confidence", which invites worries about his ability to get into shape for the rest of the summer. His last tournament win was on that sunlit Sunday at Wimbledon but, even through the filter of early morning television (with the help of much coffee), the picture remains confused.
Murray needs a win, not just a string of encouraging performances mixed with minor disappointments. He has to get on the board at the business end of a tournament and might do so next week in Miami, his second home, where he invariably does well and where he reduced David Ferrer to a molten mess in last year's final.
The question was put to Murray after he lost to Raonic if the absence of his coach, Ivan Lendl, had made any difference to his performance and he was adamant it had not. Nor should it.
The arrival of Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Michael Chang on the coaching scene this year was portrayed as copying Lendl's hooking up with Murray and encouraged the view that even the best players suffer from insecurity. Perhaps they do but maybe they should be more self-sufficient. Maybe it is good for them to fly solo occasionally.
Becker has yet to make a perceptible difference to Djokovic's game. The Serb has been strangely out of sorts since winning the ATP World Tour Finals last November and he went to sleep (along with some of us propping up eyelids on this side of the Atlantic) in the first set before beating the in-form Marin Cilic, a player whose pedigree is undoubted in the locker room but which only now is starting to give him some consistent results.
Ernests Gulbis, who has stormed through the BNP Paribas Open in style and gave Grigor Dimitrov a reminder that he is not the only unfulfilled prodigy at large, with some quite stunning tennis. He is the antithesis of the cossetted player; volatile, tough to read and as dangerous as a drunken gunslinger. He plays John Isner on Friday.
But back to Murray: before imploding against Raonic in the third set, he had found the grit to win four of five matches after dropping the first set, so he does not lack resolve. What he needs, maybe, is a little of Gulbis's swagger. Few players suffer so publicly as Murray and he plainly has some work to do to get his A game back. We have seen precious little of it since the Australian Open.
His serve is not in the best shape but he is moving, sideways and in and out from the net, with no apparent discomfort, so, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is safe to assume his back is fine. He was not happy with his groundstrokes in the concluding set but this might be down to the slow courts. It is a beautiful setting, Indian Wells, but a bit of a minefield.
If the tournament – still being pushed as a "fifth major" – has told us anything in the first few days, it is that the game is in for some surprises this summer.
If you want a list of names to watch in 2014, try these: Alexandr Dolgopolov, who accounted for Nadal in Indian Wells and who plays Raonic on Thursday; Alejandro González, who looked good taking a set off Djokovic: Jiri Vesely, the youngest player in the top 100 and who gave Murray nightmares, and Dominic Thiem (ditto).
Not all of them will continue to provide seismic shocks but they are on the radar of nearly every leading player on the Tour.