Baseline Buzz: Cherish the top two


PARIS -- Milos Raonic, the hard-serving, 23-year-old Canadian star, played Novak Djokovic close through three sets of their Tuesday quarterfinal but faltered near the end of each of them.

Afterward, Djokovic sounded like he had lost.

"It's never smooth against Milos or against any server of his caliber," Djokovic allowed. "When he's on, it's very difficult to do anything except be mentally strong and consistent and try to wait for the opportunities. When they are presented, you should better use them."

He went on to say that despite the straight-sets victory, "a few points here and there" decided things.

Djokovic, the No. 2 seed here at Roland Garros, has won 15 of 16 sets. The No. 1 seed, a guy named Rafa, was 12-for-12 in his first four rounds. We mention this because it wasn't like that on the women's side. Not at all.

No. 2 seed Li Na was a first-round casualty, No. 1 Serena Williams was gone in the second, and No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska departed in the third. They were escorted from the lovely grounds by three unseeded players in their very early 20s, largely unknown players to casual fans of tennis, Kristina Mladenovic, Garbine Muguruza and Ajla Tomljanovic.

Williams and Li are 32 years old, and suddenly it looks as though there's some room at the top. The Spanish King, Juan Carlos I, announced Monday he was abdicating the throne. Admittedly, the elite men are moving into the latter stages of their power years, but it is clear they have no plans to vacate their grand stage anytime soon. tennis editor Matt Wilansky and senior writer Greg Garber bat the topic around in this installment of the Baseline Buzz:

Garber: Stan Wawrinka's breakthrough at the Australian Open merely underlined how dominant Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray have been in the majors. In fact, since Marat Safin ran off with the 2005 Australian Open, only Wawrinka and Juan Martin del Potro, who won the 2009 US Open, have managed to crack the code. That's 34 of 36 Grand Slam singles titles, lending credence to the argument that this is the finest collection of coexisting champions we've ever seen. I'm betting that number will swell to 35-for-37.

Wilansky: Not sure about you, sir, but I am still recovering from the maelstrom that unfolded during the first week. But now that my equilibrium appears to be back in check, things aren't really in the chaotic state, at least on the men's side, as they could have been. The Nos. 1, 2, 5 and 7 seeds all reached the quarterfinals. Nadal and Djokovic have behaved like the top two players in the world, and there's little indication they won't be embroiled in a fight for the title come Sunday. But the biggest question I have is whether players like Raonic, who reached a career-first major quarterfinal, can keep up the momentum and become a staple toward the latter part of future Slams. Take a cursory glance down the rankings, and though there are some serious concerns about Roger Federer and Wawrinka, who's going to replace them outside maybe Raonic? I'm not seeing any names that really stand out.

Garber: I'll chalk that equilibrium issue up to jetlag. Think how dominant these guys have been: Rafa has won an incredible eight of nine French Opens, Djokovic has won four Australian Opens, Federer won 16 majors in a span of 27 and seven Wimbledons. Murray, for his part, has won two of the past six majors -- and the Olympic gold. And though Federer is 32 and perhaps done with winning majors, analysts feel this Wimbledon tournament might represent his last decent chance, even though the other three members in the Big Four will be favored ahead of him to win it in a month's time.

Wilansky: If you ask me, the Big Four is kind of a misnomer at the moment, though that could change after Wimbledon. The hierarchy on tour has really become only about two guys. Nadal and Djokovic have made that pretty clear. They've run each other into the ground on every surface in nearly every meaningful event. As a matter of fact, the only notable tournament (Slam or Masters) they have not competed at? The Shanghai Masters, which wasn't even an elite event until four years ago. Rafa and Djokovic have played 41 times, which I know you know is the most by any two players, well, ever. I'm betting they've spent nearly as much time on court together as the Bryan brothers.

Garber: OK, let's review the list of possible contenders for the throne. The two youngest with a chance are Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov, both 23. This was a nice tournament for the Canadian, who had never advanced past the third round here. Dimitrov? Not so much. He was bounced in the first round by Ivo Karlovic, but he has a solid upside. The guy they're talking about the most is Dominic Thiem, the 20-year-old from Austria. ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert predicts he'll be playing for titles at the Slams inside three years. Here, he ran into Nadal in the second round. His consolation prize? Helping Djokovic warm up for his quarterfinal match with Raonic.

Wilansky: Thiem reminds me of Wawrinka in many respects, especially with that biting, one-handed backhand. It just so happens Thiem also took apart Stan in Madrid a few weeks ago. But you've been covering this sport for a while now, Mr. Garber. How many precocious talents have failed to live up to their billing? We can go back to Donald Young , if you'd like, to Ryan Harrison, Bernard Tomic, Ricardas Berankis and even Dimitrov. I'm afraid none will ever materialize into a serial Slam champion. But is that a product of underachievement or an unparalleled era in men's tennis -- or both? Whatever the reason is, and we can opine on the subject matter until the day the U.S. unearths a clay-court stud, we still have the best rivalry perhaps in the history of this game poised to play each other. And that's kind of special.

Garber: Cherish this matchup of No.1 versus No. 2 because like all living, breathing things, it will soon pass from our view. The consensus is that Rafa still has a few more French Open titles in him -- wouldn't it be crazy if he got to 10? Djokovic is capable of winning this thing -- this year. Federer, believe it or not, is the choice of some analysts to win next month at Wimbledon. Murray? After year-ending back surgery, he seems to be approaching his former level ... just in time for his favorite tournament, the one in his backyard. Although it's been tough on the field, it has been a privilege and a joy to watch.