Chance for fresh talent to take men's tennis by storm
FOR the last eight years the rest of men's tennis has watched in a mixture of admiration and frustration as four players have dominated the major competitions.
At the dawn of another Grand Slam season, however, the hopes of a new generation of players are rising at last.
With Roger Federer reaching his 32nd birthday this year, and doubts growing over Rafael Nadal's future following the Spaniard's withdrawal from the Australian Open, younger players such as Milos Raonic, Bernard Tomic and Grigor Dimitrov might feel that now is the time to make their move.
Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray may still be in their prime for several seasons to come, but there is likely to be room at the top alongside the two 25-year-olds in the near future.
Nadal, who has not played since Wimbledon after a recurrence of his chronic knee problems, is certain to be out of the top four by the end of the Aussie Open.
Federer, meanwhile, may also struggle to keep his place in the top group.
His reduced schedule means he will miss the Masters Series tournaments in Miami and Monte Carlo after his trip to Australia.
The stranglehold of the big four in the Masters Series - the next level of competition below the Grand Slam tournaments - could be over already.
Between them Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray had won 17 Masters titles in succession until David Ferrer ended the run in Paris two months ago.
The grip of three of the Fab Four on Grand Slam trophies has been even tighter.
Following Marat Safin's victory over Lleyton Hewitt in the 2005 Australian Open, only one of the subsequent 30 Grand Slam tournaments - the 2009 US Open in which Juan Martin del Potro triumphed - has not been won by Federer, Nadal or Djokovic.
The 31st and most recent tournament in that sequence, last year's US Open, was won by Murray.
Statistics show that today's players tend to peak later in their careers than they have in the past, but the chance of Grand Slam glory may already have passed by some of the recent mainstays in the world's top 10, such as 30-year-old Ferrer and even 27-year-olds Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych.
No teenagers are in the world's top 100, but there are players in their early twenties for whom the future is looking bright.
The Australian Open could provide just the springboard they need.