Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland sits with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in the locker room after defeating Rafael Nadal of Spain in their men's singles final match at the Australian Open 2014 tennis tournament in Melbourne
By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - An Australian Open that began in a heatwave and contained seismic shocks aplenty ended with Stanislas Wawrinka defeating Rafa Nadal to further undermine the superiority of the so-called big four in men's tennis.
In reaching the final after missing last year's tournament Nadal has cemented his world No. 1 ranking and will be hard to shift from the summit but below him the landscape is changing.
Novak Djokovic, whose bid for a fourth consecutive Australian Open title was thwarted by the inspired Wawrinka, remains No. 2 but both Andy Murray and Roger Federer are falling, to numbers six and eight respectively.
There are mitigating factors in Murray's case because he missed the final third of last year because of a back surgery which, as proved in his loss to Federer, will require time before he regains his former strength and power.
Federer, who played beautifully to reach the semis, was outplayed by Nadal and the suspicion remains that while still majestic at his best, his chances of adding to his record haul of 17 grand slam titles are receding.
Wawrinka's wonderful fortnight in Melbourne has propelled him to third in the rankings, making him Switzerland's number one after a career spent in Federer's shadow.
At number four is burly Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, who before Wawrinka's defeat of Nadal, was the last player to muscle into the grand slam winners' club dominated for the past decade by Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and more recently Murray.
Del Potro's second-round exit in Melbourne can be seen as a blip and with his injury woes behind him he will be dangerous at all the remaining slams this year.
Melbourne semi-finalist Tomas Berdych, at number seven, will also take heart from Wawrinka's breakthrough after regularly reaching the business end of grand slam tournaments, only to fall short against the big guns.
Spain's David Ferrer will slip from three to five in Monday's ranking list and while he will continue to hustle and bustle, his career looks unlikely to include a major title.
Although the quartet of Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Federer will, for now, continue to be the first names brought up when talking of the main challengers at the big tournaments, the gap between them and the rest is shrinking.
Wawrinka, still at the peak of his powers at 28, is the spearheading the assault with Del Potro and Berdych in close support but others are lurking in the undergrowth.
Bulgaria's 22-year-old Grigor Dimitrov will enter the world's top 20 for the first time and his run to the quarter-finals in Australia where he hade Nadal in all sorts of trouble could prove a pivotal moment in his career.
Japan's Kei Nishikori is growing in stature and Canadian Milos Raonic has the serve and forehand to do damage.
They will all move on from Australia with an extra spring in their step, believing that they will not necessarily have to wait for the current golden generation to step aside before they can make their mark.
Former world number three Ivan Ljubicic summed up the mood.
"I wonder how many players went: "oh, so it can be done!" the Croatian said on Twitter following Wawrinka's victory.
The women's game has also been given a shake-up this past fortnight with Serena Williams surprisingly beaten by a rejuvenated Ana Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova losing to Dominika Cibulkova and Victoria Azarenka going out Agnieszka Radwanska.
China's Li Na is not exactly a new kid on the block but in winning her second grand slam title could well have an eye on the No.1 ranking this year, should Williams fall below the incredible standards she set in 2013.
Canada's Eugenie Bouchard, who reached the semi-finals in Australia, will lead the challenge from the next generation.
The Australian Open, far from being a predictable romp for the favourites, has breathed new life into the sport and the months ahead promise to be engrossing as the heavyweights try to stand their ground under fire from multiple directions.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)