Sport Tennis Stan’s the man for now, but who’s the next champion?

Stan’s the man for now, but who’s the next champion?

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Charlie could have been writing about the world of men’s tennis, circa 2013, when four men, and the battles waged between them, took the sport to heights never seen before, while anybody outside their exalted company was left to fight for the scraps that fell from the table.

From 2006 to 2013, only one man was able to upset the ‘big four’ at a grand slam tournament, when Juan Martin del Potro took out the 2009 US Open.

That didn’t look like changing heading into this year’s Australian Open, with Rafael Nadal imperious and Novak Djokovic unbeaten in three successive years at Melbourne Park.

Stanislas Wawrinka’s triumph was as welcome as it was unexpected.

But while Stan’s win was a breath of fresh air through a sport that has become used to seeing the same men holding the same trophies, it is not a glimpse into the future.

Wawrinka, who turns 29 in March, is the third-oldest man in the top 10, behind only David Ferrer (31) and Roger Federer (32).

It’s astounding to think that Nadal (27), Djokovic (26) and Andy Murray (26) all have, realistically, three or four years left at the top of their game.

But what next? Who is jumping up to assume the mantle, the massive void that will be left when the top guns have handed in their wings?

Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov (22) has been anointed in some circles as a potential world No. 1, and he certainly showed glimpses of that talent in his tough quarter-final loss to Nadal last week.

Milos Raonic is another who has been highly touted, but at 23 the Canadian world No. 11 has never been beyond the fourth round at a slam.

Australian Bernard Tomic (21) has more talent than most, but has major question marks over his application.

American hopes rest with a pair of 21-year-olds, Jack Sock and Ryan Harrison, but both look some way from being able to hang with the best.

Even longer-term prospects are Australian teens Nick Kyrgios (18) and Thanasi Kokkinakis (17), who lit up the Open a fortnight ago and look as if they have all the makings of top line players.

Certainly, every man outside the top dogs should have been buoyed by what they saw throughout the Australian Open.

Wawrinka gave an interesting glimpse into the psyche of players outside the big four after his Open win, when he revealed he didn’t think he had what it took to win a major.

“Even if I was to win (his 2013 US Open semi-final against Novak Djokovic), I had to play Rafa in the final and, for me, it was too much,” Wawrinka said.

“That’s why I never dreamed about winning a grand slam. For me, it was not my level, not my goal.

“But I have a good mentality to always try to improve.”

Wawrinka is probably a little long in the tooth to stay at the upper echelons of the men’s game for very long, but his triumph may run a little deeper than just his own victory.

Maybe the big Swiss has given everybody outside the big four a much-needed shot of belief.