With a third of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour season over it is clear that despite a strong challenge from younger players the ‘Big Four’ are not yet ready to surrender their top positions. On the contrary Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal seem to have struck a purple patch and with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray not exactly having a poor season the others have to be at their best to get the better of them.

This was not the script envisaged at the start of the year. In January it was reckoned that the younger brigade was ready to take over. Players like Canada’s Milos Raonic , France’s Gail Monfils and Australia’s Dominic Theim were looking good even as Federer and Nadal had slipped in the rankings. Federer widely acknowledged as the greatest player of all time and for several years the No 1 player at the end of the year or at least in the top three had slid to No 16 while Nadal another oft-crowned No 1 and for many years in the top three was ranked No 9.

For years the tennis world was dominated by the 'Big Four’ and it was futile to expect a Grand Slam event or the year-ending Masters to be won by anyone outside this quartet. At the start of 2017 Murray and Djokovic topped the rankings. Djokovic who was firmly No 1 a little over a year ago was some way behind Murray who deservedly occupied the exalted status following a really marvelous 2016.

At the start of the year however it did seem however that the reign of the ''Big Four’’ could well be coming to an end. A number of players had rapidly climbed the ladder during 2016 and it was thought that a couple of them had it in them to break into the top four. Symbolic was the rise of Croatia’s Marin Cilic – No 13 at the start of last year and No 6 at the start of 2017.

And symbolising the change of guard seemed to be the fall of Federer. It did seem for a couple of years that the Swiss great – named as the Laureus world sportsman of the year for a record four years in a row (2005 to 2008) – was now finally past his best but no one could have predicted such a steep decline in the course of a year – No 3 to No 16. At the start of 2017 the pundits had declared that it would take a miracle for him to win Grand Slam No 18. He was the record holder with 17 but his last triumph at a Grand Slam was at Wimbledon in 2012.

Instead what happened? Federer promptly won Grand Slam title No 18 at the first such event of the year – the Australian Open in January for what must truly rank as one of the greatest feats in tennis history. And who was his opponent in the title clash? None other than Nadal whom the experts had again decreed would never win another Grand Slam.

Winner of 14 Grand Slam titles Nadal had won the last of these at the French Open in 2014. The left handed artist from Spain had been struggling with his form as also injuries for the last couple of years but just as he was being written off he seems to have found his old touch back. Besides making the Australian Open final Nadal has just won his tenth title at Monte Carlo where the competition was really fierce.

He became the first player in the Open era to win the same title ten times and this triumph would have boosted his confidence no end for the French Open next month where he will have another opportunity to create history. If he wins the title the clay court specialist with 50 titles on this surface will become the first player in tennis history to win any Grand Slam event ten times.

And what about Murray and Djokovic? Well, in spite of some reverses and a record not in keeping with their status of being the two top players in the world there is nothing to suggest that they will drop down in the rankings alarmingly during the year. Despite the dream comebacks of Federer and Nadal and even with a strong array of challengers from other players headed by four time Grand Slam singles winner and currently third ranked Stan Wawrinka Murray and Djokovic are known to rise to the occasion when it comes to the major events.

With Federer and Nadal having clawed their way back to No 4 and No 5 in the latest rankings it is clear that there is going to be intense competition for the top spots in 2017. Will the old guard continue to hold sway or will the younger challengers really make a mark? Either way an intriguing season lies ahead of us.