Tokyo - Stanislas Wawrinka's surprise Australian Open triumph could spell the beginning of the end of the grand slam dominance enjoyed by the so-called 'Big Four' in men's tennis, Japan's Kei Nishikori said on Friday.
Having pushed eventual runner-up Rafael Nadal hard in a 7-6, 7-5, 7-6 fourth-round loss in Melbourne, Nishikori believes Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer will soon have a new generation of players to deal with at the four majors.
"I feel there is maybe the start of a change," Japan's number one player said in an interview after winning his opening singles matches in the Davis Cup tie against Canada in Tokyo.
"Young players like (Milos) Raonic are there and (Grigor) Dimitrov got to the quarters at the Australian Open.
"Young players are starting to make waves."
Wawrinka, while no spring chicken at 28, stunned Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 in the Melbourne final to give hope to the chasing pack as the usual suspects all fell short in the year's first grand slam.
Only one 'outsider' had previously broken into the cartel since 2005 - Juan Martin del Potro's smash-and-grab US Open victory in 2009 - until Wawrinka's breakthrough Down Under.
Nishikori, who has hired former French Open champion Michael Chang as coach, feels he too is getting closer and has targeted a first grand slam semi-final in 2014.
"That was the best I've felt playing against Nadal," said the world number 18, who has yet to beat the Spaniard in six meetings.Gameplan to break the 'Big Four'
"It's the closest I've felt, I didn't feel out of my depth.
"I used to feel I had to just keep hitting and hitting.
"I was forcing my shots. But I had a game plan and stuck to it.
"Yes, I lost but I put myself out there and played to the limit.
"I need to use that as a springboard to take my game to the next level."
Wawrinka's heroics left Nadal stranded on 13 grand slam titles, four short of Federer's record of haul of 17.
"I'm pretty sure everyone was surprised but Wawrinka has stepped up to a level where it wasn't a huge stretch of the imagination for him to win a slam," said Nishikori, whose best showing at a major was the quarter-finals in Australia two years ago.
"New players winning grand slams is good for tennis. I'd like to get up to that level soon too.
"There are still a lot of things I need to work on to get there," added Nishikori, who has been ranked as high as 11th in the world.
"Both physically and closing out tight matches.
"To beat the top players you need so much concentration and skill.
"It will be tough but that's what I'm working towards."
A three-times winner on the ATP Tour, Nishikori credited Chang with giving him more match toughness.
Chang famously won the 1989 French Open as a 17-year-old, along the way overcoming severe cramp to shock Ivan Lendl in an extraordinary comeback from two sets down, frustrating the then world number one by hitting moon balls and serving under-arm.
"There is a lot I can learn from Chang," said Nishikori.
"Like when you're up against it and have to really grind out results."
The fleet-footed 24-year-old insisted, however, that he would not be hitting the gym to bulk up to the extent of Nadal or Wimbledon champion Murray.
"I'm not planning to add too much muscle," he said.
"Of course I need to add some but for me it's more about suppleness and flexibility.
"I don't think in tennis you need to be all that beefed up.
"I'll continue training in a way which suits my game.
"I haven't been able to crack the top four at a grand slam yet.
"I've won tour titles but a grand slam semi is something I want to achieve this year."