WHEN Paul-Henri Mathieu first stood on the other side of the net from a world No.1, it was Pete Sampras. The Frenchman whose life as a tennis pro began in 1999 has seen all of the great American's successors, so is well-placed to critique the current king.

''I don't see any other one who can play with them at this level,'' Mathieu said on Monday, having succumbed to defending champion Novak Djokovic in three sets that were game yet always had a to-no-avail feel.

The ''them'' he referred to is a two-piece rather than a full band - the Serb who is defending his Australian crown, and the Scot who won the most recent grand slam, Andy Murray. With Rafael Nadal physically brittle, and Roger Federer entering the race against the clock that no athlete wins, Mathieu envisages Djokovic and Murray dominating the coming years, with perhaps only the likes of Juan Martin Del Potro popping up to break their major stronghold. ''They're so much stronger than the other ones,'' Mathieu said. He knows the sands of time will unearth new challengers, ''but now I cannot give you a name, because you don't see anyone''.

"I don't see any other one who can play with them at this level" ... Paul Henri-Mathieu on Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, pictured.

"I don't see any other one who can play with them at this level" ... Paul Henri-Mathieu on Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, pictured. Photo: AP

Those looking beyond a duopoly see a next wave featuring Canadian Milos Raonic (aged 22 and ranked 15), Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov (21 and 41), Nick Bollettieri graduate Ryan Harrison (20 and 62), and an ambitious 20-year-old named Bernard Tomic, who entered the top 50 on the back of his maiden title in Sydney. While Australia's new leading man has designs on seeing a much lower number beside his name in double-quick time, 25-year-olds Djokovic and Murray are well positioned to keep some clear air between their perch at the top of the mountain and those scrabbling for a foothold below.

Mathieu acknowledged how much a player's fitness has come to dictate his standing; Djokovic identified the physical side of tennis as the ''obvious evolution of the game in last five to 10 years''. He spoke of the ever-growing need to invest in yourself - in preparation and recovery.

The Serb had cause to pull a couple of new racquets from their wrapping on Monday, but left much of his full arsenal untouched, saved for another day. When it is needed - perhaps against Harrison next round, or anyone else who stands between him and a US Open final rematch with Murray on Sunday week - he will be ready.