There was this match at the French Open. You might have heard about it.
Roger Federer, frustrated to the fullest possible extent, was trying to find his game, trying to pry open an opportunity, trying to gain an escape hatch against a man he immensely respected. Down two sets to love in the high-stakes poker game known as a major-tournament tennis match, Federer once again found himself in the position that tests a professional like none other. Trailing by a substantial margin and unsettled to no end, Federer encountered his worst critic – himself – and had to deal with the human voices that are always the most unsparing: the ones that lie within.
In this match being referred to, Federer had to manufacture his own momentum, create his own spark, and solve his own damn problems. Tennis tests its champions this way, forcing its greatest players to walk many miles over the hot coals of doubt, disgust and fatigue if they want to enter their name in the book of legends.
Somehow, Federer created something out of nothing. He won the third set. He bageled his opponent in the fourth set. Then, in set five, his foe made one final push, threatening to break in Roger’s first service game of the set. Federer had been on cruise control in set four, creating a lull at the beginning of the final stanza, a lull that could have proved fatal. However, a tested champion passed one more quiz, digging out of trouble on serve and consolidating his advantage in the next cluster of games. The comeback from two sets down would be completed. A legacy of excellence on the biggest stages in tennis would be enhanced in immeasurable ways.
Yes, that match against Tommy Haas in the 2009 French Open really was special, wasn’t it? (Federer did bagel Haas in the fourth set of that match, and as you might recall, he was down love-30 on his serve at 0-1 in the fifth before winning four straight points to hold, effectively stopping Haas’s last and best challenge over the final two sets.)
Obviously, many of the qualities and details present in Federer’s match three years ago were brought back to the forefront on a breathtaking Tuesday at the 2012 French Open. Federer admires Juan Martin del Potro as much as Haas, if not more so. Fed fell behind his Argentine opponent by two sets – just as he did to his German friend in 2009 – and was faced with a long uphill climb. However, he got a break (Delpo’s diminishing mobility thanks to a bad knee), dug out the third set, bageled the fourth, and withstood that early-fifth-set service-game scare (two Delpo break points) to hit the finish line first. With all of these uncanny similarities in play, it’s so easy to think that Federer’s latest achievement was and is automatic.
After all, this is a man who has been as automatic as they come in major tournaments — nay, more than that: Federer is simply the best major-tournament male tennis player who has ever lived. The “GOAT” debate can be left to others, but the specific distinction that nobody can take away from Woger is that he has played the biggest tournaments better than anybody else over the long march of time. Federer’s win over Delpo enabled him to reach a truly “major” milestone, tying Jimmy Connors for first on the all-time list in major-tournament singles semifinal appearances, with 31. Federer has won the most major titles (16), reached the most finals (23), and now reached the most semifinals (31) at the sport’s four biggest events. He is tied with Andre Agassi for second place on the all-time list in terms of major quarterfinals reached, with 36. (Connors leads with 41.) He is the only man to win at least 50 matches at all four majors (technically, 54). His win over Delpo enabled him to pass Ivan Lendl for the second highest amount of match wins at Roland Garros, with 54, trailing only Guillermo Vilas (56). If anyone can be viewed as automatic at the majors, it’s Federer.
There’s just one fascinating thing to contemplate about Roger, however: It’s not automatic – for him or anyone else.
Not for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Not for Novak Djokovic.
The two men who staged a quarterfinal even more remarkable than “Fedelpo” on Tuesday in Paris were confronted with recurring scenarios. For Tsonga, playing lights-out tennis in a major quarterfinal had to make him recall his 2011 dismissal of Federer from the Wimbledon quarterfinals. As Tsonga encountered each of his four match points, he had to think that his best tennis – virtually impossible to touch when it is sustained for prolonged periods of time – was going to be rewarded with victory, just as it was in suburban London last summer.
It wasn’t… because Djokovic wouldn’t let him claim the prize he sought with such fervor.
Djokovic, for his part, had to recall the not-very-distant experience of climbing uphill on another gray and damp day at Court Philippe Chatrier. When he fell behind Tsonga on Tuesday, Djokovic had to access the same resilience he displayed on Sunday in fighting off a valiant Andreas Seppi – surviving a contentious fourth set – to win in five and affirm his bona fides as a man who refuses to die.
Before Federer and Djokovic (and also Rafael Nadal) established their respective auras of invincibility and inevitability, they scuffled and struggled. They swung and missed. They lacked the ability to break through in defining moments, to impose their will not just on an opponent, but a situation that cried out for confident, decisive action. Federer needed Wimbledon of 2003 to show him that he could put all his talents together in one lethal package. Djokovic, whose body language had always been awful at the crunch-time stage of important matches over several years, uncovered a pathway to mental strength in the final months of 2010, and now, he’s the player who is harder to knock out than anyone else on tour (except if it’s Rafa on clay).Let’s say more about Djokovic here: Much as Federer replicated his Tommy Haas win at the French by digging out of trouble against Delpo, Djokovic recalled a different pair of memories by surviving Tsonga’s four match points: namely, the two matches – in 2010 and 2011 – when he shrugged off two match points apiece to leave Mr. Federer gutted in the U.S. Open semifinal round. The muscle memory two amazing champions displayed on Tuesday at Roland Garros – two days after scrambling to win extremely close fourth-round matches on Sunday – surely left a lot of casual sports fans saying, “Well of course Djokovic and Federer pulled through – that’s who they are and what they do.” Naturally, there’s some truth to that statement, but if it means that these outcomes and the men producing them are automatic, it’s not an accurate statement any longer.
Great tennis – winning tennis at the highest level – feels so automatic, but it simply isn’t. Federer’s French Open is testament to this.
My fellow Fed fans, you might disagree with the following statement, but while 2009 French Open comparisons are easy to come by this year (every match beyond the first round was an intense scrap for Roger), the tournament evoked most clearly by Fed’s 2012 French Open is the 2010 Wimbledon event. Wogie was rarely if ever in a groove during that fortnight; his body did not float across the court, and matches were not on his racquet (at least for prolonged stretches) against big men who could clobber the ball. When good form is consistently elusive, players lose the comfort zone they come to depend on, and that’s a big reason why Federer lost in the Wimbledon quarterfinals to Tomas Berdych in 2010. It’s the reason why his 2008 spring season was patchy. It’s a reason why Fed has lost multiple matches over the past three years in which he’s owned at least one match point.
The very reality of Fed’s flawed form over the past week and a half in Paris, combined with the knowledge of all the seemingly locked-up wins that have somehow gotten away from him (especially in 2010, and especially at the U.S. Open against Djokovic), neatly dismantles the idea that Federer’s French semifinal in 2012 is a completely expected occurrence, something that was never in doubt. Athletes, when they relentlessly and consistently win at a high level, can create an aura of inevitability in their matches, but the great thing about tennis is that it forces its practitioners to toe the service line again and again, dealing with their minds and their stamina as well as the pressure of pivotal in-match moments.
Even the best in the sport don’t always solve problems on the fly.
Djokovic didn’t win a razor-close match against John Isner in Indian Wells earlier this season. He didn’t flourish in Dubai. He flinched against Nadal in Rome. He was mortal, he smelled the scent of his own blood. Federer, for his part, participated in an ultimate “automatic” match against Andy Roddick earlier this year in Miami, but lo and behold, the “automatic” result never emerged in a Roddick upset. Federer’s shock loss to Isner in Davis Cup – while occurring on a genuinely awful clay surface in Fribourg, Switzerland – nevertheless undercut the notion that Roger’s mere appearance on a Davis Cup court guarantees a singles win for the Swissies.
Djokovic (this season) and Federer (to an increasing degree over the past three years, but to a lesser extent this year compared to 2010 and 2011) have openly shown a number of weaknesses and frailties. With the exception of Federer’s 2004-2007 run (a stretch that can be matched only by a few the sport’s most hallowed figures — think of Borg from 1977 through 1980), it’s generally true in tennis that one great year isn’t ordinarily backed up by another. What had once seemed automatic not only ceases to be automatic; it never really was automatic in the first place. Men with levels of pure natural talent that are equal to Federer and Djokovic (Tsonga, Berdych, Murray, and Nalbandian, to name some) haven’t been able to make a dent in major tournaments when they step up to the service line again and again. The act of winning the handful of key points needed to win a major-tournament match is something that has proven to be so elusive for the overwhelming majority of tennis professionals, even those with abundant resources.
Yet, that very reality in tennis – namely, the difficulty of handling the heat when all eyes are on you, awaiting your fall from grace – is precisely what makes Roger Federer’s latest escape so special. The same goes for Djokovic’s triumph over Tsonga.
As in 2009 against Haas, Roger could have bowed out, could have descended into further negativity, could have given up on his strokes and his game against del Potro on Tuesday. Instead, Fed solved problems… enough problems to become the first 30-year-old Roland Garros semifinalist since Ecuador’s dirtballing specialist, Andres Gomez, did the deed in 1990 en route to the title. Djokovic could have allowed the French crowd, his own slippery footing, and Tsonga’s line-hitting groundstrokes to make him surrender, but instead, the Serbian hit two lines when teetering on the brink of destruction. Only the uncommon ones among us – not the everymen, but the true students of the mind – manage to thumb their noses at death the way Federer and Djokovic so regularly do.
Roger Federer’s excellence in the realm of major-tournament tennis possesses the kind of video-game consistency which makes a semifinal appearance seem so utterly devoid of specialness or significance. Yet, if you’ve been watching Fed struggle through each and every round of this Roland Garros passion play, you know better than to think that his success – record-smashing, history-rewriting success – has been arrived at without price. This is why his latest conquest – like the new tennis records it established – is to be savored with the level of joy normally reserved for bigger occasions than a “mere” quarterfinal.