Federer In Two — Parts, Not Sets


There’s still business to be tended to at Wimbledon… for both Roger Federer and the Picket Fence Fuccheine Yeaaaaacht Sweats Of Excellence blogging empire. We’ll handle Federer’s situation in two parts.

PART ONE: BEATING THE DJOKER IN HIGH-STAKES POKER

One of the more unpleasant aspects of the immediate aftermath of Federer’s victory over Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon semifinals was this line of thought, voiced by more than a few tennis tweeps on my timeline: “If Roger doesn’t beat Andy Murray, the Djokovic win will be a waste.”

There’s no point in making an appeal to emotions or worldviews here. To use country language, “How’s about we rustle up some facts?”

With this ring, I thee wed… I mean, with this win, I see Fed:

* Winning what was, in many ways, a deciding “Game 7″ of an American professional sports playoff series. Federer and Djokovic were tied at three wins apiece, having defeated each other at the other three majors (Australia, Roland Garros, and New York). The winner of Friday’s match would own the distinction of having beaten the foe at all four majors. Federer got there first; Djokovic will have to wait until next year to see if he can match the feat, but failing to beat Federer to the finish line gives Roger one mighty large scalp in the larger historical context of their rivalry, marked by more meetings at majors in the Open Era than any other tennis tussle, even McEnroe-Connors or Sampras-Agassi.

* Federer can now say that he was more resilient to Djokovic in the Serb’s prime years than Djokovic was in Federer’s time of supremacy. Developing the extent to which Friday’s match carried long-term historical resonance in the sport, it needs to be said that Federer has now beaten Djokovic twice at the majors since the Serb has entered his foremost years of excellence. Sure, Djokovic is not matching his 2011 this year, but Nole has still earned the right to be seen as the big dog in the sport. He had made four straight major finals before losing on Friday. He’s made nine straight major semifinals; two more, and he’ll move into second place on the all-time list. He’s made 13 straight major quarterfinals — naturally, nowhere near Federer’s 33 — but the point is clear: Mr. Djokovic is in the middle of the most fruitful section of his career. You can get bogged down in semantics, but that larger reality won’t change.

And yet Federer has managed to eclipse Nole twice in major semifinals.

Pray tell, how many times did Djokovic beat Federer at the majors when Roger enjoyed his expansive prime period spanning from Wimbledon of 2004 through the 2010 Australian Open, in which he made 20 of 23 major finals and produced what might become his greatest single record, the 23 straight major semifinals?

Once. The answer is once, in the 2008 Australian Open semifinals. (Please don’t mention health issues — as Doots and any other old-school Australian tennis fan would tell you, if you take the court, you’re fit to play. Djokovic wasn’t bright-eyed and bushy-tailed yesterday against Federer, and to Nole’s great credit, he chose  not to belabor that point.)

* It can also be said that Federer has successfully managed to rebound from each of the most supremely disheartening stomach-punch losses a top-level tennis professional can endure, thereby lending vast new dimensions of heft and stature to his legacy. It all seems so obvious today, in the present tense, to scoff at the notion that Federer was going to crumble after losing to Djokovic in each of the past two U.S. Open semifinals despite holding two match points. Yet, it has to be said that plenty of athletes, over the long march of time, have been rocked to their core by wrenching losses. Plenty of athletes and teams do not recover from moments when their hearts are ripped out of their bodies. The awareness of the closeness of victory, combined with a realization of the preciousness of the opportunity, creates the kind of psychic black hole that sucks the remaining life from a top athlete’s soul. In team sports, this emotional dynamic infests a whole locker room.

Just to provide a few examples of this kind of loss in tennis history, let’s hit some of the high (low) points: Bjorn Borg never recovered from the twin losses John McEnroe dealt him at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1981. A part of McEnroe never really came to grips with the 1984 loss to Ivan Lendl in the French Open final. McEnroe carried himself through the rest of 1984 on the strength of his genius, but it’s hard to think that his career wouldn’t have soared if he had conquered the clay-court major with his grass-court game.

Jana Novotna took five years to recover from the 1993 Wimbledon final (to her great credit, she did win Wimbledon in 1998, but that loss still exacted a severe toll). Marcelo Rios never recovered from the 1998 Australian Open final, lost to Petr Korda. Fernando Verdasco hasn’t been the same player since his loss to Rafael Nadal in the 2009 Australian Open semifinals. Anna Chakvetadze’s career plummeted after a terrible performance in the 2007 U.S. Open semifinals. Vera Zvonareva and Jelena Jankovic made U.S. Open finals, failed to win them, and have not returned to major finals since then, their careers in tatters. You get the picture.

Roger Federer could have allowed the inevitable tidal waves of self-doubt to overwhelm his mind after the 2010 U.S. Open semifinal loss to Djokovic, a match in which he led two sets to one and had two match points in the fifth set. No problem — he won the 2011 French Open semifinals when Djokovic had everything to play for.

The same dynamic could have existed to an even greater degree after the 2011 U.S. Open semifinals… greater because Federer had two match points on his own serve, and because the brilliant return winner by Djokovic on that first match point was partly the product of frustration as well as determination. Yet, Federer has now brushed off THAT punch in the gut as well. There aren’t enough #ONIONS (or as Doots prefers, #SHALLOTS) to feed the Swiss provider of bliss in this regard. Djokovic might ultimately pass him in the head-to-head record at majors (currently 6-5, Federer) and overall (15-12, Federer), but if that happens, it will only be because Federer, in his 30s, is still able to make major semifinals and finals. Not until Djokovic turned 23 did he begin to turn the corner as a pro. Federer’s ability to consistently fend off Nole until turning 29 will enable the writers of the history of tennis to elevate him in comparison with Djokovic. Beating him one month short of 31 will only make the task that much easier for historians of the sport. This match went a long way toward validating Federer on many levels…

* … and that doesn’t even include the 24th major final; the 8-0 semifinal record at Wimbledon; the unprecedented eighth Wimbledon final; the gain of over 1,700 rankings points on Djokovic; the gaining of 480 more rankings points on Nadal to shore up a No. 2 seed for the U.S. Open; the notching of a 65th career match win at Wimbledon; and a partridge in a pear tree.

This match was played for keeps. It was played for history inside the cathedral of tennis. Federer won it, Djokovic didn’t. It matters. It matters enough that Federer needs to gain confidence from it, propelling him into Sunday’s final against Andy Murray. This leads us to…

PART TWO: FACING THE FURY OF A MATURE ANDREW MURRAY

Picket Fencers probably don’t want to hear any more predictions from me after Friday’s outcome against Djokovic. Hey, I laid out the scenario in which Roger would win … I just didn’t think that scenario would emerge. It did, in all its FUCHHHEINE YEAAAAAACHT glory. The most salient clash within the Federer-Djokovic semifinal will be the most important part of the Federer-Murray final other than Andy Murray’s brain: the matchup between Roger’s serve and his opponent’s return.

You all saw this on Friday in the semis: Federer got lots of cheap points on serve. Djokovic’s return game did not exist at a high or even above-average level for most of the match. Federer received timely nudges from his opponent on love-15 and 15-all points in the first set, and when that happens, Roger regularly serves well. It’s not just a matter of Federer stepping onto the court and serving huge; he needs to see his opponent donate a few points on the return. Federer can then internalize the awareness that he will have margin and freedom in his service games. This realization relaxes him; it brings out his best. As soon as Djokovic failed to put that first serve into the court at 4-all, 30-40 in the third set — on a break point that, if lost, could have cost Federer the match — the Picket Fence’s hero ran with that momentum all the way to the finish line, wobbling slightly in his final service game but instructively nailing key serves at 30-all and 40-30 to close the deal.

One of the few men on the ATP Tour whose return game belongs in the same discussion with Djokovic is Murray (David Ferrer is another example). Murray will be facing Federer on a non-hardcourt surface for the first time, so he will certainly have to make an adjustment to the speed and spin of the ball. Federer has no reason to discontinue his (wise, Annacone-fueled) emphasis on mixing speeds and placements, particularly with a body serve that kept Djokovic guessing on Friday. If Murray cannot gauge Federer’s serve in the first two sets, you’ll know who will win the match.

Will this happen? Let me not make a prediction. As that Mallorcan philosopher, Mr. Nadal, is fond of saying, “We gonna see, no?”

Let me just say this: While Federer has owned these moments in the past and Murray hasn’t, Murray is playing the most mature tennis of his career. The back-grabbing, possum-playing, drama-queen behavior of the recent French Open has been abruptly shelved. Murray has quietly and steadily gone about his business this tournament, and golly gee, he’s posted a very impressive result. Sure, Nadal was not waiting in the semifinals, but Murray shouldered an enormous amount of pressure with Rafa out of the way (Federer knows what Murray’s feeling; see “2009 French Open” as evidence). He is entering a major final with good reason to believe that he can pull through. In the 2010 and 2011 Australian Open finals, Murray played softer draws to get to the big stage and was still prone to flex his muscles or engage in some other form of premature and unwarranted theater. Ivan Lendl has collared Murray and gotten him to shape up. A focused Murray is a very dangerous Murray. He is the player with more pressure on his shoulders, but the flip side of that reality is that if Murray maintains his poise, the environment at Centre Court will be a boon, not a burden, for the Brit if this match turns into extended physical combat.

Speaking of “extended physical combat,” here’s one thing that favors Federer heading into Sunday: While taking down Djokovic was a superlative feat, Roger did not need to empty his tank or tax his body in the process of doing so. Federer was on court for under two and a half hours, and moreover, he did not play a punishing style of tennis. The quick points Federer played on Friday should leave him fresh for Murray, who had to work harder to beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the second semifinal. An indoor match will clearly favor Federer, but even if this is an outdoor match, the Swiss should have the legs needed to go the distance.

There’s no need for a prediction, but know this: The match will be close, and a Murray win should not be viewed as much of an upset.

Harkening back to part one of this commentary, let’s also affirm that if Federer fails to win this match, it’s not a waste… not only for any and all of the reasons that have already been put forth, but also because a Murray win would very likely open the door for the Brit to win more majors in the next three years… majors that Nadal and Djokovic won’t win.

Either Federer claims 17 and the No. 1 world ranking, or Andy Murray emerges as a more legitimate foil for Nadal and Djokovic.

Either way, Fedlandia… and Picket Fencers… win.

Enjoy the spectacle and the drama tomorrow. A loss to Murray can never wipe the shiznit-eating post-Djokovic (rotten-tomato-pelting, wrong-prediction-making) grin off my face, I’ll tell you that.

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4 responses to “Federer In Two — Parts, Not Sets”

  1. Alex (@FedFanForever) says :

    Matt – great stuff as usual. I’m hoping for an excellent final and Roger to bring his A-game.

  2. Marcoiac says :

    Never a waste to beat Nole! Never ever. And I agree that if Muzz wins on Sunday he most likely will go on and win more majors. But obviously I do want Fed to win his 17th. I think it’s mostly on Fed’s stick. He needs to bring his top game again. Forget the other two finals he won in straights with Muzz. This one will be much tougher. I think he knows.

  3. Carol says :

    I’m so happy that Fed beat Djokovic (did you see that sneaky smile D had when his return ball hit the net and Fed couldn’t get it – D was waving an apology while walking away but the camera caught his smirk). I know that’s small mindedness on my part, but it’s several of that type of thing that has created my dislike of D.

    While I’m thrilled for Britain that Murray is in the final, he has several more years to play and I really hope Fed can take that title home!

    Loved your column – thanks for saying what I can’t say but wish I could!

  4. Kyle Johansen (@KJOttawa) says :

    The match will be on Federer’s racket. If he hits his backhand well and can find ways to run around it occasionally and smack forehands, he will win. Seeing how well Roger has served and returned this tournament, as well as the consistent mental focus he has displayed, I cannot see him losing, even if Murray will be very pumped to win his first major (arguably his best chance).

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