Aus Open Day 1: the Surface-Undercurrent Divide.
Sport is a multilayered stream. There comes moments in a match or a game when the surface and the undercurrent flow in opposite directions.
Up two sets and 5-3, Thiemo de Bakker was on the brink of eliminating one of the surprisingly well loved athletes at the Aus Open. I say “surprisingly”, because Monfils has never really had a memorable run at the Aus Open the way his compatriot Tsonga had. And yet I lost count of the number of little boys walking into Hisense Arena today, exclaiming “WOAH! Look! Monfeeeeees!”
Funnily enough, it seems to be the little boys that have the greatest affinity to Monfils. He’s fun. He’s athletic. He’s made of springs and tomfoolery. And at his core, Monfils is really the Peter Pan of men’s tennis, a boy stuck in a man’s body, torn between the desire to frolic and the desire to win. Up an early break in both the first and second set, Monfils managed to lose both with some utterly intentless shotmaking.
To his credit, De Bakker really picked up the pace and aggression on his shots after he settled down later in the first set, the man is not without talent. But Monfils flailed like he was staging a Rally For Relief to help the Glorious Nation of the Netherlands. Suddenly, the crowd was on edge, screaming words of encouragement at Gael in French. Down 2 sets to love and a break, they knew it was almost over for the Frenchman.
But here comes the surface and undercurrent divide. At 5-3 serving for the match in the third set, De Bakker ‘snapped’, to use Monfils’ own words. A shocking service game later, Monfils is back on serve. On the surface, De Bakker was still up 2 sets to love, a commanding position to seal the win, yet the undercurrent was carrying an entirely different match, starting from 5-3 in the third set, where De Bakker was the one playing tennis without intent, and Monfils was grunting, fighting, struggling and overcoming the surface current.
The final score: 6-7 2-6 7-5 6-2 6-1.
Overheard at the Aus Open
Usher 1: “I hope we get an early finish today.”
Usher 2: “Nah, we won’t. It’s the Curse of Roddick on Hisense”.
Usher 1: “Say WHUT?!”
Usher 2: “Every time Roddick plays on Hisense, we end up finishing late.”
Believe it or not, I missed Federer’s first round match altogether because I was stuck on Hisense with Roddick v Hajek (unsurprisingly a snoozefest). But when some of Federer’s harshest fan critics (you know who you are) tell me that he was playing the kind of tennis that cheapens superlatives, I think I’d better trust their good judgment.
There was a lot of anger on cyberspace over Cahill’s comment that Federer’s win over Nadal at the World Tour Finals “didn’t count”, because evidently, conditions favoured Federer.
Sheesh. I didn’t know Cahill was such a Federer fan. He just managed to discount every single clay court match that Nadal ever won against Federer because conditions favoured OH WAIT –
Asterisks only apply one way and not the other, and Roger Federer victories always come at a discounted price, no matter how sensationally earned, how bravely fought, or how stunning displayed. I’m not even sure how a human being could be capable of such an alarming lack of logic.
Mentioning Federer, I’ve been stuck at Melbourne Park for 8 hours a day in the last few days, so I’ve had little chance to note this intriguing answer in the pre-tournament presser:
Q. Do you feel he should be favorite or you should be favorite, in your own mind?
ROGER FEDERER: No, he should be favorite. He’s holding the three slams. I hold this one still, but just, so… Of course, I won the World Tour Finals, I’ve been playing really well on the hard courts right now. But he’s been the one dominating the slams. Had hardly any tough matches in the last three slams. That makes him the favorite.
I don’t have any problems not being the favorite really.
This of course was immediately spun into a “FEDERER PLAYING MIND-GAMES WITH NADAL” type narrative. But had Federer answered that he was the favourite, he would’ve come off in the media as a massive self-obsessed douchenugget. I mentioned during my off-season rants that as fans, we’re being fed the same narratives over and over again by the media, and this was a prime example.
Personally, I found it to be a revealing presser. First, the way Federer has talked and played lately shows him to be a man stung, and stung into action, not defensive words. That is a good sign for the medium-long term.
Secondly, the extent of Wogie’s admiration for Rafa often goes unnoticed. He talked at length about how exciting this Open is for Nadal.
“That’s why it’s a very exciting Australian Open, to see if Rafa can do it. He sure has all the opportunities, having won three Grand Slams in a row on three different surfaces. Quite spectacular. So I’m excited to see how he goes.”
To be quite frank, I don’t believe this was a pressure tactic or a mind game. One thing that the tennis media continues to underappreciate is the fact that Federer and Nadal’s careers are not inversely linked. More slams for Rafael Nadal does not discount the jaw-dropping consistency with which Federer has excelled in this sport, beyond human capacity as we’ve ever seen before.
In fact, Nadal’s legacy will only add to the quality of Federer’s career in the medium-long term. We will look back on this era to see not a weak one, but one of an iron-wrought duopoly, unable to be broken by some of the best players to have graced this sport.
If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that Federer knows that better than anyone, and derives genuine happiness from Nadal’s success. (And very much mutual on that front from Nadal too.)
That said, I’m fairly certain Wogie would like to be the roadblock to the Rafa slam as much as Rafa has been to him. It’s not quite the do-or-die for Wogie that the media has been making this out to be, but I am feeling Zen enough to say that the Australian Open is Federer’s to lose. Whether we’re talking form, results, confidence-build up or momentum, the undercurrent has been flowing in Federer’s way for quite some time now. Can he execute 6 more matches and bring this undercurrent to the surface?
Gilles Simon. Bring it.
PS. My good friend and fellow Melbournian – PJ – will be blogging her days of live tennis here as well. Watch this space.