The Pain That Doesn’t Destroy (by Matt)
PJ: Matt is a much braver, stronger and infinitely more coherent than I can be right now. Thank you, Matt.
Andre Agassi, in his widely-praised autobiography, wasted no time in getting to the point: “I hate tennis.” Agassi was made to hate tennis as a chore, a burden, an oppressive task that so fully consumed his days that he took no joy from it for long stretches of time.
Today, even though I was discharging my duties as an American collegiate football writer for College Football News, I watched Roger Federer’s U.S. Open semifinal against Novak Djokovic. I read Twitter when the match was over.
“I hate tennis” was a fairly common theme.
The pain, the pain, the pain of this match is beyond words. As Roger said in his press conference with that “what can I do?” shrug, “It is what it is.” We saw it, we couldn’t believe it, but it happened. Words not only seem unnecessary. They are unnecessary.
The pain says it all.
It will linger. It can’t be helped. We know it.
There’s a part of me which strongly suspects that most Picket Fencers, as Federer fans, aren’t really ready to read anything right now – not for the first 24 hours after this stomach-punch loss. The hurt is too fresh, searing and real. I could just stop here, and you probably wouldn’t mind.
However, we have a blog to maintain, darnit, and making sense of unpleasant events is a necessary part of human life. So, your guest Woger blogger will try to make sense of this event and place it in its proper context.
First, let me say that as a collegiate football writer here in the United States, the U.S. Open semifinals always occur on a Saturday, when (American) college football games are played. U.S. Open semifinal day is always a workday for me (the same is true for American broadcaster Chris Fowler, who works for ESPN as both a tennis play-by-play man and the host of ESPN’s “College Gameday” studio show; Fowler spent Saturday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the Michigan-Notre Dame football game). I can watch matches, but I can’t hang on every point because I have to follow dozens of football games across America. I readily acknowledge that if I didn’t have sportswriting to fall back on, I might be viewing this five-set loss to Djokovic in a different way.
Then again, my personal story is connected to this larger fact of work interfering with my full immersion in these last two Federer-Djokovic semifinals at the U.S. Open. You will see where this is all going in a very short amount of time.
I spent last year not watching the Fed-Djokovic U.S. Open semifinal because I wanted to focus on my work. Yet, as I read Twitter and saw the tennis tweets amidst my football feed, I realized that the match was the only thing I could think about. I did not watch a single point of the match, but instead of watching football (as I was supposed to do), I was glued to my Twitter timeline ( @MattZemek_CFN , not my tennis feed, @mzemek ). For this reason, I decided to watch this year’s semifinal even while composing a live journal of a football game between San Diego State University and the United States Army.
This reality – approaching the 2011 semifinal in a manner different from the 2010 semifinal – forms the basis for this essay and this attempt to give meaning to the pain of a Federer fan right now.
In 2010, Federer’s two lost match points came on Djokovic’s serve. In 2011, they came on Fed’s. In 2010, Fed played passively on his match points. In 2011, he played aggressively. In 2010, Federer was the favorite. In 2011, the slight underdog. In 2010, he had won a major tournament, while in 2011, he hadn’t.
In 2010, Djokovic hit really hard when trailing on match point. In 2011, he did the same. In 2010, Djokovic did everything Andy Murray should be doing, but isn’t. In 2011, he’s done the same. In 2010, Federer’s all-too-human mind couldn’t handle the reality of losing two match points. In 2011, the same thing happened.
What’s the point of these two undeniably tormenting paragraphs – one in which 2010 and 2011 are so different, the other in which they’re so very alike?
Well, that’s the point, fellow Fencers. Federer was criticized for being too passive on last year’s match points; he was aggressive this time around in a dead-even semifinal. However, Djokovic – on both occasions – hit very tough shots under pressure. Fed managed his match points differently in 2010 and 2011, but ended up with the same result. What can you say about that? It’s hard to talk about regrets when the same situation emerges two straight years at the same tournament, only for different responses to bring about the same outcome: Djokovic displaying some desperation, some boldness, and a lot of theatricality, but – through it all – persevering with the guts of a burglar to affirm his bona fides as a competitor.
On the second and more overlooked match point of this 2011 epic, Fed hit a great body serve that Djokovic returned quite well. Fed’s inside-out forehand approach might have put him in good position on the point, but Djokovic was going to get there with a very reasonable chance of hitting a passing shot. Nole was lucky on his 40-15 return, which clearly possessed a certain degree of desperation; yet, when he went for broke, he made his shot. Not everyone can go for broke and succeed. Djokovic does this, and that’s why he’s having an all-timer of a year.
It is what it is.
Federer melted down after Djokovic saved those two match points, but on the match points themselves, it’s hard to feel too much of a sense of regret. Two points — when a match is decided by that margin, it’s clear that the battle was essentially a draw. However, someone has to win four points by two, and someone has to lose. Federer loves this sport the way few of us ever will. He chose this sport as his livelihood, his passion, his vocation. I can’t hate tennis after this. The drama and richness of today’s moment is why we watch, why we care.
We know it will open us up to immense pain if the outcome goes the wrong way, but we watch in the first place hoping for the big payoff. In each of the last two U.S. Open semifinals, we were one point away from that payoff (twice), but didn’t get to celebrate.
It is what it is.
There’s one more thing to say about the way this match ended: Federer’s second match point went begging because of an inside-out forehand that just missed. Well, Fencers, what if another inside-out forehand – in the 2009 French Open against Tommy Haas – had just missed? I’ll take today’s missed inside-out forehand over that one.
Similarly, Federer lost multiple match points against Djokovic in each of the last two years at the U.S. Open, but what about the seven set points (five in set one, two in set two) that Djokovic lost to Woger in the 2007 U.S. Open final? What about the time when Federer faltered late in the fourth set of this year’s French Open semifinals, but then got the break at 4-5 to even the fourth set at 5-all and then win the tiebreak he had to have? Beyond the Fed-Djokovic rivalry in particular, what about all the times that Federer has won a handful of points to stunningly turn around a major-tournament championship match? The 2009 Wimbledon final and the second-set tiebreak against Andy Roddick serve as perfect examples of Fed’s ability to win those two, or three, or four key points in the heat of a razor-close match on the final weekend of a major tournament. In this match against Djokovic, Federer simply didn’t win those two or three extra points.
That’s tennis, the sport that can and does turn on two or three points. It’s a sport that invites pain, but Federer signed up for that pain. By watching and caring about Woger, we signed up for that pain, too. By accepting this pain, we can take away the pain’s power, the power to destroy us and make us hate tennis the way Andre Agassi once did before he re-embraced the sport with a fresh love and appreciation.
In conclusion, Roger Federer has played tennis several years more than Novak Djokovic and, for that matter, Rafael Nadal. Rafa -as a consequence of his accumulated miles and collective travels – is beginning to taste what it’s like to lose in finals (and he’s likely to lose to Djokovic on Monday in the final). One day, Djokovic will also lose more than he wins… it’s just that such a moment isn’t likely to appear anytime soon.
The ultimate thing to keep in mind is that if you play long enough and continue to put yourself in the arena against legendary opponents, you will get bruised and beaten. You will win your share of glories, but a large enough body of accumulated experiences will lead to that many more matches which are played on the razor’s edge. If you play on the razor’s edge, you will lose matches that are close to being won. If you play on the razor’s edge, you will lose matches in the blink of an eye, in the two or three points that go begging. If you sign up for tennis, you accept the possibility that you can have your heart ripped out.
It is what it is.
Federer is the man who has closed down so many tough matches at major tournaments – he is, right now, the greatest major-tournament player the sport has ever seen. No one has won more major titles. No one has made more major finals. In 2012, Fed will likely break Jimmy Connors’s record of 31 major semifinal appearances (or at least tie it). This is a man who has toed the service line countless numbers of times and pulled through. If you play long enough, though, you will run into great opponents, opponents like Novak Djokovic who will dig incredibly deep to beat you and play with fearlessness in pressure situations. The inside-out forehand you made in Paris in 2009 won’t land in this time. The set points you improbably saved against yourself (Djokovic was serving at 6-5, 40-love in the first set of the 2007 U.S. Open final before getting broken by Fed) will be saved by your opponent. This is what tennis players sign up for. This is what tennis fans are willing to risk; it’s a risk akin to Djokovic’s “damn the torpedoes” return at 40-15 and 3-5 on Federer’s serve today.
Roger Federer has won more than I ever fathomed he would win when I became a true-blue, frazzling, stomach-churning devotee in 2004. Because winning championships is the standard Fed has set, anything short of that feels incredibly painful. Yet, the bounty of what Federer has already accomplished makes today’s match – like the 2010 U.S. Open semifinal – a simple product of repetition: If you make the rounds long enough, you will suffer what you once dealt to your foes. If you accumulate enough matches, the painful outcomes that once rested on the heavy shoulders of disappointed opponents will pierce your own anguished heart.
Roger Federer signed up for tennis knowing that he could win 16 majors… and suffer the fate he’s suffering right now. The pain is profound and poignant. It’s also a pain that doesn’t destroy.
It is what it is.
Living with this exquisite agony is the price paid for living with Roger Federer’s beauty, grace, and competitive fire (it was a marvelous war with the Djoker today, outcome aside). If I can live with the inside-out forehand that just missed, and with the saved match points from Djokovic’s end, I can also live with the 2009 French Open and the 2007 U.S. Open as well.
I can still love tennis. I can still go on without being destroyed.
Hugs and caresses of comfort to each and every one of you.
Your Woger blogger,