The Multiplication and Magnificence Beneath the Masks

And then there was “The Other Semifinal,” which has led us to “The Other Rivalry.”

I know that Novak Djokovic is referred to as “Satan” by some Fed fans, and I know that Andy Murray is not quite the favorite player of the foundress of this Roger Blog, but as you might expect, I’m not going to be the one to take swipes at Mr. Federer’s other prime competitors, the men who are going to make it hard for him to win major number 17 when Rafa’s not the opponent. It’s just not how I roll… unless you do what Fernando Gonzalez did to James Blake in the semifinals of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. (Then you land in my doghouse/firing zone and stay there.)

No, after watching every bit of Djokovic’s 4-hour, 50-minute triumph over Murray in a spellbinding semifinal (well, except for a few 40-love points during which I tweeted or read tweets), what is there to do but praise both men and note how the Federer-Nadal alchemy was multiplied in a magnificent manner by two men who wear their own share of masks? Indeed, what is so deliciously fascinating about “The Other Semifinal” (Djokovic-Murray) and “The Other Rivalry” it has brought us to – Nadal versus Djokovic for the championship, again – is that the dynamics which enfolded the hero and central Swiss protagonist of this blog have boomeranged to other players.

Federer’s inability to consolidate break leads in sets? Andy Murray knows the feeling after his loss to the Joker.

Federer’s inability to win one or two final points against Djokovic in New York, especially this past year? Murray tasted the feeling against the Serb last year in the Rome Masters semifinals, but now he’s absorbed that exquisite pain in a major semifinal, after losing three break points at 5-all in the final set… two of them on masterful Djokovic saves, but a third on a donated backhand.

Djokovic doesn’t just break Federer’s heart at the US Open. He breaks Nadal’s heart with regularity across the globe, and now he’s building a track record of leaving Andy Murray one inch short of the finish line. Truly and without dispute, the most outstanding feature of Novak Djokovic’s rise to the top of men’s tennis is found not in his early-round demolitions of tomato cans, but in his ability to so consistently pull five-set epics out of the fire against elite, credentialed foes. The 2010 US Open semis. The 2011 US Open semis. The (four-set, not five) 2011 US Open final. The 2012 Australian Open semis. When you so regularly win four- or five-hour matches that sit on the razor’s edge for an eternity, it’s hard to assign an overly central place to luck in the larger scheme of things. Consistent winning is borne of toughness; it’s only the occasional winning that can be seen as aberrational. Right now, Djokovic’s belief in himself is so substantial that any of his old tics – the heavy breathing, the hangdog appearance, the works – do not deter him, not after his body spills the tank. I thought Djokovic’s body – clearly cooked at the World Tour Finals – would not recover in 1.5 months for this tournament, but his win over Murray, in which he improbably outlasted Murray on a physical level (not just a mental one), proves otherwise.

I remarked on Twitter after Djokovic broke for 5-2 in the fifth set – ironically, by playing the kind of defensive point that Nadal used to fend off Federer late in the fourth set on Thursday (a ridiculous defensive lob from the ad corner that floated to the back baseline and reset the point) – that while Nadal is the best fighter I have ever seen in tennis, Djokovic has established a remarkable standard for competitive grit over the past 12 months. Blog manager P.J. thoughtfully noted that Lleyton Hewitt deserves to be at the forefront of such a conversation, a point that is well taken. In recalibrating my remarks, then, Hewitt is probably the best fighter tennis has seen in terms of making the most out of otherwise pedestrian talent. Hewitt has a crisp backhand, but his rise to two major titles was based on work ethic and stamina, and not much else. This is where the discussion between Hewitt and our two Australian Open finalists takes divergent paths.

When I say that Nadal is the best fighter I’ve ever seen on a tennis court – and that Djokovic has been the prime pugilist of the past 12 months – I mean (and meant) to say that Rafa and Nole are the best exemplars of a fighting spirit translating championship potential into championship reality at the highest levels of competition. Hewitt filled the post-Sampras, pre-Federer (non-Safin, non-Nalbandian) vacuum with two majors won on the back of relentless consistency owing to fitness and determination, but once Roger ushered in this new and more formidable era of men’s tennis, Hewitt took a back seat, with his 2005 U.S. Open semifinal run being his last great charge at the flag and his 2005 Australian Open final against Safin being his last major championship match in a decorated career. For Nadal and Djokovic, the fight they invest in their tennis – and especially in late-stage major-tournament marathons – has carried them to more than a few mountaintop moments. Rafa and Nole are collecting the scalps and accomplishments of all-time great players, players who belong in top-10 lists and not just the ranks of those who have had (“merely”) highly successful careers. It’s in that especially lofty sense that Nadal and Djokovic are prime tennis fighters.

Spiritual author Ron Rolheiser says that the saints of our age “carry solitude at a high level,” without bitterness or pettiness. Similarly, Nadal and Djokovic – as is apparent after their Australian Open semifinal triumphs – fight at a high level, carrying their bodies to remarkable feats even though they both worry a lot about their physical condition, often to the point where it seems as though they’re acting. They’re not “acting”; it’s more like “acting out” in a necessary, albeit sloppy and inelegant, discharge of nerves and other accumulated psychic debris.

This brings us to Sunday’s championship match, the match that Federer fans can’t stand but which – speaking only for myself – is still a consummate tennis treat: Nadal and Djokovic, now in a third straight major final. There is pain associated with this matchup for any Fed fan, but much as I spoke beyond the agony of Woger’s loss to Rafa in Thursday’s semifinal, I will speak beyond the hurt in sizing up this match as well. Not every Fed fan will be able to appreciate this match for what it is, and that’s okay, but I will personally choose to see it as an event of epic proportions, which is frankly what a major final should be.

The aspect of this major final between Nadal and Djokovic – in Melbourne, in 2012 (not their previous meetings) – which jumps off the printed page is that it brings about yet another delicious bit of role reversal in men’s tennis. In 2011, Nadal became the Roger Federer of 2008, making finals left and right but losing to a nemesis at virtually every step along the way. Now, Nadal is once again placed in Federer’s shoes, relative to the last (and only) time that the Spaniard lifted the championship trophy inside Rod Laver Arena.

I do think that the 2008 Wimbledon final – owing to the circumstances, the pressure, and the overall magnitude of the occasion – was the greatest men’s tennis match ever played. However, when Rafael Nadal’s story is told in full, the greatest feat ever attained by the Mallorcan will be his 2009 Australian Open double: Winning two matches – a semifinal over Fernando Verdasco and a final over Federer – that took 9 hours and 37 minutes in a span of just two days. Nadal completely emptied his tank in a 5-hour, 14-minute semifinal against Verdasco, and with just one day off, he was able to find enough fuel in that tank to outlast Fed (and that’s exactly what he did; Roger hit a wall at 1-2 in the fifth set) in a 4-hour, 23-minute epic whose quality through the first three games of the fifth set was arguably better than in the 2008 Wimby final.

Yes, the shoe is now on the other foot. It’s not the rested Nadal – the beneficiary of the first semifinal slot in Melbourne – who is being forced to dig deep into the last reaches of his stamina. It’s Djokovic who must recharge after the 4-hour, 50-minute war with Murray in the second (Friday) semifinal. If Djokovic beats Nadal in a protracted battle, the Serbian will have become Nadal, and Rafa will become Fed, adding a new 2012 twist to the “changing places” narrative which emerged in the 2011 season.

Federer fans might detest both players – with the clear majority wanting Djokovic to keep Nadal’s major title haul at 10 – but even if some of you hate the reality of this match, you can’t deny that the backdrop is juicier than the freshest farmer’s market mango. If Djokovic beats Nadal THIS TIME, Rafa’s confidence will be shaken to an even greater degree; however, the flip side is that if Rafa finds a way to prevail against a taxed foe, the Mallorcan could produce a three-major year and renew talk about overtaking Fed’s 16 crowns.

You thought there was a lot riding on the Wimbledon and US Open finals? The stakes have been raised. It’s not just Nadal who is playing for history, either; if Djokovic wins, he’ll be the reigning champion of three majors and will have a chance to win four in a row in Paris at the French. He’ll also have a great chance to win three more majors this year after his ridiculously good 2011. Had Murray been able to beat a physically struggling Djokovic (in the early sets, at any rate; Nole found a fifth wind in the fourth set…), the narrative would have been that the Serb’s body just wasn’t ready to reduplicate its 2011 magic, but after surviving that scare, Djokovic has given himself a shot to prove his doubters (I was one of them) that his body is more resilient than October and November of 2011 ever suggested it could be.

As was said at the end of my Fedal post a day and a half ago, I prefer – as do all of you – the way Woger plays tennis. I like my tennis players to be artistic, flowing shotmakers first and pugilists second. That will always be the case, and rightly so. Bold risk-taking is such a more marvelous feat worthy of this brief human lifespan than baseline grinding. It’s why Fed is treasured by his fans across the globe.

However, as I also said in my Fedal post, there’s room enough to acknowledge and appreciate other forms of excellence and different, multiplied manifestations of greatness. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic wear their own masks of insecurity (Andy Murray does, too, but Mr. Lendl seems to be getting the Scot to grow up at long last…), but those masks shouldn’t be seen as the real persons who thrive so fully within the tennis rectangle. As one great champion – Federer – moves to the side and two other champions form “The Other Rivalry” in men’s tennis, my heart – though certainly wishing for a more Swiss-flavored outcome – cannot help but appreciate the men’s final we’re about to have. What Novak Djokovic showed against Andy Murray is that he’s decent enough to rip out the hearts of players other than Roger. Sunday night, Mr. Djokovic will try to rip out the heart of Rafa Nadal. If he can, he will ironically produce a feat every bit as impressive as Nadal’s crowning career moment, the one fashioned in Melbourne three very long years ago.

I don’t care if some Fed fans can’t stomach this matchup. Personal preferences aside, this is going to be a compelling sporting event, with aftereffects and storylines that will fill the 2012 tennis year with an unending supply of intrigue and richness.

It’s hard to be too unhappy in the face of such a landscape.


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About Matt Zemek

Sportswriter, political writer, tennis commentator... and more.

2 responses to “The Multiplication and Magnificence Beneath the Masks”

  1. divinedevilxyz (Arun) says :

    Sorry for the delayed response. Just read it. Love it. Thanks.

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