The Alchemy Of Athletic Events

If you follow a gripping major-tournament tennis match on Twitter, thereby seeing the online equivalent of a sports bar react to the same event you’re viewing on television, you are quite aware of the diversity of opinion which exists in the community of tennis fans. You’ve tasted this twice in a particularly potent way over the past 30 hours.

Many (though hardly all) fans of an elite tennis player alternately curse their own hero and rain invective upon the opponent who is making life so miserable for said hero. The fans of that elite player’s foremost rivals express the same sentiments toward the underdog who is trying to take down said elite player. Fans of players other than the elites? This group is blessed — FOOP (fans of other players, a term coined by Hannah Wilks, aka, the terrific @newballsplease on Twitter) are the ones who sit back, popcorn in hand, and usually emerge as the most amused or objective souls (or both) in the room.

You get to see the full spectrum of human emotions when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal try to successfully dance with death in the first week of a major. Quite a lot of women (enough to notice, anyway) want to have babies one moment, then bring death to tennis players the next. Quite a lot of men (enough to notice, anyway) profane themselves something fierce, and have the words “choke,” “disinterested,” and “declining” at the ready. These sentiments come from deeply emotional places, yes, but they are also rooted in a passion for the sport. Tennis fans get up or stay up at all sorts of unholy hours, disrupting their lives for the eight weeks in a year when major-tournament championships are contested. There is a knowledge, real and enduring, which often accompanies the most rabid devotions of a tennis lover, so it’s very much worth exploring the tensions that exist among various constituencies when a match like Roger Federer’s third-rounder against Julien Benneteau unfolds at Centre Court Wimbledon.

When any titanic sports upset occurs, it is always and irreducibly true that the favorite’s standard of play dipped just enough to give the underdog an opening, while the underdog played well enough to eclipse the favorite. What sometimes gets left out of this equation is the composition of this mixture, the extent of the favorite’s dip in quality and the underdog’s rise to a higher plane of excellence. If a favored player or team dips by 10 percent and the underdog improves by 90 percent, it’s not a choke on the part of the favorite. If the underdog continues to answer the favorite’s questions – that’s the image which so fully fits a tennis match – the favorite can’t really be blamed. There are degrees and measures that need to be examined, unearthed and calibrated in order to arrive at a sense of how a match was won by the winner and lost by the loser. Sometimes, a match isn’t ever won, and other times, a match isn’t ever lost. Some days, the winner is the one who embarrassed him/herself to a lesser degree, and on other days, the loser is the unfortunate player who played a straight-A match, only to see the opponent register an A-plus.

Let’s get out the measuring stick, then, for Federer-Benneteau.

Julien Benneteau has, more often than not, been a first-week player at majors, a man who doesn’t stick around for the back end of a championship fortnight in singles competition. He had to scratch and claw past journeyman Michael Russell in the second round on Wednesday at SW19. Benneteau’s game is not what one would describe as “big.” He’s not a huge server, not a bomb-thrower from the ground — in other words, he’s no Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, his more credentialed and threatening countryman. He doesn’t own a signature shot such as the Richard Gasquet one-handed backhand. He’s become a top-30 player because he’s appreciably competent in every facet of tennis, but one has to be more than competent to crack the list of major-tournament title contenders. That’s not what Benny is… never has been, never will be. This background reality is precisely why, on paper, Benneteau didn’t figure to challenge Federer.

Paper, though – the very thing which can lead fans of any player or team to erroneously calibrate their analysis of a match – can cease to be relevant once a match’s probabilities are destroyed by the unique events of a given situational dynamic. This is precisely what happened on Friday in suburban London.

Federer fans weren’t born yesterday. They knew that when Lukas Rosol beat Rafael Nadal – even though the event occurred on the other side of the draw – this 2012 Wimbledon tournament was going to offer a scenario akin to the 2009 French Open, when Nadal lost to Robin Soderling and Federer, in the other half of the draw, had to play the very next day against Tommy Haas.

Tournaments can and do pick up a collective energy. The 2009 French was one example. The 1996 Wimbledon men’s singles event was another such case study. If you remember, that was the year all hell broke loose. Pete Sampras memorably lost in the quarterfinals to Richard Krajicek, but what’s even more remarkable about that tournament is that only two of the top 12 seeds even reached the quarters. Goran Ivanisevic was the only other high seed, alongside Sampras, to crack the final eight, and he got bounced in the quarters as well. Boris Becker lost in round three, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier in round one. The semifinals involved the 13th seed, Todd Martin, the 17th seed, Krajicek, and two unseeded players, MaliVai Washington and Jason Stoltenberg, with Krajicek taking down Washington in the final.

It was just one of those Wimbledons, and when Nadal lost, it was reasonable to claim that even while Federer enjoyed a massive advantage over Benneteau on paper, the psychology of the competition had been altered. Sure, Federer knew that Rafa was on the other side of the draw, but the force of reality often casts a shadow that’s impossible for the mind to fully shove aside. If the brain of any Wimbledon contender didn’t allow the “I have a better chance now” thought to zip through his cranial region late Thursday night, that person was either lying or inhuman. It’s not as though players nourish unproductive thoughts – they’re paid not to – but every single remaining competitor surely experienced the flash of revelation, albeit ever so briefly.

That changes the tone and tenor of a match.

So does the play of the opponent.

Benneteau – perhaps consciously inspired by Lukas Rosol, perhaps subconsciously so; it doesn’t matter – played the very brand of inspired tennis Centre Court had witnessed the day before. That “not very big” game Benneteau owns? It was replaced by a genuinely big game on Friday. A total of 59 winners, more than Federer? That’s a big game. Benneteau was the one hitting through the court, while Federer’s forehand lacked its usual sting. Benneteau drilled more return winners and made fewer appalling errors at net. He did commit more than 10 double faults, but he rarely did so in situations that cost him. He overcame those doubles with aces and service winners on deuce points and break points, especially at 5-6 in the second set, when Federer got three looks at set points, only to be fended off by a resilient foe.

As you can see, Benneteau played far above his usual standard in the first two sets and, impressively, in set four after his conspicuous loss of energy in the third. Federer did not play his best tennis by any stretch, but with the exception of a really tame backhand error at 4-4, 30-40 in the first set, followed later by two awful misses at 2-0, 30-all in the second, the Swiss was actually solid (though certainly not at his very best). The larger reality remains that as soon as the match began, Benneteau changed the tone and trajectory, rendering paper worthless. Pre-match predictions counted for nothing when Benneteau tucked away the first set, and when the Frenchman rose above the pressure in the second-set’s dramatic denouement, all bets were off.

How do you measure this match? How do you assess the principals who stood on opposite sides of the net? Clearly, Julien Benneteau won those first two sets as opposed to Federer giving them away. Federer flinched in important moments, yes, but Benneteau maximized the few crucial lapses Federer suffered. Of the three set points Federer had in set two, he truly failed on only one of them, slicing a soft second serve crosscourt instead of pounding it down the line for a winner. On the other two points, however, Benneteau delivered gutsy shots — one of them a remarkable pickup of a blistering Federer return, redirected to the deuce corner and nicking the baseline — to stop his opponent’s assault.

Is that an example of Federer being a moron? No. (The donated break at 2-0 in the second was.) Full credit to Benneteau for making the most of Federer’s brief dip in concentration in the third game of set two.

However, why did Federer look so ordinary for so much of this match, you might understandably ask? Why didn’t Federer just clock the little pill the way he usually does? Why did he play so passively at times? Why, also, did he not hit his shots with quite so much authority?

One only needs to cite this quote from Federer’s post-match press conference: “He (Benneteau) was making me doubt, obviously, for most of the match.” Indeed, the great thing about tennis is that it is a dialogal sport, not a monologal one. Two performers have a place in the conversation, a role in shaping the question-and-answer session that unfolds on both sides of the net, both cranial regions.

Federer entered this match with the resume, the credentials, the quarterfinal streak, and so many other reasons that pointed to his victory, but when the first ball was struck, Benneteau asked questions before Federer could begin his intended inquiry. (To offer an instructive contrast, Fabio Fognini never interrupted Federer’s line of questioning on Wednesday, meekly submitting to a brutal interrogation he could not begin to answer.) When Federer — usually the lead interrogator in tennis investigations — becomes the recipient of a forceful cross-examination and gets crowded on the court, he does press, and his game often suffers as a result.

The key point to realize is that Benneteau made this cross-examination happen on his own initiative; Federer didn’t beg for it. Benneteau established a template for the match; it’s not as though Federer donated enough points to create the Frenchman’s mental freedom. (Had the match evolved in that fashion, one could definitely have recalibrated a line of analysis by placing more blame at Fed’s feet. That’s a prime example of how one’s assessment of an athletic competition must always be ready to pivot based on a few subtle shifts in details and overall flow.)

The most instructive way in which Benneteau planted his feet in Federer’s brain — thereby making the Swiss legend doubt himself — was the same way Djokovic normally does: by getting back lots of first-serve returns with appreciable depth and then clocking second balls for outright winners. Benneteau read Federer’s serves and displayed a superb return game, far better than anything he had shown in the past. (Basically, he played above his head, a regular part of a “Great Sports Upset.”)

The number one thing Federer needs — not just as a 30-year-old man but as a gifted ballstriker — is the mental assurance of knowing that he is winning and can win stacks of cheap points on serve. Whether by dint of his own excellence or the pee-the-pants nervousness of his opponents, Federer has won so many major-tournament matches over the past nine years because he normally plants his flag in the mind of the foe by racking up so many quick points within his signature 68-second love service holds.

It’s one thing to hold your serve in tennis; to hold to love in under 70 seconds is even more important, though, because it can and does shift the psychology to the other player in such jarring fashion. The lightning-fast service hold asks a question right after a previous one was answered. This is how (and why) generally inferior opponents so often crumble in the face of Fed, but Benneteau didn’t donate many cheap points to the third seed as a receiver. In terms of match flow, Benneteau did everything he reasonably could have been asked to do. He performed every task that was required of him if he was going to dictate the terms of the encounter.

All of this, of course, only makes Federer that much more impressive in his comeback, and Benneteau that much more gallant in defeat. Benneteau did not go away in the fourth set after his pronounced dip in form during set three. He reattained his lofty level of play, digging out of a love-40 hole at 2-2 in the fourth. Federer should have been able to keep a lob in the court on the love-40 point, but Benneteau retrieved three of Fed’s better backhand slices just moments before, winning a rally that lasted more than 10 strokes. Benny then won the next two points with bold plays to snuff out the Swiss’s pursuit of a break. The fourth set was a showcase of high-caliber pressure tennis — lightly sprinkled with errors, yes, but more than compensated for by streams of impressive winners fashioned amidst the fires of crunch time. Yes, Benneteau tightened up on a backhand at 6-all in the tiebreak, but as is so often the case in tennis, one man’s error only comes about because his opponent forces him to answer one more question. Federer’s above-average return on a superb wide serve from Benneteau forced the Frenchman to hit a less-than-simple shot from a spot far closer to the baseline than the 29th seed originally expected. That slight but real point of awareness – “Gee, I didn’t expect to have to hit a ball, especially not one this deep with this much pace” – gave Benneteau reason to tighten up. That’s what he did. Federer won the next point (at 7-6) with steely resolve, and the old man’s great escape — magnified by the fact that he was two points from defeat on several separate occasions — had been realized. The fifth set was no small matter, but it did not represent the toughest part of the road to survival and a spot in the fourth round on Monday.

Repeat this sentence to yourself if you think Federer played poorly on Friday: Julien Benneteau made Roger Federer doubt himself. When doubt floods the mind, fear predominates and nerves hold sway. When the human organism is captured by worry and distress, the legs don’t move as well. The body doesn’t respond crisply.

The forehand doesn’t sing and the backhand doesn’t sting. The footwork doesn’t soar and the volleys don’t shut the door.

If Roger Federer had made all these errors just because he played horribly, one could create a different line of analysis for this match, but the fact is that Julien Benneteau brought about those realities with an unusually inspired brand of ball.

Some Federer fans might think their man played like manure. They’d be wrong.

Some Nadal or Djokovic fans might think Benneteau choked. Not even close.

It’s probably the Murray and Ferrer fans — and all other FOOPs in the audience — who would be the first to tell you that Julien Benneteau played a spectacular match, pouring out his whole heart and spilling every drop of energy in his fuel reserves, only for Roger Federer to answer the bell in the searing moments of truth he’s mastered over a great many years. An A-minus Benneteau lost, a B or B+ Federer won. Tennis — and sport — can be unforgiving like that.

Roger Federer can also be gritty like that as well. The heart of a champion beats on near old London town.


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About Matt Zemek

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

12 responses to “The Alchemy Of Athletic Events”

  1. Adarash says :

    Brilliant. Though rather verbose, it’s almost precisely what my overall opinion of the match had actually been. I have frustratingly attempted on quite a few occasions to express my feeling of the match to those that suggested that Benneteau choked or that Federer played terribly the entire match, but this piece just summed up everything that I thought about the match much better than I myself could.

  2. Marcoiac says :

    Benny’s BH sailing long at 6-6 all in the breaker is definitely the turning point of the match. The way Benny overcooked the shot betrays that at that point the high energy that Benny had needed to stay in front had caught up with him. I tweeted about that about an hour earlier, hoping to be correct. It seems to me that’s a major difference between the way Benny and Rosol played their attempt to upset. Rosol wasn’t spending much energy, with a whacking-the-ball game plan that made all points really short. Benny played from the get go with such a high energy tennis that you had to assume was too EXPENSIVE to sustain. You had to hope that Fed would just hang in there enough time, until that energy level that had kept Benny up front had used up Benny’s resources. The way Benny hits the BH shows exactly the tipping point from a high energy, yet controlled hitting to a hitting in which control is gone and energy is going progressively down. We all knew the fourth set was the crucial set of the match. I didn’t expect to be crucial up to its latest points. It was THAT close. 5 or 6 times Fed was two points away from defeat (that is, losing one of those 5 or 6 points meant facing match point). That point at 6-6 in the breaker was the last one of those points. After that, Fed fans started to breathe again.

  3. 3woodlandcreatures says :

    wonderful wonderful examination of a brilliant match played by two utterly professional athletes. I esp. applaud the acknowledgement that as Rafa/Roger-superfans, we straddle that thin line between being suicidally pessimistic (hey, it’ll hurt less!) and hero worshippers. We try to be passive, to be blasé, to be superficially unconcerned when our knights in shorts fail to maintain the in-human physicality and mentality normally attributed to gods and we are can only cope with our emergency memes when they fall short of possibly unattainable heights.

    For members of the “true-elite” fan club, every win is heightened, every loss is more devastating. We are on court with them – for every match, every press event, every pre-match twitpic, and every stroll in the park with the twins. And perhaps that is why FOOPs are so amused by our on-site antics. They are the real spectators, on the sidelines – removed, calm, and unperturbed.

    In the end, I must say that I would still rather side-along with the greats, through my computer screen, with my heart bursting whenever Woger wags that finger and reassures me that HE’S STILL WORTHY of the nail marks on my palms.

  4. ccmack says :

    brilliant piece, definitely an a* for you.

  5. Robert Madison says :

    This is fantastic, Matt! Very well done!

  6. Kyle Johansen (@KJOttawa) says :

    That is one of the best pieces of writing I have ever read. You sir, are a genius. Thank you Matt for producing this piece. One day, I hope I am able to write something as beautiful as this.

  7. cali says :

    Maybe this all is the reason why the old man is going to win wimbledon this year!

  8. Katarina_YYZ says :

    At the risk of becoming persona non grata around here… 2,679 words is just way too long for a blog post. Got through the last one about Rosol (it was around 1,880), and it is good writing, but too much. Just my two cents.

    • girl from mi says :

      I always wonder why people complain about this sort of thing. Perhpas twitter is more suited to your attention span?

      • Katarina_YYZ says :

        So, it’s 144 characters or 2,700 words, eh? No middle ground??? I work for a newspaper; editing stories is part of my job. Try again.

  9. girl from mi says :

    I don’t understand why you aren’t writing for Sports Illustrated or some other publication. You’ve certainly got a better grasp of the game and a pen then do most of the so-called “journalists” out there.

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