A brief note before this brief post: I do have a new tennis writing position at an American-themed place called Fan Rag Sports. I have a really swell colleague, Trenton Jocz.
Here’s our homepage with Wimbledon coverage and other archives.
At FanRag, we decided in advance that I would cover the women’s quarterfinals and men’s semifinals. No duty on Wednesday, though, which is why I:
- Invite you to read Fan Rag’s coverage of the men’s quarterfinals, from other writers.
- Have to say something about that Roger Federer fellow here, in the wake of his stunning, stirring, old-man comeback over Marin Cilic on Centre Court.
I don’t want to steal my Fan Rag colleagues’ thunder, so this will be extremely short, but I have to offer at least one note.
No, I’m not here to mention various statistical milestones or any numbers which add to Federer’s growing collection of Wimbledon and major-tournament records. You’ve likely seen some of them, and will probably find them if you haven’t.
All I’ll mention in the wake of Federer-Cilic is simply this: Even into his mid-30s, Federer finds a way to settle scores. More specifically, he retains the ability to respond to some of his most crushing defeats with the sweetest triumphs.
Federer lost to Novak Djokovic in the 2010 U.S. Open semifinals after holding match points.
He beat Djokovic in the 2011 French Open semifinals.
He lost to Djokovic AGAIN in the U.S. Open semis after holding match points in 2011.
He beat Djokovic in the 2012 Wimbledon semifinals.
Few losses stung Federer worse, and yet he found ways to forge historically resonant triumphs over his conqueror months later.
No one has to spend any time revisiting the 2014 U.S. Open semifinals. It was talked about to no end before and during Wednesday’s match. Federer, against the run of play and — frankly — the odds, has avenged that match.
He also said this:
Soul-crushing defeats can’t be wished away or shoved into a denialist position by Roger Federer or any of his fans.
The only thing he could do? Win the next time a moment really mattered.
That capacity remains intact, one month short of a 35th birthday, with a body whose fitness remains less than 100 percent.
It’s hard for a 17-time major champion to continue to amaze the sporting world. Roger Federer continues to do just that… somehow.
Many of us felt it.
Many of us thought it.
Many of us said it.
Now, it’s very hard to deny it: This is the Golden Era of men’s tennis.
It’s still an opinion, but now the subjective statement contains the feel and flavor of an objective truth.
Novak Djokovic’s capture of his first French Open title on Sunday gave this period of the sport’s history its latest measure of massive masculine meaning.
Just exactly how can anyone argue against the Golden Era idea at this point?
In terms of entertainment value and newfound commercial respectability, perhaps 1976 through 1984 remains the most significant period in men’s tennis history. The sport — previously amateur, almost always played on lawns when outdoors, and therefore still tethered to a genteel identity in the eyes of most (the image persists for some Americans, even today) — became rough, tough, gruff and highly colorful in the late 1970s.
Borg. Jimbo. Mac. Lendl. Vitas. Splashes of originality, abrasiveness and pugnacity enabled tennis to come alive. Racquet technology began to evolve. Hardcourts busted up the grass-and-clay singularity of the major tournaments. Television began to give the sport mainstream visibility in an era before (and during the infant years of) CNN and ESPN. Tennis reached a lot of fans in that first period. People who might not have given tennis a second thought as a sport — as a fan, as an aspiring athlete, or as a sportswriter — gravitated to the game in those years.
If your motto is “the first movement is the biggest movement,” perhaps one can say — in a very narrow and specific context — that 1976-1984 is the greatest era of men’s tennis.
Otherwise, what began in the 2005 Roland Garros semifinals — when a teenage Rafael Nadal defeated top-ranked Roger Federer and began to build The Citadel known as Court Philippe Chatrier against his Swiss rival — is the finest and most luminous era men’s tennis has ever known.
Sunday’s events in Paris — on that same piece of crushed red brick — confirmed the notion.
The story of the Big Three is not a completed story.
We have seen both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal bounce back from injuries before. Yes, the older they get, the harder it will be to reclaim past glories, but if nature and luck can conspire to usher them safely through the next three years, who knows how many delightful surprises they can provide?
Legends have been known to do things most mortals can’t. It is in the nature of a legend to transcend ordinary expectations.
Yet, let’s offer — just for the sake of creating parameters — the notion that Federer and Nadal don’t win another major title. (I know no non-Serbian person wants to think about that idea, but let’s briefly introduce it.)
Even if the two pioneering figures of the Golden Era don’t deliver another large-scale thunderbolt, this is what we can already say about Roger, Rafa, and the man — Novak Djokovic — who has both joined and eclipsed them with his championship at Roland Garros:
The Big Three:
- All won at least 12 major titles. Moreover, it’s a near lock that Djokovic will make this number 14 within the next year. Just contemplate that: Three men will win at least 14 major titles apiece. Three men will match or exceed Pete Sampras’s major-title haul. Three men — when they retire — will all share the the following distinction: None of their historical predecessors, not one, will own more major titles.
- All won career Grand Slams. Three of the eight men to ever collect championships at all four majors will have existed in this era, this 12-year period which still has a few years left.
- All tied or set the Open Era record for the most championships at one of the four majors. Djokovic owns the most Australian Opens with six. Nadal claims the most French Opens with nine. Federer doesn’t own an outright record, but he shares the record for most Wimbledon (7) and U.S. Open (5) titles in the Open Era.
- All set the match-streak record at one major: Djokovic won 25 straight Australian Open matches; Nadal 39 straight French Open matches; Federer 40 straight U.S. Open matches.
- All own or share the record for the most consecutive singles titles won at each of the four majors: Djokovic (Australian); Nadal (French); Federer (tie, Wimbledon, and tie, U.S. Open).
Even if Federer and Nadal don’t win another major, the two — with Djokovic — will create more records at the majors in terms of longevity, winning percentage, annual streaks, rounds reached, and more.
None of this includes the 81 combined Masters 1000 titles — placing the Big Three in the top three.
None of this includes all the times these three have left Andy Murray — owner of 10 major finals appearances, 19 major semifinals, and 12 Masters 1000 titles — at the altar of tennis history.
None of this includes some of the titanic matches in the sport’s history — Wimbledon 2008 (Federer-Nadal), U.S. Open 2010 (Djokovic against both Federer and Nadal), U.S. Open 2011 (Djokovic against both Federer and Nadal), Roland Garros 2013 (Djokovic-Nadal), and Wimbledon 2014 (Djokovic-Federer).
This is an unofficial statistic more than an official one, but if roughly two-thirds of the planet Earth is covered by water, roughly two-thirds of the book of tennis records has been covered by the Big Three since this era began… and that book will only acquire dozens of additional records in the years ahead.
Borg and Connors and McEnroe and Lendl knew how to fight and entertain, but the best player of the lot (Borg) didn’t stick around long enough to establish his legend in the stratosphere. Lendl is an historically underrated player, but he did lose all those major finals while enduring his Wimbledon curse. McEnroe burned out, an artist whose creativity was as fragile as it was brilliant once he reached a certain point in his career. As remarkable as he in fact was, Connors won only three majors outside New York and the U.S. Open. Even though he didn’t travel to Australia for a tournament whose prestige didn’t rise to a higher level until 1988, Connors still missed out a lot on the French Open and Wimbledon.
Never before has men’s tennis featured such dominance — primarily at the majors, but also in its second tier of tournaments — among a small group at the top. Never before has this sport formed such a brick wall, keeping underdogs out of the premises with near-total regularity. If one or two members of this Big Three faltered or suffered an injury, the other was there to hold the fort.
Each player could retire as the historical leader on one surface. Rafa is “El Rey de Clay,” Federer the top brass on grass, Djokovic poised to become the Elite of Concrete if he can stack together just two more hardcourt majors in the coming years. (He currently trails Federer in hardcourt major titles, 9-8, but he’s likely to hit 10 before he’s done.)
Getting tired of all these milestones?
They do all tend to blur together, don’t they?
Yet, that’s precisely the point: It’s impossible to keep track.
We were dazzled by Borg and McEnroe and Lendl and Connors 35 years ago, but we weren’t bewildered by the extent to which they swallowed up the record book.
Maybe the tennis fan of 2016 lives with a mindset that’s different from the tennis fan of 1981, but if the record books define a sport’s history, this era of men’s tennis has defined the profession with a sweep and scope we’ve never seen before… and won’t soon see again.
This is the Golden Era — no, it’s not a fact, but if ever an opinion felt like a fact, it does today, after Novak Djokovic completed one of this group’s final (and few) historical loopholes.
Look at that cover photo. Look at that smile from Serbia’s greatest athlete. They are both worth more than 10,000 words.
Novak Djokovic, Coupe des Mousquetaires firmly and finally in his own mitts, could finally melt into satisfied relaxation. The one nicknamed Nole could — at long last — savor the blissful relief of completing his long climb of the French Open alps.
That long alpine climb was thwarted near the summit a year ago on the first Sunday of June. Interestingly enough, the alpine journey was stopped by a Swiss man. (Four years earlier, a different Swiss man stood in Djokovic’s way in Paris.)
The 2015 loss to Stan Wawrinka — a man whose last name was not Nadal — represented the kind of moment which can easily lead a hugely accomplished athlete to wonder if the fates have conspired against him. (This is not a reference to Djokovic, though many readers will jump to that conclusion. It applies to any athlete, not to him specifically.)
Bjorn Borg kept trying to climb the mountain at the U.S. Open, on different surfaces against different opponents in different finals. He came close, but couldn’t win a third set in a championship match. His failures in New York certainly played a role (perhaps not the central one, but clearly a supporting one) in driving him away from tennis at a comparatively early age. Had Borg won the 1980 U.S. Open final against John McEnroe, how different would his career — and the history of tennis — have become?
Ivan Lendl’s game was markedly unsuited for Wimbledon, or more precisely, the version of Wimbledon which existed in the 1980s, with a less robust variety of grass which easily gave way to a chewed-up playing surface. Lendl’s big takeback on his forehand enabled him to bludegon the ball on clay and cement (and carpet), but not on an uneven and torn surface in which any bounce during the second week of the tournament represented an invitation to disaster. Lendl knew he had to prepare religiously for Wimbledon if he was ever going to win it. He reached two finals, but a youngster named Boris Becker and a revenge-minded Australian named Pat Cash denied him in 1986 and 1987. Lendl was something of a cursed figure at Wimbledon, and he never completed the career Grand Slam as a result.
Pete Sampras was great enough to win 14 majors, but weak enough to not win at least one of them at the French Open. The greatest server in the history of men’s tennis couldn’t always blast his way out of trouble on red dirt, and so when the discussions of the greatest players of all time emerge, Sampras — certainly in the top six — will always confront that one glaring deficit on his resume.
So many greats of the game never won Roland Garros, and never won all four major tournaments. Yes, most rational tennis fans thought that after losing to Wawrinka, Djokovic (with Rafael Nadal at a more delicate and brittle stage of his career and Roger Federer focused on Wimbledon) would return to the French Open final. However, as history shows us, what seems logical — a great player winning a signature event at least once in a career — doesn’t always come to pass.
Players’ career achievements might deserve a given crown, but the players themselves don’t deserve a specific championship… not until they actually earn it.
Novak Djokovic had to climb that mountain.
Sunday, in a match whose specific contours contained some eye-catching historical notes but were rarely compelling on their own merits, the World No. 1 finally reached the summit in Paris.
Djokovic defeated Andy Murray in four sets. He became part of the third straight French Open men’s final in which the loser of the first set not only won the match, but won the next three stanzas. Djokovic learned from the recent past, because he was the man who coughed up one-set leads in 2014 and 2015.
The progression of the match — Murray starting on fire, Djokovic rallying — might suggest that Djokovic surged ahead as the day went on. In terms of carrying the run of play, this is indisputably true, but in terms of the shift in power, it requires a little more unpacking.
In the second set of the 2015 loss to Wawrinka, Djokovic — perhaps burdened by nerves, perhaps struggling under a hot and baking Parisian sun which has often worn him down (see previous losses to Nadal in the heat) — lost energy. This drop in vigor enabled Wawrinka to step into the threshold and gain belief. The Swiss then soared in the third and fourth sets to register the striking upset which left Nole at the altar once again.
This time, the hinge-point second set was similarly decided by a drop in energy… but from Nole’s opponent, not the Serb himself.
The post-set lull is a trap door which ensnares even the best players (Roger Federer second-set walkabout, cough, cough). In championship matches, though, the best will either avoid it or overcome it. Murray, however — up one set to love after a tactically brilliant beginning to Sunday’s match — let the early part of the second set slide away from him in short order. It quickly became apparent, in the first stages of the second set, that even though Murray led on the scoreboard, it was up to the No. 2 seed to push through Djokovic and let the top seed know he’d be in for a fight.
Every reasonable inclination — early in that second set — placed the burden of proof on Murray to sustain a certain level of performance. The simple reality that the leading player shouldered such a weight in the second set, despite being a No. 2 seed making a third straight clay-court final plus a second straight major final, is not a commentary on Murray.
It’s a commentary on how great — how firmly formidable, how immovably imposing — Novak Djokovic has become.
This was not a match in which Djokovic had to push through Murray’s defenses. It could have been, but given the way the final three sets unfolded, that simply isn’t the case. As soon as Murray missed a sitter volley at 1-1, 30-40 in the third set, the flow of the match irrevocably spun away from the Scotsman’s grasp, never to return.
What was remarkable about a narrowly unremarkable match is that after a 2015 loss which forced him to push up the mountain, Djokovic played the final three sets of this final in a state of relatively easy control. He might have been stressed in the first set, and then again at the end after a 5-2 fourth-set lead very nearly became 5-5, but in between, he thumped Murray, winning 17 of 22 games.
Djokovic could have allowed this Sunday to be a chore, but all things considered, Nole made his crowning moment relatively uncomplicated. What’s therefore worth emphasizing is not that Murray had to push through him on Sunday (and failed), but that Djokovic pushed through Rafa and Roger years ago.
Before becoming the obstacle everyone else fights to topple in your given line of work, you have to overcome the obstacle.
Djokovic didn’t have one obstacle. He had two.
It’s not as though Djokovic is that much younger than (especially) Nadal or Federer, either. He’s only one year younger than Rafa, a contemporary in any real sense. If Djokovic was doing all this at an age five years younger than Nadal, we might view his feats differently. (This is something Federer and his fans will always be able to point to, but not in an unlimited way. I digress.)
That he’s very much a peer of Nadal — and had to play Federer several years ago, when the Swiss was not that removed from his prime period — magnifies Djokovic’s achievements to the fullest possible extent. The man who had only two major titles on his 24th birthday — with Fedal very much at the heart of the tennis universe, poised to dominate for many more years — now has 12 just after turning 29. That he shows no signs of stopping anytime soon — while Nadal and Federer deal with injuries and the realities of aging — is perhaps the greatest feat of all, the feat which will enable him to win 17 majors, maybe more.
Novak Djokovic is the obstacle Andy Murray and every other ATP player must push through in the present moment.
What’s amazing about this latest French Open final is not that Murray — despite a brilliant first set — had to continue to push through his opponent.
It’s that Djokovic pushed through the past — and Roger, and Rafa — to join his two fabled rivals as an owner of a career Grand Slam.
It’s that Djokovic has made himself untouchable enough that he’s actually exceeded Nadal and Federer with the freshly-achieved Novak Slam.
It’s that Djokovic, who labored for years under the standards set by a Spaniard and a Swiss, has now done something only Rod Laver had previously achieved in the Open Era (1969), and which no man has ever done (hold four major titles on three different surfaces).
Djokovic didn’t have the clear path — the barren field — Federer enjoyed in 2004, at the start of his ascendance. He didn’t have only one chief rival the way Sampras faced in the Agassi era. (There was no subsequent opponent of similar stature Sampras had to beat to win majors in his time — not normally.)
Sunday was not about subduing Andy Murray — Djokovic’s a better player, and will continue to remain that way.
Sunday was in many ways about forgetting the pain of the past — in 2015, and in all the years before 2011 when few of us expected Novak Djokovic to be this great…
… on the road to becoming even greater, now a part of men’s tennis at its greatest, most exalted height.
All that mountain climbing, all those alpine agonies, have given way to a view from the summit of tennis.
No wonder Novak Djokovic is smiling with such evident pleasure in that cover photo above.
Theologically, as a Christian, I firmly believe we are all special.
As a tennis commentator, though, I assure you that I’m not very special at all. This is where today’s story begins. It is a story that contains several important personal and professional disclosures as I move into a new phase of my life and career.
PART ONE: CHILDHOOD
I didn’t play tennis competitively. The closest I’ve ever come to understanding a sport at its most cellular level is basketball, because I was a cameraman and sometime-statistician for my high school basketball team. (I received a tuition reduction in exchange for performing those kinds of tasks.)
However, there’s one thing I’ve done a lot in my life, more than just about anything else: I’ve watched sports. I consciously remember falling in love with American football in November of 1981 (on my older brother’s First Communion day) at the age of 5, and in 1982, I drank up everything I could about sports on the television screen and from the daily papers in Phoenix, Arizona, where I was born.
Yogi Berra, one of the great unintentional humorists not just in the history of sports, but in the history of human beings, has given the world many memorable quotes. One such gem is, “You can observe a lot by watching.” That’s pretty much my life in and around sports.
I’ve watched athletic competitions with great interest for 32 and a half years. Editors and publishers have given me opportunities to write about American football and basketball, because those are the team sports played at the university level here in the United States. I can write about those sports because I’ve watched them closely enough to know what’s going on and then convey my impressions to a reading audience.
When I began to fall in love with sports in 1982, Wimbledon and the United States Open did not escape notice. My first tennis memory is of John McEnroe becoming agitated late in his five-set loss to Jimmy Connors in the 1982 Wimbledon final. I recall Connors relishing the glory of triumph in his blue athletic jacket. That Sunday began a long love affair not necessarily with tennis, but with Wimbledon.
On Labor Day weekends, I would go to my grandparents’ house, where my grandfather would always have sports on when we came for Sunday or holiday lunches and a swim in the backyard pool. Labor Day in the States means the U.S. Open on CBS (though ESPN will take over the tournament next year). I grew up listening to the beloved Pat Summerall (one of the greatest announcers America has ever produced) and former major champion Tony Trabert. Virginia Wade joined the CBS commentary booth in the early 1980s, but when the decade ended, a young woman named Mary Carillo had entered the CBS broadcast set. She’s still there today.
Evert-Navratilova with splashes of Mandlikova and then the emergence of a young Steffi Graf. The McEnroe-Connors-Lendl wars, followed by the Year Of Mats Wilander (1988). Yes, the 1980s jolted me with the electricity that major tennis tournaments can create. I’ve followed Wimbledon and the U.S. Open ever since, and Roland Garros to a lesser extent. The Australian Open didn’t really stand on the same plane as the other three majors until the late 1980s (it didn’t have a 128-player field until then). Its emergence as a tournament worthy of the “major” label is comparatively new.
Speaking of new things, many elements of tennis coverage in the United States have just begun to become a regular part of the broadcast landscape. The Tennis Channel is only seven years old. Accordingly, American tennis viewers are only beginning to be brought in touch with tennis on an every-week basis over the course of the full season. A good 20 years ago, such saturation coverage could not have been found.
In the U.S., tennis does not enjoy the widespread popularity it received in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but there is a market for tennis content, and my relationship to tennis is a part of that story – not a special one or a big one, but one story that’s probably representative of many Americans.
It’s not a complicated journey. I followed the majors and was “a sports fan who loved tennis,” as opposed to “a tennis fan who also loved other sports to a lesser degree.” Roger Federer, though – with help from Rafael Nadal – took tennis to a whole new level a decade ago. Tennis became so compelling to me that I began to follow the sport on a more consistent basis, far beyond the majors. The convergence of added television coverage and increased personal interest has exposed me to more of tennis and the workings of the sport, both as an on-court drama and an off-court business.
No, I don’t fancy myself as an expert – I’m not even close to one – but can I make sense of what’s going on? Yes. Moreover, is there enough of a marketplace that I can find a home within it?
PART TWO: TENNIS TWITTER AND A WORLD OF GRATITUDE
From 2006 through 2009 (maybe a little bit into 2010 – I’m frankly not sure), I was a regular commenter at Peter Bodo’s Tennis World blog, hosted by Tennis Magazine (now Tennis.com). It was at Tennis World that I learned about the vastness of the global tennis community. From my interactions, I learned how to not only talk about the sport, but listen to others’ views of it. My knowledge of what was happening on the court was supplemented by a growing awareness of how fans – of certain players and styles, and from certain nations – processed the sport.
When I joined Twitter in the spring of 2009, I didn’t know what the future would bring. I was beginning to tire of the incendiary nature of many commenters’ entries at Tennis World, but it was still my go-to place to talk tennis. I compiled a list of tennis tweeps to follow, but I had not yet experienced a major tournament with Twitter as the main web-based conversation place.
The 2009 Wimbledon tournament was my introduction to Tennis Twitter during a major, and I instantly found a lot of Tennis World friends in the realm of social media. Many of us had managed to carry our conversations from Tennis.com to Twitter, and we realized that while Twitter wars were not always unavoidable, we could still choose almost all of the people and conversations that appeared on our timelines. I was hooked, and many Tennis.com refugees felt the same way.
Moreover, Pete Bodo and his colleague, Steve Tignor, joined Twitter as well. Furthermore, other tennis writers were accessible on Twitter, so we – the fans of #TennisTwitter – realized that we could go to a single web source for “one-stop shopping” in terms of content and analysis.
Ten years ago, I might have gotten up in the middle of the night to watch an Australian Open match on ESPN, but that would have been the limit of my interaction with the match. Today, Tennis Twitter brings me to the web when I watch tennis matches at any time of day or year. In late January, I was watching a men’s semifinal (I forget which one; I know a Swiss guy was playing in it ;-), when this gentleman asked me if I had ever written about tennis before (for pay).
I said no… but that I’d love to be given the chance.
That chance was indeed granted.
Let’s absorb what happened: A CEO of a blog-based publishing company offered me the chance to cover tennis because I was a constant presence on Tennis Twitter. I know I’m speaking to the Picket Fence community here, but I’m even more broadly speaking to Tennis Twitter as a whole. YOU, Tennis Twitter, have helped me find a voice. YOU, Tennis Twitter, are responsible for what I’m about to announce:
PART THREE: CROSSING THE LINE AND A FAREWELL TO THE FENCE
I am not yet a full-service tennis blogger/commentator, but for 2014, I will be paid to cover Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open at Bloguin. I will therefore cross the line separating the avid tennis fan from the paid worker. I’ll have to stand on the other side of this divide. This doesn’t mean I will be personally separated from Tennis Twitter, but it does mean that I now have a professional and ethical obligation to be accurate and fair in handling facts and information. (There’s always a personal obligation to be thus, but now that obligation is more binding and pervasive.)
The tenor or content of my tweets and writings won’t change dramatically, but they will change slightly at certain times. I won’t be writing for Federer fans or other specific segments of the tennis community. I’ll be writing for a general audience. That’s a responsibility which can’t be taken lightly.
I’m really excited about this opportunity, but these moves carry a price, and the cost of this transition is that I can’t write for the Picket Fence anymore.
The Fence has been a wonderful home for me. Julie Zhou – the hostess with the mostest – has been extraordinarily generous in offering me this space during the major tournaments and whenever a moment of inspiration emerged at other points during the tennis season. Doots, P.J., and L.J. have given a lot to me, all while they’ve entertained and delighted the larger community of Fed fans with their work over an extended period of time. I can’t thank these three Hall of Fame Federtweeps enough for giving me an added/fourth seat on The Fence.
This blog has enabled me to put tennis thoughts on paper, and I don’t think I’d feel as ready for this adventure at Bloguin if I hadn’t been able to provide Federer fan therapy after one of Roger’s semifinal or quarterfinal losses at a major (especially to Rafa).
It’s up to Doots to decide what to do with Le Fence in the future. She’s been busy becoming a kick-ass lawyer who will bring about substantial social change in the world. That’s kind of important, oui?
What my departure means is unclear, but I would venture to say only this: Perhaps there’s a Federtweep out there who would be interested in pitching in at the Fence (and submitting him/herself to a vetting process). If conversations develop about the Fence’s future, that alone would be a good thing, no matter what the ultimate decision or course might be. At any rate, though, this is something for others to decide, not yours truly.
PART FOUR: A COMMERCIAL AND AN INVITATION
As I said at the beginning of this piece, I am not a special tennis commentator. I’m not more knowledgeable than most. I’m not a former player, anyone who can offer a unique level of insight into tennis.
What is unique about me? Not myself as a person, that’s for sure. My story, though, is an uncommon one. How the heck did I get here?
I got here because I tweeted a ton about tennis. I imagine a few other human beings have been offered writing opportunities due to their tweets, but this is not an everyday occurrence within (paid) sportswriting. What emerges is that after five years of tweeting about tennis, I now get to sustain my interactions with Tennis Twitter, but in a different capacity.
Here’s what this means: Having shared so many lamentations and complaints with many of you about the way in which tennis is covered, I now get to be a part of “the media.” Sure, I’m at a lower end of the food chain, and I wouldn’t call myself a full-fledged journalist. (“Commentator” is the better word. I’m not doing reporting here.) However, I’m definitely in the arena.
I now get to attempt to represent you, Tennis Twitter and Picket Fence readers. I get to represent your views. I get to practice the art of media commentary as one who must be accountable to a larger audience. In short, I get to practice what I – and YOU – have been preaching. I think that’s pretty neat.
If you’re reading this, you have very likely joined me for at least some part of the past five years. You probably know what I think, but you’ve mostly gained that insight through tweets. Now, I get to unpack a lot of my thoughts in columns and expanded pieces. You might disagree with some of the larger conclusions I arrive at, but there’s nothing wrong with a disagreement.
My tennis writing position enables me to field questions, comments and criticisms from you, and to produce a work product that you will like. If you are frustrated with the way the media covers tennis, guess what? I might now be able to do something about it! Therefore, let me close with a short commercial about Bloguin, followed by an invitation to all of you:
Bloguin (it’s pronounced “BLOG-YOU-IN”) covers several American professional sports, plus college sports. Non-American tweeps probably won’t find most of those sports very interesting, but if you do, give Bloguin a look. What should definitely be worth your time at Bloguin in addition to my coverage of the remaining majors this year – this is true whether you care for American team sports or not – is partner site Awful Announcing, which looks at media issues and the ways in which sports are covered in the United States.
Want to understand the relationships that link money, production decisions, and event packaging? Awful Announcing will be your place to learn. Moreover, I’m definitely going to use my position as a tennis writer to address some tennis media issues at Awful Announcing.
When you visit Bloguin, you don’t have to click on ads. You just need to visit and share my articles. You don’t need to thank the people who hired me by sending them a note. You can thank them by visiting Bloguin and clicking my pieces. That’s how this enterprise works.
If this tennis experiment for the three remaining majors works out in 2014, Bloguin might enable me to cover more of the tennis season in 2015 and beyond. Facebook likes and Twitter shares will all go a long way toward ensuring that my tennis blogging career extends beyond 2014, so that I can continue to cover the sport – hopefully for a long time and for a partial living.
That’s the commercial. Here’s my invitation to all of you:
Contact me. Hold me accountable. If you like what I do at Roland Garros and appreciate my contributions to Awful Announcing on tennis media coverage, feel free to let these guys know. If you don’t like what I do, let me give you my e-mail address: email@example.com.
Stuff my inbox – I’m serious, please do when an article misses the mark or fails to meet your standards. Tell me what I’m doing poorly. Offer suggestions.
I’ll be open to what you have to say, and if I get a high volume of responses saying that the format of “Story X” doesn’t work as well as the format used in “Story Y,” I’ll be sure to use the format in “Story Y” as I move forward.
I’m saying goodbye to the Picket Fence, but I’m not saying goodbye to Tennis Twitter. Hopefully, as I say hello to the world of tennis media, your loyalty as readers and your continuous combination of advice and criticism will enable me to give you the tennis coverage you want… and richly deserve.
Thanks to all of you! I will see you at Awful Announcing and Bloguin, offering some tennis media pieces and tournament previews for Roland Garros.
This conversational relationship isn’t ending. It’s merely moving to places and forums on the other side of…
The Picket Fence.
You should never have to feel pressured to tell somebody else that you are your own person.
So much of the written and theatrical arts — television, plays, movies, books — have always dealt with the notion of the double life, the tension between the outward identity and the true inner self. One of Doots’s and my favorite shows, Mad Men, is the foremost contemporary example of a television program which explores this concept. Don Draper might not succeed in being his best and truest self, the one which is comfortable enough to strip away the Madison Avenue monster who has to exhibit power, control, and virile swagger. Don knows that he should be a more grounded person, the one which, in the powerful season six finale, took Sally and Bobby to the whorehouse where he grew up. However, he doesn’t yet know how to become that person. He doesn’t know how to get where he needs to go.
If Don Draper was to tell Megan or Betty in tonight’s episode, “I am now the person I know I need to become,” neither his wife nor his ex-wife would take him seriously. The same would be the case for any viewer. Don can’t tell others he’s changed. He needs to show he’s changed, and that will be the big drama of Mad Men’s final season.
In real life — not a fictional television program — human beings can’t testify to their most meaningful transformations in mere words. Al Gore used his nomination speech at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles to tell the American electorate, “I stand here tonight as my own man.” The American public, despite a period of relative economic prosperity after Bill Clinton’s two terms, thought so little of Gore’s authenticity that it voted George W. Bush as president. You don’t tell others you’ve changed. You prove it with your actions.
This is why sports are so great, oui?
Stanislas Wawrinka has spent so much of his career in the shadows of Roger Federer. If you’re reading this piece, this is a point which needs absolutely no elaboration whatsoever… so I won’t bore you with any kind of recap.
Let’s deal with the very recent past: Wawrinka did win his first major championship earlier this year in Melbourne, Australia, but he then wobbled in both Indian Wells and Miami, feeling the pressure of having to justify his meteoric rise in the rankings and the larger tennis community. He struggled with the transition that is so difficult for just about any tennis player who ascends to the top tier of the sport. Everyone tries to gun you down. Media scrutiny intensifies. You become the focus of the action in the arena, not the sideshow or the cute, cuddly underdog. This is not something one can automatically respond to with perfect emotional equilibrium.
Wawrinka’s stumbles in the United States in March became something much worse in early April. The reigning Australian Open champion played poorly enough to be a first-round loser at a major tournament — yes, he was that bad if not worse — in the Davis Cup quarterfinals. Wawrinka, playing for Switzerland against Kazakhstan, managed to collect himself long enough to battle through a win against Mikhail Kukushkin that kept the Swiss alive in the best-of-five tie. However, if this Federer guy hadn’t exhibited complete command in his two singles matches, Switzerland would not have advanced to the Davis Cup semifinals.
It’s worth hanging onto that Davis Cup experience for just a moment, because it represented one more instance in which Federer overshadowed Wawrinka. It was only one weekend, true enough, but as the Monte Carlo Masters arrived on the calendar, it had become reasonable — through the prism of recent evidence — to claim that Federer had once again surpassed Wawrinka as Switzerland’s number one tennis player. Even though Wawrinka flourished in the process of reaching Sunday’s Monte Carlo final, his countryman — the one with 17 major titles and 50 Masters semifinal appearances, among other distinctions — had just defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Novak Djokovic on consecutive days. An informal survey of tennis pundits and commentators before Sunday’s match would have established Federer as the favorite.
Yes, Wawrinka had won a major title.
Yes, he had risen to No. 1 in Switzerland and No. 3 in the world.
Yes, he had beaten Djokovic in a five-set match at a major, and he made his first major semifinal at the U.S. Open last September.
Yet, there was something Wawrinka had not done since his tennis resurrection began: He had not yet beaten Federer head-to-head over the past 16 months. On Easter Sunday — a day made for resurrections — Wawrinka had a chance to put a number of old, persistent narratives in the tomb while walking into the new life of a career that could stand completely on its own, free forever from Federer’s shadow.
Wawrinka didn’t have to tell Federer or the world that he was his own man. The beauty of sports — especially the mano-a-mano theater of singles tennis — lies in the reality that competitors get to prove themselves on the merits. Wawrinka had a chance to show that he was his own man in tennis terms. Federer’s quest for an elusive Monte Carlo title was the most tangible achievement on the line in this match, but the more powerful and intriguing human story of the Monte Carlo final was Wawrinka’s quest for permanent, unquestioned independence as a tennis star — within and beyond Switzerland.
What we saw in one of tennis’s most spectacular settings proved to be a perfect example-cum-announcement of the extent to which Wawrinka has grown as a competitor.
Wawrinka felt the weight of the occasion — and his opponent across the net — in an error-strewn first set. Coach Magnus Norman’s charge pulled the trigger much too quickly on his forehand, spraying the ball in hard-hitting rallies that were entertaining and disappointing at the same time. When Wawrinka took a 2-0 lead in the second set but immediately got broken back at love, it was not only reasonable, but logical, to think that in a movie seen many times before, Stan would not stick to the plan. The Australian Open champion appeared ready to lose the second set, 7-5 or in a tiebreaker, mirroring past sets that slipped away against not only Federer, but also the likes of Nadal and Djokovic. When the second set did work its way to a tiebreaker, the smart money suggested that Federer would win.
Stanislas Wawrinka arrived at that most perilous intersection between opportunity and paralysis. He had a chance to show that he was his own man… or to show that Federer’s mere presence on the other side of the court still overwhelmed him in a situation of consequence.
In prior years, Wawrinka had lost to Federer at both the Australian Open and Roland Garros. He would lose a set he could have won, and afterward, he’d disintegrate into a player who didn’t bother hiding how mentally beaten he actually was. Federer would console him at net when the match ended, but the psychological damage took root and lingered more than it needed to. Athletes have to forget their failures very quickly, and this was one of the foremost things Wawrinka had not learned to do until Magnus Norman came along.
When the second-set tiebreaker arrived, Wawrinka came face to face with the kind of moment that had destroyed him in the past… and the kind of moment Federer has used to forge some of his greatest triumphs. The tiebreaker is where Federer won the 2007 and 2009 Wimbledon finals. This part of tennis is a crapshoot, but it’s where the great players usually affirm their prowess in “big-point” situations, and few have ever been better-er than Federer. The enormity of the challenge Wawrinka had to meet cannot be overstated.
It’s true that Federer was quite nervous at the start of that second-set breaker, wanting so badly (too badly, in retrospect) to bag that first Monte Carlo title. However, Wawrinka had to be solid precisely when Federer gave him leverage — past Fedrinka matches, after all, often saw Federer give his friend Stanley an opening… only for Wawrinka to refuse to take it. The Swiss No. 1’s evolution as an elite player, which needed to manifest itself against Federer (and Federer’s aura on court), had to include one element in particular: the ability to capitalize on spotty play from the 17-time major champion.
Stan did just that in the process of taking a 4-1 lead.
Federer was not through in challenging his pal, though. The Swiss No. 2 then stabilized, playing four excellent service points to push the tiebreaker to 6-5. Wawrinka had done a lot of good work in that tiebreaker, but if he lost that one 6-5 point with a mini-break lead, he would have stood two points from defeat, and that’s when a lot of old demons could have rushed back to the forefront of his consciousness.
Federer was down 6-3 in this tiebreaker. You might recall another tiebreaker in which Fed trailed, 6-3 — in 2009 at Wimbledon against Andy Roddick. (It was even 6-2, but this does not make the 6-3 claim any less factual.) Federer held his two service points at 3-6, forcing Roddick to win one point on serve at 6-5. When Roddick lost that point, Federer found the escape hatch and the bridge to the fifth set, when his legs outlasted Roddick’s and forged a piece of tennis history. Great players won’t always win an isolated 6-5 service point in a tiebreaker, but this was a time and a match when Wawrinka needed to win it… at least if he was going to show with his actions that he could stand as his own man.
Sure enough, Wawrinka found a strong flat serve to the wide corner of the service box from the ad court, and the second set was his. In a moment of truth, a player who had struggled to surmount the obstacle of his own mind — not to mention the intimidating presence of a tennis immortal who was his friend and countryman — put a large part of his past to rest.
In the third set, Wawrinka — who not only logged a lot less court time during the week in Monte Carlo, but also played multiple 1:40 p.m. (local time) matches while Federer was slotted into mid- or late-afternoon windows — had the much fresher legs to supplement his belief. Yes, Federer fell flat in the decider, but a man who is going to be 33 years old in August did not figure to be the more invigorated player in a third set… not after his protracted quarterfinal war with Tsonga and his mentally demanding semifinal against Djokovic. The second-set tiebreaker was Sunday’s defining sequence, and in that stretch of 12 points, Stanislas Wawrinka didn’t make a single meaningful misstep.
You could choose to talk about this match from Federer’s perspective. The father of two — who is about to welcome a third child into his and Mirka’s household — lost conviction and clarity on his groundstrokes. The match ceased to be on his racquet when Wawrinka’s weightier shots became more consistent and calibrated, unlike the first set. Yet, for all the things Federer failed to do, we come back to the original point of this piece (and Sunday’s match):
This was always going to be a measurement of Stanislas Wawrinka’s evolution more than anything else. Was Stan ready to become his own man, to show something that could not be conveyed in hollow words and had to be expressed in both his game and his mental toughness?
The powerful, authoritative nature of Wawrinka’s “YES!” is what the tennis community should take away from today. Neither Federer nor the match as a whole deserved to be seen as anything better than average, but amidst a lot of ho-hum tennis, Wawrinka was legitimately great in this encounter’s defining stages, the second-set breaker and the start of the third set.
Federer certainly encouraged, comforted and challenged him over the years. Norman, as a coach, has certainly transformed the way Wawrinka thinks about and believes in his abilities as a competitor. Yet, when you walk on the court as a tennis player, you remain fundamentally alone. It’s part of the beauty, fragility and power of the sport that tests the human person’s mind-body dualism at a very high level.
Stanislas Wawrinka drew from other resources and perspectives as his career moved along. Yet, no one but Stan The Man could show — to himself, to Federer, to his nation, to his fellow pros, and to the world — that he had become a tennis man in full. Last year’s loss to Djokovic in the 12-10 five-setter marked a first step along the path to greatness. The U.S. Open semifinal represented the second huge step. The Australian Open championship was in many ways the affirming and supremely validating moment that had eluded him for so long.
On Sunday in Monte Carlo, though, Wawrinka needed to show that he would no longer crumble under the weight of facing his — and his country’s — revered tennis icon. No, losing to Federer would not have made any of Wawrinka’s prior achievements any less valuable or meaningful. However, a loss would have enabled the press to continue to ask all sorts of questions about the psychological effect Federer has on Stan’s tennis. If nothing else, Wawrinka needed to win this match for more than a Masters title and its accompanying rewards (a fatter paycheck, added race points, and 400 extra rankings points). Stan needed to win this for himself, for all the times when he’d win a tournament and would be asked about Federer this, Federer that, Federer here, and Federer over there.
It’s not as though the press was justified in asking Wawrinka all sorts of Federer questions, especially in moments that Stan The Man deserved to celebrate for his own sake and on his own terms. Those questions were not thoughtful then, and they’re not thoughtful today. Now that he’s beaten Federer in a championship match, though, it should be a lot easier for journalists to remove the Federer narrative from Stanislas Wawrinka’s career… at least when Davis Cup and the Olympics are not involved.
Why should Wawrinka no longer have to field an endless series of questions about a separate Swiss tennis player?
Because he showed in Monte Carlo that he can beat Roger Federer when it matters… and because he’s simply a better tennis player than the Fed at this stage in the two men’s careers.
Stan was The Man before he took the court in the Monte Carlo final, or at least, it was right and appropriate to believe as much.
What’s different now? We no longer need to believe, as though someone has to tell us through spoken words that things are different. No, we don’t need to be convinced by means of speeches or sermons.
We know. We know because we’ve seen cold, hard evidence on the tennis rectangle and a dusty sheet of red clay where a new Swiss Master reigns on his own.
Disclosure/preamble No. 1: Doots will have an Australian Open wrap-up. She’ll be sure to celebrate Stanislas Wawrinka’s win, so I’ll let her focus on that piece. I have it in me to celebrate Stan’s win as well, but in much the same way that a newspaper would have two writers cover different angles of a story, I’ll deal with one story so Doots can have the other, more pleasant task.
Disclosure/preamble No. 2: You know me as a tennis fan who writes about the sport. I have not expected to cover the sport, but there might finally be a chance that I’ll do so as a stay-at-home blogger before too long. Therefore, it’s good for me if I write something that isn’t meant solely for an audience of Federer fans.
On with the show…
Here I was, prepared to offer a far-ranging wrap-up of the 2014 Australian Open and write something bundled in a tidy thematic pouch. I had all the major points of emphasis lined up. No matter who won Sunday’s men’s final between Rafael Nadal and Stanislas Wawrinka, the template was there. Keeping in mind that the greatest achievement of Nadal’s career (just one person’s opinion, of course) was forged in Melbourne in 2009, I was expecting another crowning moment to occur in this match. However, if Nadal lost to Wawrinka, I still could have produced an essay with all of my larger planned themes intact.
Then, however, an injury reared its ugly head… or lower back, as the case may be.
Think about this question:
What would you do if you’re a guest writer at a blog devoted to chronicling tennis and the adventures of Roger Federer in particular, and you watch Rafael Nadal own the rest of the ATP Tour on hardcourts, thereby mounting a full frontal assault on Federer’s 17 major titles and his place in history?
Yeah, not an easy question to answer, is it? Viewpoint, mindset, orientation, stylistic preferences, perceived slights (or lack thereof) in the media — those and other things would shape your answer.
There is always a certain political quality to commentary on any subject when it’s intended for a wider audience. The decision to be particularly diplomatic and, on the other side of the spectrum, the decision to not give a flying fire truck about what anyone else thinks are both political responses. Does one audience deserve a soothing, consensus-laden middle ground, or does it deserve the vinegar of hard truth served forcefully?
If you’ve read me for any length of time, you know that I prefer the route of consensus and unification, because — as expressed in “A Place At The Tennis Table” last week — the world can always use more healing and inclusion. There’s never enough of that in anything human beings talk about or pursue. Some fans might need vinegar today or tomorrow, but in the aftermath of a major tournament — especially the last one of the calendar year — the focus should be on celebrating the achievement of the winner and putting it above every other discussion point that can be contested or explored.
For those who don’t stop here often during a tennis major, please know at the outset that while this is a tennis blog, there is a bit of a preference and priority for all things Roger Federer. Therefore, when Fed bowed out of the U.S. Open in the fourth round on Monday, it was natural to think that there wouldn’t be another major essay on tennis until the end of this year’s U.S. Open. At the end of each major, the two singles championships regularly receive a wrap up from Doots (the publisher of this blog), myself, or both.
However, some days in tennis somehow manage to hit the sweet (or is it sour?) spot with fans in such a way that something has to be said about the matter. Wednesday, Sept. 4 was one such day, and the fact that Federer had no part in the events is precisely what should enable us — and by us, I don’t mean Federer fans — to appreciate this sport, and each other, a little bit more.
This essay is not intended for any one fan base or subgroup in the wide, wide world of tennis lovers. It’s meant for everyone. How fitting this is, given that the U.S. Open takes place in the same city (New York) where the United Nations was born and still stands today. This essay is all about giving each fan, each human person — inherently precious, equally loved, and powerfully valuable — a place at the tennis table, an affirming bit of support in a democratic and unifying context. Read More…
It was, as a matter of fact, a dark day on Monday in New York. No, really — there were just a few tiny and brief sunbreaks, with dark gray clouds dominating the skies and oppressive, heavy conditions persisting.
Sure, Tommy Robredo’s yellow shirt represented the sunshine he in fact turned out to bring to the day. His exuberance, rightly earned in a moment of profound professional achievement, is something that should cheer the heart of the impartial sports fan. What Robredo has done in this autumnal stage of his career is nothing short of remarkable. Who could have possibly imagined that Robredo would be playing in the quarterfinals of a hardcourt major… and after attaining his first career win over an opponent who had regularly vexed him in the past?
Heck, who could have expected so many of the 2002-style events that have occurred so far at this “2002 United States Open”?
Lleyton Hewitt making the second week.
Daniela Hantuchova making the quarters.
Richard Gasquet not sucking (okay, okay, that’s a 2007-style event, but it feels as though he’s been disappointing tennis fans since 2002).
Sports are amazing, even when they hurt. Life is so much richer and more fascinating for their presence in my life and yours. Last night at the U.S. Open provided the best of sport — not just Robredo’s sweet taste of sunshine, but Rafael Nadal’s excellence in a magnificent match against the best version of Philipp Kohlschreiber seen since the 2009 Roland Garros tournament, when he dismissed a fellow named Djokovic in the third round. The night’s concluding match, the Bryan Brothers’ win over Colin Fleming and Jonny Marray, was the best men’s doubles match I can recall seeing since the McEnroe and (Peter, not Colin…) Fleming days.
Sport is grand, and we’re getting some Grand Slam moments in New York.
But about that darkness covering the land… Read More…
Great athletes collect their share of “forevers,” the moments and achievements no one can take away from them. This championship seven years ago, that comeback four years ago, this resurgence one year ago, that classic match five years ago — no one can alter certain passages of history once they’re written into the great book of life.
Yet, life goes on — past glories, as rich as they might have been at the time and as comforting as they might still be in quiet moments between competitions, give way to the present day and its new challenges. Even though thousands of obstacles have been surmounted in the past, there’s a new hurdle to be cleared today. The cheers of the crowd echo through the pages of time, but they can’t drown out the groans of lamentation that define the present-tense reality of sport for a fading champion.
This is the falsity of forever, and it’s precisely what Roger Federer is confronting as he prepares for the 2013 United States Open tennis tournament in New York. You can be a great Broadway performer for many decades, but in tennis, you get one decade of opportunity if you’re lucky. Many a Broadway play has been written about the harsh mistress known as Reality, and right now, Federer knows that his decade of tennis primacy has run its course in many ways.
It’s been something to behold, and it will forever be remembered with boundless admiration by tennis fans and chroniclers alike, but a decade of supremacy eventually loses its hold on “forever,” because time is the enemy of the athlete.
For a full decade, Federer inhabited the top 5 of the ATP rankings. For nine full years, he made the quarterfinals of majors without cessation or interruption. Those two realities alone do so much to underscore the extent to which Federer has held up under pressure over an extended period of time. For so many years, he’s been the target, the standard by which his contemporaries have measured themselves. In 2006, Rafael Nadal’s sustained dominance at Roland Garros, coupled with his emergence at Wimbledon, unmistakably showed that the Spaniard had joined Federer as a transformative figure who was going to be a measuring-stick player for everyone else on tour. Read More…