There’s a special kind of disappointment that comes from watching Federer lose to Djoko – the kind of disappointment when you realise the world isn’t full of rainbows and kittens, that taking chances, being adventurous, and living closer to the edge doesn’t always end in glorious redemption. For those of us who want to be inspired by someone who plays tennis with courage not passivity, the disappointment of a Federer defeat to Djokovic is a sour, bitter pill to swallow. We’ve had occasion to swallow this pill a few times in recent years.
Still, this defeat stings less. It stings less because Federer was physically ailing. From the start of the tournament, his serve has been average (although he seemed to have found some rhythm on it since the last set of the Sandgren match). The forehand has been a bigger problem – not a Gille-Simon-induced-Shankville kind of problem. At the Aus Open this year, it is the movement to the forehand that is the problem – it has been less dynamic, hampered at times. The forehands on the run have had less penetration through the court. From what Federer has been willing to disclose, it doesn’t appear to be something that requires significant recovery. A semifinal run in the circumstances, with no warm up and physical ailments, is a decent result.
Since I’ve never pretended that this blog is anything other than my own therapy for being too emotionally invested in a totally chill Swiss guy, here is my offer of therapy to you, Federer fans.
At the age of 38, Roger Federer is still capable of creating legends and inspiring stadiums full of people even when he doesn’t win. I’ll always remember the Australian Open 2020 by the fifth set tiebreak of the Millman match, and his off-the-cuff emotional revelation of ‘the demons, they’re always there‘. I’ll remember the 7 match points he survived against Sandgren, which I watched from a scoreboard on public transport, as the rest of the tram groaned around me, captivated by the same scores as I was, touched by the simple idea that you respect your opponent and yourself by making him earn the win, and sometimes, he doesn’t.
And the semifinal against Novak? I’ll remember the relentless ‘fake news’ of Federer withdrawing before the match, and Roger racing out of the gates to an early lead just to shut the doubters up. No, he didn’t win the first set, and there were some serious demons resurfacing in that appalling first set tiebreak. But having watched Federer slay the demon when it comes to Nadal, I’m going to have a little faith that he’ll slay this teeth-baring, shirt ripping demon too.
And Federer fans – don’t stress about the slam count. If you think that there will be no case for Federer as GOAT even if he doesn’t hold onto the slam record, you think too little of the man.
The weeks at No 1, the longevity and consistency of his career, the 1500+ matches played with no retirements, the grace and respect with which he has travelled on tour and engaged with other cultures, the way he has raised the level on the ATP tour beyond what we thought was possible, the way he brought the world to tennis as a sport – all these things paint a picture of a giant among giants. Someone had to be the shoulders on which Rafa, Novak, and the Next Gen stood. Federer has been and will always be that person.
You’re here because he lost. In the most frustrating manner possible. After two amazing years, Federer leaves Melbourne in 2019 on the wrong Sunday. And here I am, tapping away as a therapeutic exercise. May you also find comfort, or at least food for thought, in these words.
It was the kind of match where he couldn’t convert breakpoints on second serves, couldn’t find the court on his passing shots, couldn’t find his forehand when it mattered, couldn’t win ugly, even when there were moments of the kind of beauty we’ve grown accustomed to seeing – no demanding – from him.
Tsitsipas is a huge young talent with the combination of explosiveness and shotmaking that might just keep me interested in tennis when Federer finally decides to call it quits. I can live with Tsitsipas winning. What I am disappointed about is the utterly dissatisfying way Federer lost.
I woke up this morning thinking about two matches, both of which made me nervous about what was to come. The first match was the Sampras/Federer 4th round match at Wimbledon 2001. The parallels between that match and this one have been well discussed, but it was enough to make me nervous. Was Tsitsipas really going to be the Federer to Federer’s Sampras? I comforted myself with the knowledge that despite the comparisons, Federer has far surpassed Sampras as a player, as a statesman of the game, and generally as an athlete who has handled ageing with the kind of ease, ambition and dignity rarely seen in sport. In the immediate aftermath of his loss, I still believe this to be true.
The second match I thought about today was the Federer/Soderling quarterfinal at Roland Garros 2010, not that it was a parallel with this match today. Soderling was no newcomer, and Federer had won the opening set convincingly in that quarterfinal, before being clobbered off the court in the next 3 sets. It was the match that snapped his consecutive semifinals streak. Remembering this match today, I almost laughed at how dejected and heartbroken I felt at the time. I stopped writing, tweeting, and generally thinking about tennis for weeks. And now, almost 9 years later, few people remember or talk about that loss.
So perhaps in remembering these two matches when I woke up this morning, my subconscious mind had suspected that Federer might lose today, and then given me the tools to cope with the loss.
So here is what I have learned in the last 9 years about handling losses, even if they were losses you vicariously lived through.
- Early round losses are disappointing, but they rarely hurt the way the 2009 Australian Open hurts, or the 2011 US Open, or all of those losses where the end was tantalisingly close, when we arrived at match point only to have it wiped out in a flash. Compared to those losses, this was nothing.
- Early round losses also don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, really. Millman? Robredo? Seppi? All tiny footnotes in the career of a giant.
- If you have enjoyed faves win all these years, you owe it to them to watch through their losses too. For me, that has always been the deal.
- Guess what? The guard has never stopped changing. Media narratives are so lazy. Whenever a young player beats Federer, it is immediately branded a “changing of the guard” without much thought or analysis. But the guard has never stopped changing, and Federer has never stopped fighting back and reinforcing his position. I recall a certain Serbian family declaring “the king is dead” more than a decade ago. But the old king is still here, defiantly playing on and ignoring those who are too quick to tell him ‘it’s a changing of the guard’. Ignore the noise, and focus on the man whose love for tennis has kept him at the top of the game for almost two decades.
Who’s actually excited about clay for once?
It’s a lovely problem to have (and one that I didn’t think I would ever have again) to be wondering what to write about after yet another Federer slam victory. To analyse the match itself would be to miss the bigger narrative here of records and Federer’s place in sporting history. To focus on history risks repeating everything that has already been said and will continue to be said about him – that Federer is GOAT. Duh.
I’ve been wondering lately about the impact that Federer has had on my life and it occurred to me that this late career version of Federer, this dad-joking, dorky legend in all our lunchboxes, has been a profound inspiration to me for the way that I approach my life and career, even more than the peak Federer of 06-07. So rather than focus on the title last night, here are some life lessons I have learned from late career Federer, gathered from my thoughts on 2017-2018.
- ‘Who cares, it’s just tennis!’
Not the reply that you expected from Roger Federer, but when asked by Courier after his semifinal win about whether he had a trophy room for all of his titles, Federer gave this unexpected response. He went on to say that he does enjoy going through some of them with friends at times, mentioning – among other things – his Olympic gold medal, not one of his more prominent career achievements, as something cool that he could share with them.
Watching this late career Federer, I couldn’t help but be struck by his ability to keep his success in perspective. This is in stark contrast to Bernard Tomic’s ‘I just count my millions’ comment when he crashed out of qualifying for the Australian Open. One player has done so much, yet prefers not to be reminded of his trophies in every room of the house, and enjoys sharing his successes with those dear to him. The other tries to seek comfort in money while failing to keep his demons at bay. Just a reminder that perspective, the ability to recognise that your life is larger than your profession, is a key measure of success.
- Love and cherish your community, and they will help you soar.
Last night, when Federer faced break points early in the fifth set, the entire Rod Laver Arena burst spontaneously into a chorus of “let’s go Roger, let’s go!” The crowd, who had been excited about the prospect of a fifth set late in the fourth, reverted overwhelmingly to cheering for Federer as soon as the fifth set began. It was clear that almost everyone bought tickets to see a Federer 20th.
Later that night, when the match has been won and Federer was presented with the trophy, he began his victory speech unexpectedly by paying respect to Australia – the cities he’s visited, the tournaments he has played here. His family loved Perth. He had loved his experience at the Sydney Olympics. And Melbourne has been worth the trip each time. It’s not hard to see why the crowd here has always supported him, despite a very Australian tendency to cheer for the underdog. And when Federer choked back emotions and could talk no more, Rod Laver Arena, and no doubt the rest of Australia, let their cheers do the talking for him. Have you ever heard anything like it?
- Big boys do cry.
While we are on the topic of tears, in a world of toxic masculinity and petulance, Federer has never shied away from expressing vulnerability. It is the thing that makes him endearing and authentic, despite living what appears to be a privileged and charmed life. Federer has shown that it is okay to cry on a big stage, that losses should hurt and wins should move you, and that the ability to let your emotions out can sometimes be a sign of a life lived with passion.
- All on board the gravy train.
‘It must be nice for Federer, now that everything’s gravy,’ said one of my co-workers as we both stole some time to watch tennis from the work kitchen. Indeed, one of the best things about late career Federer is that he has broken all records, and anything else he wins from here is just a numbers game. It presents a unique challenge for a player like Cilic, still with things that he wants to prove. How do you play someone with a mindset like Federer, who – in a completely different way – has ‘nothing to lose’?
At this Australian Open, Federer was the giddiest and most relaxed I have ever seen him at a slam, laughing with Courier post-match, turning on and off that ‘smouldering intensity’, giving insightful press conferences and actually enjoying the ancillary parts of a professional athlete’s life like media and PR. When asked on Margaret Court Arena last night about how he could keep going after 20 slams, Federer said:
‘Who cares about that part? It’s about winning and having a great time, seeing you guys now and celebrating all together. It’s so much fun.’
And isn’t it just? This connection between tennis audiences around the world and late career Federer stems not only from his successes, but from his apparent joy and delight in travelling the world and playing tennis. Federer is not only playing well at this stage of his career, he is actually having fun, savouring every moment and creating memories with his family, his team and his fans. And for me personally, working in a profession where some of the most successful people are also some of the most miserable, I am gratified that I have a role model who exemplifies the importance of enjoying your successes, of leaning into each moment that life brings you, expecting magic.
All on board the gravy train I say. Choo choo!
- The secrets of longevity
One overwhelming narrative of late career Federer is his longevity, and much of it has been attributed to his efficient playing style, which has kept him out of injury for much of his career. But there is much more to longevity than technical talent and efficiency. The mindset aspect of Federer’s longevity has been less discussed. I have already mentioned his passion for tennis and his enjoyment of life as a professional athlete, a given for anyone hoping to go the distance in their career. When asked about how he keeps his ambitions strong at this age and level of achievement last night, Federer gave a lot of credit to the people around him –
‘I think by not overplaying, not playing every tournament possible. I enjoy practice. Not minding the travel. Having a great team around me, they make it possible. At the end it’s seeing that my parents are incredibly proud and happy that I’m still doing it. They enjoy coming to tournaments. That makes me happy and play better.
Then, of course, my wife who makes it all possible. Without her support, I wouldn’t be playing tennis no more since many years. But we had a very open conversation, if she was happy to do this or not, years ago. I’m happy that she’s super supportive, and she’s willing to take on a massive workload with the kiddies. Same for me, because I wouldn’t want to be away from my kids for more than two weeks. This life wouldn’t work if she said no.
Many puzzles need to fit together for me to be able to sit here tonight.’
It’s again a wonderful perspective from someone who understands that success is about many moving pieces fitting together, and he is just one of those pieces, albeit a significant one. The secrets to Federer’s longevity, or anyone’s longevity in a particular profession for that matter, is about not overworking, having the right support system, your own personal Mirka, Seve and Ljubi. Or Papa Fed, that person who’s not afraid to tell you that you look like an idiot playing bongo drums.
As I embark on a personal career pivot of sorts this year, these are the things that I think about when I think about Federer. We can’t all win 20 grand slams, but each of us can approach life with passion, perseverance, and delight, drawing on the support of friends and family, and giving back to the community that gave us so much. These are the life lessons I have learned from late career Federer.
Happy 20th, Federbitches.
A few years ago, while having dinner with a group of Federer fans, we came to the topic (as we do always) of Nadal.
“I still think Federer has a best-of-5 set win over Nadal in him,” I declared to the table, and was promptly mocked back to Basel.
“Nadal’s too in his head!” everyone said.
“It’s a bad match up for Roger!”
“Nah, it’s over.”
But somehow, I believed. Partly because I’m naturally inclined to optimistic delusions, and partly because – Federer being the kitschy fairytale that he is – this was precisely the kind of plot line that Federer’s career needed. The ageing veteran conquering his achilles heel. Beating the one rival who always eluded him. Redemption in the most emphatic of ways.
As his compatriot would quote:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
This time, he failed better.
And make no mistake, he failed plenty in the final – going down a double break in the second set after playing first strike tennis most of the first set, losing momentum in the fourth after breadsticking Rafa just the previous set, taking a medical time out only to come out cold in the fifth and going down an early break.
But I kept thinking back to one of his more insightful moments in the semifinal post-match interview, when Federer acknowledged that his early losses against Rafa on clay affected the way he played him on other surfaces.
This level of insight was something that – just a few years back – he would get defensive about. Confronting and admitting the mental aspect of his struggles against Nadal appears to have been liberating, and this time, despite failing throughout the match to maintain momentum, Federer kept on asking the question, and found the answer to #18.
What else is left to say? 6 months off. Ranked #17. Coming into the tournament as the underdog no one talked about. Beats 4 top 10 players en route to the title. Defeats his greatest rival in 5 sets after being down a break in the fifth. And with this win, he has gone semifinals or better in his last FIVE grand slams. We could not have scripted this any better.
Happy 18th Roger. You just came of a whole new age.
(You didn’t think I wouldn’t resurface for THIS did ya?)
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.
Okay, okay, I know. It’s been a while. If this was in real life, my picket fenced patch would be overgrown from neglect and infested with deadly Australian snakes. But it’s no coincidence that this blog went into its dormancy at the same time as the start of my career. A great time in the life of Doots, but some silent years for my little patch of cyberspace.
I was going to leave it like this, unloved and haunted by words from the past until “that post” when Federer retires. But strangely enough I was somewhat inspired today. Inspired in a way that I hadn’t been for a long time, and by a Federer loss no less.
It’s a strange phenomenon when you’re a Maestro fan who hopped on the Mothership during his years of triumph: learning to deal with mortality becomes the greatest lesson he’ll ever teach you.
So here goes five thoughts that couldn’t be contained by the 140 character limit on Twitter:
- The scoreline wasn’t close. And the first two sets certainly weren’t close. Federer is not the only player capable of “God-mode”. For two sets, Djokovic was in free swinging full flight – his groundstrokes met the lines from whatever position he was in, his passes always seemed to land in, even his defensive lobs seemed to come back in awkward positions for Federer. For a second, I (and many others) felt like this was going to be a repeat of the 2007 Australian Open semifinal, except this time, Federer was the one getting Roddicked. The commentators cried “poor poor Roger”, as if a losing fight against age and mortality, and attempting to beat a younger opponent at the pinnacle of his career was somehow making Roger less dignified. I don’t believe that, and I don’t believe in pitying anyone, least of all Roger Federer, who’s losing a fair fight on court.
- But it felt close in the end, didn’t it? Unlike Nadal at the French Open final in 2008, Djokovic snapped out of “God-mode” in the third set, and returend to being a mere mortal – albeit a formidable one still. But you could feel the tide turn when the crowd inside Rod Laver Arena chanted “Roger! Roger! Roger!” You could hear the deafening sound of hope when they cheered a Djokovic double fault in the third set just before Federer broke, only to shush themselves in embarrassment. And when Federer held off a tight service game to take the third set, it felt exhilarating. It felt – as tennis should – like anything could happen if you just keep at it. And suddenly, all of your reasons for sticking with “the Old Man” seemed to justify themselves in the roar of that crowd.
- Sport can be so cruel, and nets can be Serbian. It felt so wrong after Federer played the point of the tournament that the let cord should conspire against him. But credit to the player who had put himself in a 2 sets to 1 position in the first place.
- Was the third set fight back futile? Was it a mere salvaging of dignity when the end result was certain? Roger Federer could have walked off court today in a 3 set defeat, with the dominant narrative would have been that he has a new rival in his head; that he was past his prime and getting beaten by the young’uns. Instead, he walked away still defeated, but knowing that he was in it til the very end, that anything could’ve happened, and Djokovic didn’t get to Roddick him a la Australian Open 2007. It might matter very little in the ultimate result, but it could matter a great deal in a future match ups to know that he took God-mode Novak to 4 sets.
- Bring on that H2H. Federer will end his career with a losing record against many of his younger “rivals”, and that’s fine. Because he was truly peerless in his own generation.
There’ll be no return to “normal programming”, but I hope to pop up now and then when the occasion inspires.
Ride or die bitchessss.
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.
For a few years now I’ve yearned for that photographer media pass. The one that will get me me closer, allow me to bring into a venue; longer and better lenses, perhaps a monopod and other extras… But I realised, especially this year, that a press pass has its own restrictions. When you shoot for publication, there’s no meandering, no breathing room, no time to focus on just a singular player, a singular moment. And I’ve realised over the years that as long as this old bloke is playing, it’s going to be hard for me to focus on any other player. However with limited equipment and access comes a sense and the need to be better, to shoot better, to keep improving over the years and to be original in visual quality. The benefit of added post-processing time also means an opportunity to finesse, to refine and to make a shot memorable.
As I reflect on my photography at Brisbane International and the Australian Open this year, I didn’t yearn as much for media legitimacy as I did in previous years because I understood the limitations of what I thought I wanted and instead decided to EMBRACE the restrictions of what I had and try to create the best work out of what I had available. As from the previous Federporn posts, I hope that you guys can recognise my efforts to be different to your usual Reuters, Getty or AP sports coverage. And I hope my passion for the tennis of Roger Federer and also the man comes across. I don’t often like to self-congratulate but I think at least for some of the shots this year, I really think I did myself proud.
Anyway, enough chat, enjoy the photos and I hope to take more in the future…
From me…Au Revoir Roger… until 2015.
You can see all my tennis images and more here.
Previous Federpornery here