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Nole, all day: Djokovic pushes his way into tennis immortality

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.)

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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.

Exhale.

Smile.

Melt.

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.

Britain's Andy Murray reacts as he plays Serbia's Novak Djokovic during their final match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium, Sunday, June 5, 2016 in Paris. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Britain’s Andy Murray reacts as he plays Serbia’s Novak Djokovic during their final match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium, Sunday, June 5, 2016 in Paris. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

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.

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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.

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Serene, Supreme, Sixteen

Great sports moments — tennis fans witnessed one on Saturday in Paris — own a two-tiered quality. The actual competition, the business of winning and losing, is its own story, rooted in technique and strategy and execution under fire. Then, when the winner wins and the loser loses, the career achivements of the participants can then be measured. Serena Williams’s 6-4, 6-4 victory over Maria Sharapova in the women’s singles final of Roland Garros neatly unified the competition between the painted white lines and the enormity of the feat that was forged.

On an immediate level, Serena’s win over Sharapova was genuinely impressive in itself. Sharapova, knowing that the history of her head-to-head series with the younger Williams Sister was so lopsided, embraced the underdog’s role with clarity. She went for her shots and established considerable depth on her groundstrokes in the first few games of the match. Her serve faltered on a few occasions, but it is more of a weapon than it was last year, a big reason why Sharapova managed to make history this fortnight in Paris. Sharapova used her beefed-up serve to make the final of a major tournament as the defending champion, the first time in her career she has crafted that particular breakthrough. That same serve, combined with a generally aggressive mindset, enabled Sharapova to show that her 2012 Roland Garros championship was not an aberration.

Yet, for everything Sharapova did well, her opponent clearly outplayed her and won two sets without needing to win seven games in either stanza.

The details of a tennis match ultimately determine how close a scoreline actually is, but on a general level, a 4-and-4 win is simultaneously competitive and tidy. In a 4-and-4 match, the winner is pushed, but not to the extent that the prospect of a penalty-kick-style crapshoot — that’s what a tiebreaker is — becomes possible.

Think about it: A set needs to arrive at 5-5 in order for an 11th and 12th game to be played in a set. If the favorite is able to close out a set in 10 games, s/he will not spend the first-set changeover worrying about the heat of a 12th-game pressure cooker. One can quite reasonably say that while Serena was indeed tested today, the intensity of Sharapova’s inquiry was never so severe that the outcome of each set was in grave doubt after the ninth game. The first set was modestly more contentious than the second, but at the business end of each journey, everyone on hand at Court Philippe Chatrier knew who was in charge.

This, mind you, on a day when Maria Sharapova played well.

Serena’s serve; her severe-angle forehand to the decue court; and her steely confidence, bolstered by her quarterfinal escape on Tuesday against Svetlana Kuznetsova, enabled the 31-year-old to access a lofty level of quality that Sharapova couldn’t match.

Sharapova and Serena are both world-class competitors. Relative to their skill sets, they both get as much out of their arsenals as they can because they don’t take a backseat to anyone else in terms of the inner game in tennis, the one between the ears. Serena’s skill set is better, though, and she is therefore able to perform at a level commensurate with her skills. Sharapova is a master of the art of competing, and on Saturday, she wasn’t all that deficient as a performer, either. However, there’s no better performer in women’s tennis — and at the present moment, all of tennis — than Serena. If you can’t match her as a performer, you’re not going to beat her.

That’s why Serena is now a 16-time major champion. That’s why she managed to win Roland Garros 11 years after first conquering the terre battue of Paris. That’s why she’s playing the best tennis of her career right now.

J. Scott Fitzwater ( @jscottfitzwater on Twitter ) noted in the aftermath of today’s match that Serena is 74-3 in the past year, since the 2012 Roland Garros tournament. This is a 31-year-old tennis pro, not an ascendant 22-year-old or a reigning 26-year-old in her physical prime.

When Martina Navratilova began her streak of 74 straight match wins in 1984, she was 27. When Steffi Graf completed her streak of 66 straight match wins in 1990, she was only 20. Navratilova won 58 straight matches in 1986 and 1987 at age 30, but Serena’s past 12 months have topped that, at least when you realize the health scares that have been thrown her way in recent years.

Even before today’s match began, Serena Jameka Williams had already established herself as one of the 12 greatest tennis players of all time, and just as surely one of the four greatest female players ever (alongside Martina, Steffi, and Chris Evert). When you win at the highest level in the latter stages of a career; when you win a major 11 years after first claiming it; when you conquer your worst surface for a second time, proving that you’re not a one-note wonder at Roland Garros; and when you achieve all of this by playing a high-quality match against one of your more determined contemporaries, you’re only going to grow in stature and rise in the estimation of tennis historians.

This is a Roland Garros made for legends. Rafael Nadal has built his reputation on terre battue. Serena Williams, as lauded and distinguished as she’s been over the years, has managed to transform her reputation on crushed red brick. In so doing, an already-amazing career has managed to become something much greater.

The greatest of the great — in any sport and any human endeavor — expand the sense of what’s possible. With all due respect to Nadal, about to win his eighth Roland Garros, there’s no active tennis player who is re-drawing horizons more dramatically than Serena Williams.

Why Majors Matter… And Why Nadal Matters More

This distinction might not seem important to some, but it’s necessary for me to share it — not because it’s somehow right (it isn’t) or superior (no…) or enlightened (not at all), but simply because it frames my perspective and experience: I am a sports fan who loves tennis, not a tennis fan who might occasionally give a passing glance at another sport. I try to love and appreciate tennis for what it is, but I also love tennis because it offers so many of the best and richest moments that can be found as a sports fan.

Tennis, to use the familiar but apt phrase, is “boxing without the blood.” It is combat without concussions, ferocity without broken bones (or a competitive context that might encourage the smashing of another human body). Tennis is a supreme test of problem solving within the tumult of competition. It possesses golf’s feature of performing from a stationary position (in the act of serving), but it also requires shotmaking while on the move (every shot other than the serve). Tennis owns baseball’s quality in which a central performer (a pitcher) must initiate action, but it is also akin to baseball in that it requires a reactive dimension (the hitter trying to read the pitch and hit it back in the direction it came from). Tennis requires its practitioners to cultivate the basketball skill of moving quickly within a confined playing surface and making judgments within a short period of time. Tennis calls forth so many physical resources from the human person, yet within a context of nonviolent competition. The ability to resemble boxing yet draw no blood makes tennis one of the more complete and satisfying sports around. Appreciating other sports enhances what I see in (and enjoy about) tennis instead of detracting from it.

Tennis, like any other sport, calls forth greatness in so many ways from all sorts of personalities. Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl were great champions. So, too, were John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were studies in contrasts. Margaret Court and Billie Jean King similarly took very different paths to the same lofty reaches of success. Saturday’s Roland Garros women’s finalists, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, have climbed mountaintops in the sport. Justine Henin and Victoria Azarenka have done so as well. You don’t have to possess one kind of mindset to reach the zenith of your tennis life, but any great champion has to find the combination of hunger and concentration that can withstand both the opponent without and the even more dangerous opponent within. There is a simple, distilled purity about competitive tennis that strips bare the participants and – by virtue of being untethered to any individuals other than the one standing on the other side of the net – creates the most satisfying resolutions to its seasonal dramas. Any tennis fan knows this.

What the 2013 Roland Garros tournament has affirmed for me, as a sports fan who loves tennis, is that the best-of-five-set format, coupled with the lack of a tiebreaker at 6-all in a fifth set, enables tennis to be all that it can be.

The very same format also enables Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to be all that they can be. (Since this is a Roger Federer tennis blog as well as a general tennis blog, one can quietly add that it enabled Federer to be all that he could be as well.)

Sport in general becomes transformed — imbued with meaning, urgency and sweet, aching poignancy — precisely when something of great consequence is at stake. Championship events are so enjoyable to watch because they unmask pretenders. They expose the hopefuls who have little more than hope itself, a Roman appetite for victory but not the Spartan will needed to achieve it. Championship events — events that MATTER — call forth that combination of clarity and conviction, talent and hustle, passion and poise, which enables one athlete or team to rise above another, to forge a reptuation that is talked about and celebrated for weeks, months, years, lifetimes. This is the magic of sport as a generational unifier and a constant source of pleasure (and the pain attached to it) in a life that can be so dreary when other fields of endeavor are involved (politics, institutionalized religion, war, corporate scheming, etc.).

This notion of consequence in a sporting event — a competition which confers value, prestige, and stature upon its winner — is the reason why I watch. It might not be your reason, and it might not be the objectively correct reason, but it’s mine.

Consequence is, in short, the lifeblood of sports. It is the simplest way to explain why (again, this is personal opinion and not objective fact…) major-tournament tennis matters more than non-major-tournament tennis, even if the Masters 1000 events are organized and operated better than the Grand Slam quartet.

I can’t speak to the experience of a European or Australian (because I’m not a member of either group), but in the United States, team sports own a linear quality in which the months of a season march toward the playoffs and culminate in a final outcome decided by a championship playoff series (or a single game known as the Super Bowl). Most competition is dedicated to the purpose of making the playoffs, but the prized events are the playoff games themselves, the set-apart showdowns when reputations are changed and affirmed, when the publicly-acknowledged stakes make the winner’s survival of pressure that much more impressive, the loser’s shortcomings that much more acute. This might be an American view and not the view of one from another continent, but such is the tortured and stomach-churning glory of sport, the knowledge that a conquest was forged in the face of the knowledge that disaster was the ever-present and all-too-possible alternative. If the pain and (here’s that word again…) CONSEQUENCE of a loss were not that great to begin with, the spoils of victory must not amount to much.

Dear readers, as I cut to the chase, this is why best-of-five-set tennis is a true test of champions, a true revealer of the full measure of sporting excellence. This is why tennis, which is not really a team sport, needs these four major tournaments each year as the set-aside markers of elite performance and supreme achievement. This is why a 6-all tiebreaker in the final set (except for the U.S. Open; thank goodness U.S. Open finals haven’t needed fifth-set tiebreaks over the years…) is such an unworthy way to end a major-tournament match. The 2006 World Cup Final between Italy and France was decided by a roll of the dice, and the same thing applied to the 2012 European Championship semifinal between Spain and Portugal. The consequence of the moment was not matched by the random nature of the resolution to the competition itself.

In tennis, thank God, it’s different.

In tennis, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic fought so hard in the fifth set of Friday’s memorable semifinal precisely because they both knew that they had to score a clean victory — by two games, not seven points by two. It’s no idle coincidence that Nadal and Djokovic have now forged two five-set epics at majors (epic in their contentiousness and drama, not as much for the raw quality of play) precisely because both men knew that they would have to suffer in order to reach the finish line. It’s no idle coincidence that Nadal has now won two late-stage major-tournament matches with a 9-7 fifth-set scoreline; playing to his limits is what Toni Nadal (however much Federer fans might indeed hate him) has impressed upon the Mallorcan from the very start.

Djokovic, one of the most marvelous competitors tennis has ever seen, has asked more questions than anyone else who has ever played Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, a reality affirmed on Friday in Paris. (Robin Soderling didn’t ask MORE questions than Djokovic; he kept his interview of Nadal fairly short in 2009.) We would not have seen such a lengthy and dramatic interrogation if the stakes hadn’t been so high. We wouldn’t have seen Nadal patiently answer Djokovic’s questions if the Spaniard’s clay-court legacy didn’t matter all that much. We were able to see — in a way we hadn’t quite seen before on clay (in other venues, yes, but not on Court Philippe Chatrier) — the extent to which Djokovic and Nadal are the two most unkillable players in men’s tennis at the present moment. We were then able to see — at 4-all in the fifth set — the extent to which Nadal can protect his fortress, his citadel, his refuge at Roland Garros, the 58-and-1 castle that will likely become 59-and-1 on Sunday against first-time major finalist David Ferrer.

Even before the fifth set played out on Friday, it’s worth noting that Djokovic plainly faltered in sets one and three. Why was he so out of sorts? One can raise all sorts of reasons with varying levels of legitimacy. Your mileage may vary, of course, but the one unshakable constant is that at Roland Garros, one must win three sets from Nadal, not the two found in a Masters 1000 event, in order to walk off the court a winner. You can argue at the margins and pick at the periphery of today’s match, but in the end, the awareness of needing to win three sets against Nadal impressed upon Djokovic’s mind the daunting nature of the task at hand. The Serbian star, as valiantly as he indeed fought on Friday, still couldn’t close the sale, even with his two-handed backhand and all the matchup advantages he reaffirmed in his win in Monte Carlo this past April.

Djokovic can have Monte Carlo, just has he had Madrid and Rome in 2011.

Nadal, though, will still take Paris. Nole still hasn’t been able to wrest the City of Light from the Mallorcan’s hands.

Each of the past three years, a very different clay-court season has transpired, forming a distinct subtext to Roland Garros. In 2011, Djokovic entered Paris as an untouchable man, having knocked Nadal off the clay-court pedestal.

He couldn’t take Paris.

In 2012, Nadal won in Monte Carlo and Rome while Djokovic plainly struggled.

Nole couldn’t take Paris.

In 2013, Djokovic won a head-to-head matchup yet again, and even though Nadal won in Madrid and Rome, Serbia’s finest tennis player — in a way that was not quite as prominent in 2011 — made it plain that Roland Garros was his focus, his goal, his prize to win.

Djokovic still couldn’t take Paris.

Three years have given us three intrigue-rich buildups to Roland Garros, three crescendos to the clay-court season filled with whispers that “this might be the time Nadal finally goes down in Paris.” Plenty of people in the tennis community gave Djokovic a strong chance in each of these years.

Three times, Nadal has protected The Citadel, the enduring bastion of his greatness, the surface on which his tennis achievements rest.

If today’s semifinal had been a best-of-three-set match, if the tournament had been something less than the one clay-court major championship on Planet Earth, we wouldn’t have seen what we saw. We wouldn’t have been moved to the extent that we were (well, some of us, anyway; I know that many Fed fans were bored with it all — hey, mileage may vary). We wouldn’t have seen two men stripped naked, forced to perform in the face of physical limits and withering pressure.

Masters 1000 tournaments — God bless them — are necessary and significant revealers of skill and quality within the realm of tennis. What you saw on Friday in Paris, though, was the ultimate test of a champion, the kind of showcase that leaves an enduring imprint on mind, heart and soul. Masters tournaments create warm memories; what you saw on Friday steps into the pages of time as a reminder of what is possible when human beings play sports.

It is to Rafael Nadal’s unending credit that once again, he has prevailed on one of tennis’s biggest stages. Nadal has answered every last question in one of the events that confers added immortality upon its surviving gladiator, the last man standing in the arena.

The notion of a “major” championship implies that other tournaments are “minor” by comparison. The words are appropriately used, tennis fans. Somehow, everything that is consequential about the clay-court season — everything that matters with respect to the historical legacies of two legendary tennis players — rests on what happened Friday in Paris.

April in Monte Carlo? That’s a minor detail at this point, wouldn’t you say?

Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30? Think Again

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“Don’t trust anyone over 30!”

That was the rallying cry of the 1960s American counterculture movement, raging against the Establishment. The System. Entrenched Power.

The two Golden Oldie Tommies — Robredo and Haas — are not part of the power structure in men’s tennis. Roger Federer, on the other hand, is. Yet, those three men — while living on different sides of the tracks — all created very special memories in the first week of Roland Garros. They proved that, yes, you can sometimes trust someone over 30. Grandpas might not be agents of the counterculture, but they’re cool in both senses of the term — they’re composed under pressure, and they’re the life of the party in Gay Paree.

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This being a Federer fan blog as well as a general-service tennis blog, we’ll make sure to emphasize how the old-man narrative at Roland Garros in 2013 magnifies Roger’s legacy. Our story begins, though, with Robredo.

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Robredo’s Marathon Mastery

It’s been 86 years since another man forged two-set comebacks in three successive major tournament matches. In the 1927 Wimbledon tournament, Henri Cochet turned the trick. One would think that in light of all the amazing comebacks registered over the decades in men’s tennis — think of Pancho Gonzalez over Charlie Pasarell at Wimbledon in 1969, or Novak Djokovic rising from the dead against both Andreas Seppi and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga last year at Roland Garros — SOMEONE would have won three straight five-set matches after losing the first two sets in each of them. Yet, no one did… not in 86 years.

Not until Tommy Robredo took center stage in Paris this past weekend.

Keep this in mind about Robredo: He had to take more than a year away from the sport due to a left leg injury that required surgery. Robredo, who has made multiple major quarterfinals and spent some time in the top 10, dropped to No. 470 in the world rankings 12 months ago (a statistic courtesy of ATP tennis researcher Steph Trudel). Of all the people who would figure to break this 86-year drought, Robredo resided at the bottom of the list. He had to fight off four match points — two as a receiver of serve — to defeat Gael Monfils on Friday. His Sunday comeback against gack-prone Nicolas Almagro completed one of the most marvelous feats in modern-day tennis… not because Robredo lacks talent, but because the Spaniard’s absence from the sport had not exposed him to the grind of the majors and the five-set gauntlet that is part of them.

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Robredo wasn’t much of a factor in the clay-court tournaments that preceded Roland Garros. It’s not as though he possessed a full supply of match play that prepared him for extended five-set combat. He did this on the fly, and from a position of relative obscurity, without having any momentum to catapult him into this tournament. His achievement is truly remarkable.

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Like a Haas, Like a Boss

Whereas Tommy Robredo’s tennis career was interrupted by a leg injury, Haas — as you might know — has seen his hard-luck career get derailed by not just his own injuries, but injuries suffered by his parents in a motor-vehicle accident. Haas has needed to step away from tennis for at least three extended and separate periods of time. He has needed to care for his parents; rehab a shoulder injury; and rehab from a hip injury. A black cartoon raincloud has hovered over his career. Yes, he has allowed some winnable matches at majors to slip through his fingers, but one can only wonder how Haas’s tennis life might have unfolded had he not been so frequently visited by adversity.

When Haas lost 12 match points in the fourth set on Saturday to John Isner, the German-American — forced into a fifth set — had to feel miserable. Who wouldn’t? He didn’t play poorly on 10 of his 12 match points — Isner simply served bombs on most of them — but he double faulted when handed a match point late in a fourth-set tiebreaker. That kind of failure can and does linger in the mind of any athlete. Haas was broken in his first service game of the fifth set, and when he fell behind Isner, 4-1, the match — while not over — certainly pointed to an Isner victory.

Haas, a tormented player who conducted a lot of open verbal dialogues with himself during Saturday’s third-round match, insisted on fighting to the very end. He got a look at a break point when trailing 4-2 and converted it to get back on serve. Later, at 5-6, Haas saved a match point on his own serve. Finally, at 8-all, Haas broke Isner, and when he held one game later to take the match 10-8 in the fifth, a number of accumulated demons had been banished.

Haas, with his movie-star looks, could easily transition to other less strenuous careers. He could spend more time away from the court with his wife, Sara Foster. He could put his body through so much less wear and tear. Yet, Haas has chosen to climb the mountain at 35 years of age. He’s not a top-tier contender at majors (the same goes for Robredo), but something deep inside him is pushing him — to compete, to persevere, and, most of all, to win a lot of high-stakes tennis matches. He is looking to the center of his very being. When he looks there, Haas sees a lot of fire left.

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The Great Federer

One of the paying customers at Court Philippe Chatrier on Sunday evening in Paris was Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays The Great Gatsby in the latest movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic. The last line of Gatsby, shown in the film, is as follows:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

When a great athlete advances in years and loses the full-flight quickness that once characterized his peak years as a professional, it is so easy to travel into the past, to reminisce about days gone by, when legs were young and first steps to the forehand corner came easily. It is so easy for fans of Roger Federer to recall the halcyon days of 2006 and 2007, when the wine flowed and the wins piled up and the band played a ceaselessly merry tune. Today, it is so much more of a grind for Federer to win at the highest level.

He’s won “only” one major since the 2010 Australian Open. Rafael Nadal (2010) and Novak Djokovic (2011) announced their presence as the two ATP players immersed in their best years, performing at the height of their powers. Federer has to settle for being “only” the third-best player in the world, “only” a semifinalist on most occasions at majors. He played bravely and well against Andy Murray in the semis of the 2013 Australian Open, but was beaten by a younger player who was simply and unquestionably better. It’s not that Federer has declined — he really hasn’t — but that the competition is aged 26 and 27 while Gramps/Pants/Granny Smith/Woger-With-A-Chewwy-On-Twop is approaching his 32nd birthday. It’s simply more of a climb these days. Success still arrives, but at the expense of more effort from an older body.

It’s so natural to want to think about the past, especially when almost everything that could possibly be achieved in any kind of profession has in fact been attained. Federer’s won the Grand Slam. He’s won 900 matches. He’s won seven Wimbledons. He’s reached 23 straight major semifinals and now 36 major quarterfinals. He’s made 10 straight major finals. He’s reached 40 major quarterfinals, 33 semifinals (with a chance for 34 on Tuesday), and 24 finals. His name already litters the ATP record books, especially in the Open Era. He doesn’t need to hit another tennis ball to prove anything to his fans or to the wider tennis community.

Yet, he continues.

France Tennis French Open

He continues to fight like a junkyard dog, gutting out another comeback from a two-sets-to-one deficit in the early rounds of a major. Though pushed yet again by Gilles Simon at a major (hello, 2011 Australian Open second round), Federer once again managed to find solutions in a fifth set against his fellow Frenchman. (Federer is Swiss, but please — he is loved as a native by the Paris crowds. He’ll meet Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in an all-French quarterfinal.)

Federer the problem solver continued to find the right assortment of shots in the right moments. He continued to hit clutch serves when the pressure of the match reached its zenith at 5-3 in the fifth. He faced his nerves, which brought him so close to an exasperating loss of serve at 5-3 and raised the possibility that he would lose yet another match after failing to win match point. He withstood all the pressure, all the heat, that comes with being a target for the competition.

He made another major quarterfinal, earning the right to say that he has not missed the round of eight at a major for nine full years.

Nine. Full. Years. (Imagine a golfer finishing in the top 8 of each and every major tournament for nine full years without interruption.)

Nothing can or should diminish what Tommy Robredo and Tommy Haas have done this past week at Roland Garros. Comparisons between or among similar feats should not reflexively be seen as diminishments of one feat; they can and should be seen as elevations of the other.

What Robredo and Haas have done the past few days stands on its own merit. The two members of the thirty-something crowd have won legions of new admirers while becoming even more beloved by longtime tennis diehards. The hunger and passion Robredo and Haas displayed — both during and after their victories — moved a lot of people very deeply, showcasing tennis at its inspirational best.

Yet, with all of that having been said, it is certainly worth noting that Robredo and Haas arrive at their passions quite naturally: They’ve never made a major-tournament final. The elusive quest for supreme glory is something that looms before them, a long-denied prize that might never be captured but is still worth chasing.

Roger Federer? He’s won just about every prize imaginable, Davis Cup being an exception. He’s prevailed in just about every kind of situation in tennis, Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros being the one fundamental exception. Federer has had none of the bad luck Robredo and Haas have suffered. He is not impoverished in terms of achievements and successes the way Robredo and Haas are. Yet, his level of fight is just as substantial, his hunger just as evident.

Roger Federer comports himself and plays his sport with a distinct Old School flair. He’s not a member of the counterculture. Yet, he’s a man over 30 who can be trusted even more than Mr. Robredo and Mr. Haas. You see, Robredo and Haas are producing pieces of one-time magic that are unlikely to be reduplicated. They’re making the second week of a major with guts and guile, winning by the skin of their teeth and fending off all manner of challenges from without and within.

Roger Federer? He’s been getting to the second week of a major for nine full years, competing more like a starving artist than a man who — monetarily and professionally — has accumulated a king’s vast riches.

Tommy Robredo and Tommy Haas are very, very special tennis players who have added to their legacies of achievement.

Roger Federer is, shall we say, Specialerer.

The Special-est, you could say.

The man over 30 who should be trusted by anyone and everyone in tennis.

I close with another quote from the era of The Great Gatsby.

In 1931, The Sporting News said this about the sport that sustained the United States through overwhelmingly tough times in the first third of the 20th century:

Great is baseball — the national tonic, the reviver of hope, the restorer of confidence.

We human beings need uplift from outside sources. We need pick-me-ups from people and cultural beacons and social occasions that inspire us, excite us, and introduce us to new horizons of possibility.

For the tennis player, the solo athlete, this inspiration has to come primarily from within. Therefore, a variation on the Sporting News quote is something that applies both to Mr. Federer and to our own (tennis) imaginations at the same time:

Great is Federer — the enduring tonic, the reviver of hope, the restorer of confidence.

Roland Garros 2013 notes: the Fan Slam Club.

Fan slam 2013

Roland Garros

Guess what, bitches?

I MADE IT – all four grand slams, from Wimbledon 2010 to Roland Garros 2013.

Even though I never set out to specifically go to all of them, chance, obsession and a certain attitude of carpe diem has taken me from Melbourne to London, New York and now Paris, and I have tennis to thank for giving me an excuse to visit and revisit some of the most marvellous cities in the world.

And it has been marvellous. For some reason, Roland Garros has always had a bad rap as a tournament. Players complain about the facilities, the shocking lack of lighting once it starts to get dark past 9PM. Die-hard tennis fans tell you about how crowded the outer courts are, and how ridiculous that most Philippe Chartrier ticket holders do not turn up to watch the first two matches on centre court until around 2PM. God forbid anything should stand between a Frenchman and his lunch. The press describes the boorish crowd, the dirty, gritty and dusty style of play on this surface, the long endless days and non-existent night sessions.

Philippe Chatrier

Eiffel tower view

But what they don’t tell you, as a first time visitor, is the sheer visual beauty of it. You first see it as you walk into Philippe Chartrier – the burnt caramel-coloured court – like a sandpit in a Colosseum, surrounded by the green seats and light grey advertising boards that envelop the court. High up on the Borotra wing of the stadium, you see the Eiffel Tower peeping over the top, an ever-present reminder of where and just how lucky you are. Pigeons soar through the air, looking for a safe place to land and a quick peck from someone’s lunch. On the outside courts, you hear things you never notice on TV – the soft brush of a player’s feet against “beaten earth”, like an artist drawing a charcoal sketch. The crowd groans, gasps and cheers, making French noises at the players with a level of expressiveness frowned upon at the tennis in other parts of the world.

They’re possessive about players in this part of the world. Get the crowd on your side, and they’ll root for you with like an adopted son. Turn them against you, and you may suddenly find yourself playing against the world, veins popping, eyes bulging, screams of “ALLEZ UP YOUR FUCKING ASS” drowned in a sea of boos and wolf whistles. Gael Monfils roused his home crowd with a dramatic five-set upset over Tomas Berdych; Serena Williams prepped them for her seemingly inevitable crowning as the Queen of Paris by conducting her post-match interview in French.

Roger Federer, for whatever reason, became the adopted son who could do no wrong. And attending one of his matches at Roland Garros was like sitting in a stadium full of various versions of yourself – swooning, cheering and grinning at the man like a bunch zealous cougars.

Federer Roland Garros 2013 R1

This was in contrast to Nadal’s match, as Daniel Brands garnered most of the support from the French. This is not to say that the French disrespect Rafa – there was no lack of applause and standing ovation for the man who has dominated at Roland Garros in a way that no other man has. But it felt like there was an unbridgeable gap between Nadal and the French crowd, a gap filled by Federer, Djokovic and the dreams of other men whose chances at Roland Garros have been thwarted by Nadal’s sheer brilliance on this surface.

Nadal v Brands Roland Garros 2013

Yesterday on Chatrier however, we were faced with a slim possibility that someone out there, someone low ranked,  hard hitting, and brave or kamikaze, might be able to thwart Nadal’s dreams for a change. For the majority of the first two sets, Brands played tennis like he had no regrets – crushing his forehand and aiming for the lines whenever he got the chance. He led 3-0 in the second set tiebreak as the crowd moved to the edge of their seats, knees shaking at the possibility of an upset.

But there comes a moment when a lower-ranked player has a top seed at their mercy, and fails to deliver the final blow. Brand went on to lose the tiebreak. The match flipped, and Nadal got consolidated a stranglehold on the match so fast it was almost as if all of Brands’ previous good form was but an illusion, a glimpse into an alternative universe where life could have been extraordinary.

For me at least, life continues to be extraordinary.

After a few days at the tournament, I will be travelling on for three weeks, towards the edge of Europe where I will board that interminable flight back to Australia. So I’m afraid this is it from me for now. Enjoy Roland Garros, and as much as I would like to say “may the best man win”, we all know that for the French Open, or for any grand slam, my truest wish is for the Swiss man to win.

May the Swiss man win

xx doots

Roland Garros 2013: Deriving Cachet From a Cliche

France Tennis French Open

Welcome to the beginning of All I Need Is A Picket Fence’s coverage of the 2013 Roland Garros tournament in Paris.

Doots, Le Foundress of Le Fence, is living “Le Life” in the City of Light. She’s attending the tournament in person and will have all sorts of tales to tell. You’ll get pictures and on-scene observations of the experience of attending Roland Garros, Doots’s final leg as part of her now-completed “Fan Slam.” She’ll tell you all about it very soon.

(Hey, wait a minute — there was this Swiss guy who completed a Grand Slam in Paris as well, and a Russian woman who did the same thing last year. Doots is following in the footsteps of the two tennis players she primarily blogs about. Paris is a city made for blending life and art, dreams and reality. Feel the poetry, Picket Fencers. Feel the poetry.)

While we wait for Doots, let’s get our Roland Garros coverage off the ground by overviewing the first two days of competition. Many unremarkable things have happened:

On the WTA side, Nadia Petrova suffered a stomach-punch, come-from-ahead loss. Serena Williams threw down the proverbial hammer. Sorana Cirstea and Ana Ivanovic took their fans through an all-too-typical emotional rollercoaster. Julia Goerges continued to struggle.

On the ATP side, it wasn’t quite business as usual — not to the same extent as the WTA. Lleyton Hewitt fought valiantly and lost in five sets. Gilles Simon played a long, drawn-out, and exasperating match (against Hewitt). Other than those familiar occurrences, the men threw a lot of curveballs at tennis observers. American men (yes, PLURAL) actually WON first-round matches. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won without fuss or drama, and Richard Gasquet did the same. No French absurdist theater at Roland Garros — not yet.

You want to know how shocking the first two days of men’s competition have been in Paris? ROBIN HAASE won a tiebreaker! That says it all, does it not?

“NOBODY BEATS ROBIN HAASE 18 TIEBREAKERS IN A ROW!” — Vitas Gerulaitis, probably

The women’s tournament has given us some precious gems and poignant moments from two days of play: Venus Williams emptied herself on Court Suzanne Lenglen, giving everything to tennis — just as she has throughout her distinguished career — only to fall short against Urszula Radwanska, whose lobs and mixed-pace shots ultimately frustrated Venus in a 3-hour, 19-minute scrap of appreciable quality.

Virginie Razzano, who — remember — lost her fiance two years ago, earned a second-round paycheck with the possibility of a third-round prize. Razzano has suffered shattering, devastating grief… and lived to find sustenance from sport. The first days of a tennis major are special because they give the likes of Virginie Razzano a day — and a payday — in the sun, validating many years of perseverance. Razzano will make almost $53,000 U.S. even if she loses her round-of-64 match. That take-home pay will cover a lot of expenses, justifying the decision to continue playing in the shadows of loss and loneliness. The greats play for championships, but many players at the majors are playing for that big infusion of prize money in the first week of the tournament… and for the love of a sport that has meant so much to their lives.

With that general recap in the books, let’s move to our featured selection from the first two days of Roland Garros 2013, a quick reflection on the difference between the elites and the pretenders in the sport.

France Tennis French Open

In one corner stands Rafael Nadal, the best male clay-court tennis player of all time. In another corner stands Tomas Berdych, a player with evident major-championship talent but only one appearance in a major final and only three semifinal showings. The matches these two men played on Monday in Paris revealed so much about their careers.

With Nadal, the obvious narrative was nevertheless the narrative that genuinely applied to his first-round encounter with Daniel Brands. Nadal absorbed an opponent’s best punch for nearly two full sets and found himself down 3-0 in the second-set tiebreaker, already trailing by a set. This was not about Nadal failing to perform; Nadal was staring at the possibility of a two-set deficit because Brands adopted and executed the distinctly Rosolian approach of going for low-margin shots at every turn… and usually making them. Brands played like a man possessed, but as soon as a second-serve return missed at 3-0 and a nervous chipped approach missed at 3-2, Brands lost confidence. Nadal, tied at 4-all in the breaker, pounced on short balls in the last three points, clearly relishing not only the challenge he was given, but his ability to meet said challenge.

There is something to be said for the claim that the best competitors are the ones who really are joyful — not just free from fear, but filled with song — in the face of tense and decisive hinge-point moments. Mindsets make the men and women who surmount obstacles and grow bigger when the stakes become higher. Nadal didn’t play all that well for much of this day, but when the moment mattered the most, he became the big dog in the arena. Brands hit so many big-league shots, but he couldn’t call forth the thunder when he really needed it, when he could have gained a two-set lead and — later — when he was on the verge of breaking back to even the third set at 4-all. This is how great players survive upset bids, and it’s how people with Daniel Brands’s level of ballstriking ability wake up at age 25 and realize how much money they’ve left on the table in their professional careers.

With Berdych, the Nadalian dynamic was inverted — as it so often has been for the Czech in his career — on Monday against Gael Monfils.

You will recall that in the 2012 Australian Open, Berdych was on the verge of taking a two-set lead over Nadal in the quarterfinals, but couldn’t close the sale. Berdych has suffered that kind of loss so many times in his ATP existence. In this match against Monfils, Berdych faced a talented opponent who was performing well and playing in his home country. Berdych received a brutal draw at this tournament and had to play what amounted to a “road match” in round one. Losing here — given the way Monfils played on Monday — was not a great sin in itself. What will linger for Berdych is that, in a clean inversion of the Nadal pattern, Berdych played well until those moments when he really needed to elevate his game.

Through 4-all in the first-set tiebreaker, Berdych had competed really well. Monfils came out of the blocks with force and fury, lashing his crosscourt forehand and generating substantial depth on his groundstrokes. Monfils’s past year on the ATP Tour has been ravaged by injuries, uncertainty, and an inability to make a major mark on men’s tennis, but the Monfils who shoved around Berdych for much of the first set is the player who made the 2008 Roland Garros semifinals and has displayed the kind of ability commensurate with a top-10 player. Berdych stood up to Monfils and had given nothing away when 4-all arrived in the first-set breaker.

Then, however, Berdych wilted. An inside-out crosscourt forehand — poorly chosen and poorly executed — gave Monfils a crucial piece of leverage. Two more errors a few moments later handed Monfils the first set. Berdych erased a two-set deficit and very nearly pulled out the match in the fifth, but that first-set failure made Berdych’s mountain that much tougher to scale. Whereas the Nadals of the world struggle for much of the day but then succeed in defining situations, the reality of tennis life takes a 180-degree turn for the Berdyches of the sport.

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for Doots’s dispatches and more Fencing as the tournament of the terre battue rolls along in Paris.

Roland Garros Semi: Transit of Genius

Up a break in the first set, goes on to lose the first set.

Up a double break in the second set, loses both, gains another break advantage, loses the next 4 games to concede the set.

Some things have to be written down to be believed.

Read More…

It Only Seems Automatic

There was this match at the French Open. You might have heard about it.

Roger Federer, frustrated to the fullest possible extent, was trying to find his game, trying to pry open an opportunity, trying to gain an escape hatch against a man he immensely respected. Down two sets to love in the high-stakes poker game known as a major-tournament tennis match, Federer once again found himself in the position that tests a professional like none other. Trailing by a substantial margin and unsettled to no end, Federer encountered his worst critic – himself – and had to deal with the human voices that are always the most unsparing: the ones that lie within. Read More…

Roland Garros 2012 Day 3 & Day 4: What you don’t expect.

Ah, gay Paree and clay Paree. I’m not a huge fan of clay-court tennis, or Roland Garros in general – my best moments of the Slam stands alone at Ferrero winning and Federer winning. Adding on the magnificent time difference from Land of Oz plus hectic times at work…let’s just say I haven’t feel so disconnected from a Slam in a very long time.

But still, it is a Slam, and it still invokes feelings of excitement and anticipation in me, even if, so far, I haven’t had the opportunity to properly watch a full match that features another player not named FederBrainfart, or read up on full tennis analysis and news etc etc etc. And things have been happening. Man, have they been happening.

Perhaps the biggest news thus far is Serena Williams losing to Virginie Razzano in the first round. It may be worth noting that Serena has never ever lost in the first round of a Slam – until now. It was a match full of drama and momentum swings and stuff that’s Hollywood-worthy, or so I heard. Serena was up 5-1 in the tiebreaker in the second set, lost the set. She was trailing 0-5 in the third, and clawed back nail and tooth and guts and spleen to come back to 3-5. Razzano needed 9 match-points before finally managing to win the last set 6-3.

Wowza.

Read More…

Roland Garros Day 2: Drama Kings.

The day started off with 2 unfortunate retirements… Feli  (Pulled muscle) and Dancevic (Lower back)…and with that the Roland Garros 2012 casualty list was off to a great start.

Princess finally made a decision on what colour socks to wear..Black it was…

Our wonder boy Wogie McFudd was second out on Suzanne Lenglen…up against German Tobias Kamke. I missed the first half of the match due to mandatory nommage of birthday cake bought for Dad, but the last half which I did see consisted of:

yes kitteh…it was kinda horribleh

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