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He’s Coming, And He Won’t Stop

Think about this question:

What would you do if you’re a guest writer at a blog devoted to chronicling tennis and the adventures of Roger Federer in particular, and you watch Rafael Nadal own the rest of the ATP Tour on hardcourts, thereby mounting a full frontal assault on Federer’s 17 major titles and his place in history?

Yeah, not an easy question to answer, is it? Viewpoint, mindset, orientation, stylistic preferences, perceived slights (or lack thereof) in the media — those and other things would shape your answer.

There is always a certain political quality to commentary on any subject when it’s intended for a wider audience. The decision to be particularly diplomatic and, on the other side of the spectrum, the decision to not give a flying fire truck about what anyone else thinks are both political responses. Does one audience deserve a soothing, consensus-laden middle ground, or does it deserve the vinegar of hard truth served forcefully?

If you’ve read me for any length of time, you know that I prefer the route of consensus and unification, because — as expressed in “A Place At The Tennis Table” last week — the world can always use more healing and inclusion. There’s never enough of that in anything human beings talk about or pursue. Some fans might need vinegar today or tomorrow, but in the aftermath of a major tournament — especially the last one of the calendar year — the focus should be on celebrating the achievement of the winner and putting it above every other discussion point that can be contested or explored.

* Read More…


A Place At The Tennis Table

For those who don’t stop here often during a tennis major, please know at the outset that while this is a tennis blog, there is a bit of a preference and priority for all things Roger Federer. Therefore, when Fed bowed out of the U.S. Open in the fourth round on Monday, it was natural to think that there wouldn’t be another major essay on tennis until the end of this year’s U.S. Open. At the end of each major, the two singles championships regularly receive a wrap up from Doots (the publisher of this blog), myself, or both.

However, some days in tennis somehow manage to hit the sweet (or is it sour?) spot with fans in such a way that something has to be said about the matter. Wednesday, Sept. 4 was one such day, and the fact that Federer had no part in the events is precisely what should enable us — and by us, I don’t mean Federer fans — to appreciate this sport, and each other, a little bit more.

This essay is not intended for any one fan base or subgroup in the wide, wide world of tennis lovers. It’s meant for everyone. How fitting this is, given that the U.S. Open takes place in the same city (New York) where the United Nations was born and still stands today. This essay is all about giving each fan, each human person — inherently precious, equally loved, and powerfully valuable — a place at the tennis table, an affirming bit of support in a democratic and unifying context. Read More…

When Darkness Covered The Land

It was, as a matter of fact, a dark day on Monday in New York. No, really — there were just a few tiny and brief sunbreaks, with dark gray clouds dominating the skies and oppressive, heavy conditions persisting.

Sure, Tommy Robredo’s yellow shirt represented the sunshine he in fact turned out to bring to the day. His exuberance, rightly earned in a moment of profound professional achievement, is something that should cheer the heart of the impartial sports fan. What Robredo has done in this autumnal stage of his career is nothing short of remarkable. Who could have possibly imagined that Robredo would be playing in the quarterfinals of a hardcourt major… and after attaining his first career win over an opponent who had regularly vexed him in the past?

Heck, who could have expected so many of the 2002-style events that have occurred so far at this “2002 United States Open”?

Lleyton Hewitt making the second week.

Daniela Hantuchova making the quarters.

Richard Gasquet not sucking (okay, okay, that’s a 2007-style event, but it feels as though he’s been disappointing tennis fans since 2002).

Sports are amazing, even when they hurt. Life is so much richer and more fascinating for their presence in my life and yours. Last night at the U.S. Open provided the best of sport — not just Robredo’s sweet taste of sunshine, but Rafael Nadal’s excellence in a magnificent match against the best version of Philipp Kohlschreiber seen since the 2009 Roland Garros tournament, when he dismissed a fellow named Djokovic in the third round. The night’s concluding match, the Bryan Brothers’ win over Colin Fleming and Jonny Marray, was the best men’s doubles match I can recall seeing since the McEnroe and (Peter, not Colin…) Fleming days.

Sport is grand, and we’re getting some Grand Slam moments in New York.

But about that darkness covering the land… Read More…

The Falsity Of Forever

Great athletes collect their share of “forevers,” the moments and achievements no one can take away from them. This championship seven years ago, that comeback four years ago, this resurgence one year ago, that classic match five years ago — no one can alter certain passages of history once they’re written into the great book of life.

Yet, life goes on — past glories, as rich as they might have been at the time and as comforting as they might still be in quiet moments between competitions, give way to the present day and its new challenges. Even though thousands of obstacles have been surmounted in the past, there’s a new hurdle to be cleared today. The cheers of the crowd echo through the pages of time, but they can’t drown out the groans of lamentation that define the present-tense reality of sport for a fading champion.

This is the falsity of forever, and it’s precisely what Roger Federer is confronting as he prepares for the 2013 United States Open tennis tournament in New York. You can be a great Broadway performer for many decades, but in tennis, you get one decade of opportunity if you’re lucky. Many a Broadway play has been written about the harsh mistress known as Reality, and right now, Federer knows that his decade of tennis primacy has run its course in many ways.

It’s been something to behold, and it will forever be remembered with boundless admiration by tennis fans and chroniclers alike, but a decade of supremacy eventually loses its hold on “forever,” because time is the enemy of the athlete.

For a full decade, Federer inhabited the top 5 of the ATP rankings. For nine full years, he made the quarterfinals of majors without cessation or interruption. Those two realities alone do so much to underscore the extent to which Federer has held up under pressure over an extended period of time. For so many years, he’s been the target, the standard by which his contemporaries have measured themselves. In 2006, Rafael Nadal’s sustained dominance at Roland Garros, coupled with his emergence at Wimbledon, unmistakably showed that the Spaniard had joined Federer as a transformative figure who was going to be a measuring-stick player for everyone else on tour. Read More…

Climb Every Mountain

Climb every mountain,
Search high and low,
Follow every byway,
Every path you know.
Climb every mountain,
Ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow,
‘Till you find your dream.

The worst years of my life were 2003 through 2005. In 2003, I suffered from runaway blood pressure (200 over 120) and had to go to the hospital. Being dumb, I stopped eating… literally… in the two weeks after that first hospital visit, losing 30 pounds and destroying my body’s sense of equilibrium. The disruptions to my body created a sense of pure panic about my situation, which — combined with some stressors in the theater of real life (a published book was not selling at all; the Iraq War was spiraling out of control; the website I was writing for took a financial hit; you know, nothing big…) — led to a series of anxiety attacks that lasted for 18 months, into 2005. I had, in April of 2003, doubted my body’s physical ability to survive. Then, my emotions fell apart.

On the morning of May 1, 2005, I visited an inmate at a jail in downtown Seattle. The experience was so chilling that, when I walked across the bridge linking downtown with a just-out-side-of-downtown neighborhood in Seattle, I looked over the railing and suddenly realized why people check out of life. Death felt very close. No, there was no desire to bail out, but the closeness and immediacy of the opportunity to do so possessed my waking thoughts for much of the next five years. It wasn’t until 2011 that this persistent awareness of the oppressiveness of life for some people finally receded into the subconscious and slid out of the forefront of my mind.

I doubted myself physically. Then I doubted myself emotionally. Then I was shaken to my core in a larger spiritual and existential manner. It took me several years to sort things out in my head.

No, tennis is not a life-and-death pursuit (it only feels that way), but the journey Andrew Murray has taken to get to the mountaintop is something I can definitely relate to.

What Murray did on Monday in Flushing Meadows, New York, was the culmination of a life spent in tennis, but more specifically, a journey that was four years in the making. The fact that his coach’s career arc as a player so strongly paralleled his own path makes Murray’s moment of triumph that much more remarkable… and impressive.

You know the story about Ivan Lendl, the man who has clearly given Murray the extra insights into the inner game of tennis, the insights that his pupil has steadily absorbed, bit by bit. Lendl made his first major final in 1981 at Roland Garros, losing to Bjorn Borg. Lendl not only lost major finals in the next few years; Jimmy Connors showed him just how much he had to improve in order to lift one of the sport’s most precious trophies. It took a good long while for Lendl to figure out the unique beast known as a major tournament final.

The sense of internal exasperation Lendl felt after meekly submitting to defeat in the fourth set (a bagel) of the 1983 U.S. Open final against Connors was every bit as strong as the exasperation Murray felt after his loss to Novak Djokovic in the 2011 Australian Open final. In 2008 and 2010, Murray had lost hardcourt major finals to Roger Federer; in those matches, Federer’s form and shotmaking were simply too good on the day. In the 2011 Australian final, Djokovic enjoyed superior form in his own right, but there was a sense that Murray wasn’t entirely present for long stretches of that particular encounter. Psychologically, Murray hit a wall, and although he did continue to reveal how gifted he was in 2011 by making one major semifinal after another, he never came particularly close to beating Rafael Nadal, the man who conquered him in three straight majors.

Murray knew he had to climb so many more miles in worn shoes, accessing levels of mental freshness and bone-deep belief he could not yet fully trust. Murray could not yet trust everything about (and within) himself because, as was the case with Lendl in 1983, a talented athlete didn’t yet know the sensation of clearing that last hurdle, of scaling that last jagged piece of rock and standing on the summit.

Then came the 2012 Australian Open, the event that marked the beginning of Murray’s slow movement up the mountain… closer to his ultimate goal, yes, but also in more rarefied air, subject to more difficult breathing… and the possibility of a more pronounced fall from grace, a more spectacular wound, a more gruesome death.

Murray, having just hired Lendl as his coach, led Djokovic two sets to one in the 2012 Australian Open semifinals. He had not yet beaten Djokovic in a major tournament, and was so close to the kind of breakthrough he needed in order to transform his mindset. Yet, he discovered just how much that mindset had to be reshaped. He stepped off the gas pedal in the fourth set, and before he knew it, Djokovic was serving for the match in the fifth set. Murray broke the Serb and leveled for 5-all. He even had a break point for a chance to serve for the match, but Djokovic — as he did throughout 2011 and again at Roland Garros this past year — stepped up on the big points. Murray walked away with honor… and a 7-5 defeat in the final set.

The top of the mountain was closer, but how does that familiar saying go? “So close, and yet so far away.” Onward Murray climbed up the steep rock of men’s tennis in this golden era, learning about himself while under Lendl’s tutelage.

Then came the next treacherous portion of Murray’s journey. He finally made the final at Wimbledon, the tournament where this son of Great Britain faces overwhelming pressure and stands in a white-hot public spotlight. He played quite well against Federer, but he couldn’t find an extra gear (particularly on his serve) in crunch-time moments. The quality of his performance offered nothing but hope; yet, the acute pain of losing in his backyard tournament could have sent him slipping and sliding down the mountain, further removed from that damned mountaintop, a peak that remained elusive despite his marked improvements under Lendl.

At this U.S. Open, Murray performed the way he had performed in the event over the past three years: inconsistently. Having lost to Marin Cilic in 2009 and to Stanislas Wawrinka in 2010, Murray wobbled in 2011 as well, but in his first-week “bad match” — a disturbingly regular occurrence for him in New York — he managed to escape Robin Haase. In 2012, Murray dodged Feliciano Lopez in a grueling third-round match; had Lopez won the fourth-set tiebreaker, Murray would have played over five hours in broiling afternoon sunshine. He needed to get off that court, on that day, in four sets, and he barely made the finish line. In the quarterfinals, Murray was staring at another New York loss to Cilic before the Croatian spectacularly imploded. As the semifinals arrived, there was no assurance — none at all — that Murray was ready to take the next step.

Then came the moment when this tortured tennis soul — the one who berated himself and questioned his own toughness, much as Ivan Lendl did from 1981 through early 1984 — began the final ascent, inhabiting an environment in which the oxygen was that much more difficult to take in at every step.

Murray’s tennis lungs did not breathe easily in the first set of his semifinal against Tomas Berdych. It would have been typical for Murray to curse the darkness after he gave away the first set (he had carried the run of play for most of it). In a pre-Lendl world, he probably would have done just that. Instead, Murray regrouped.

Then, after Berdych showed some toughness (yes, he really did… it was a time-capsule moment… we’ll see if Berdych can actually live up to his enormous abilities in 2013…), Murray was staring at the possibility of a fifth set, down 2-5 in the fourth-set tiebreaker. Calmly — yes, Murray was calm, if you can possibly believe it — the third seed won the next three points and eventually took the tiebreak to punch his ticket to the U.S. Open final.

Murray’s first major final was in New York in 2008. That U.S. Open marked the only prior time in which he had defeated one of the Big Three (Nadal) at a major in a full-length match. (He defeated Nadal in the 2010 Australian Open quarterfinals, but Nadal retired early in the third set.) The U.S. Open was also the tournament where his coach, Lendl, had excelled to a considerable degree, making eight straight finals from 1982 through 1989. Given that the U.S. Open is Murray’s favorite major, it was the perfect place to end his drought on the big stage. In his fifth major final, Murray was in position to do exactly what Lendl had done his own fifth major final, the 1984 French Open epic against John McEnroe.

When Lendl fell behind two sets to love, the Czech could have lamented the course of events and resigned himself to the thought that his drought at the majors would persist. Instead, Lendl kept climbing that mountain; he didn’t abandon the mission.

It’s true that Murray won the first two sets instead of losing them on Monday against Novak Djokovic, but when the Serb — the man who came from two sets down to beat Federer in the 2011 U.S. Open semifinals (I had to go there, Fed fans… 😦 — ramped up his game and figured out the gusting winds inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, there was Murray, cursing bluestreaks in front of courtside microphones, telling the world how jelly-legged he was.

Djokovic was pouring out as much energy as possible, defending with typical relentlessness, dexterity and willpower. In two authoritative sets, Djokovic — who could have easily faded into the mist following his all-for-naught performance in the first two sets — had forced Andy Murray to face the final climb, the moment that would either make him or break him, the moment that would either lead to the greatest glory or the most precipitous fall from a lofty position.

Imagine the maelstrom of emotions Murray had to filter from his inner being at the fifth-set changeover. Murray had made major finals before. He had won one set in a major final (against Federer at Wimbledon). He had gone five sets with Djokovic at a major, but lost. He had at last won two sets in a major final. The closer Murray stood in relationship to the goal he so dearly wanted, the more Murray knew (he straightforwardly acknowledged this in his post-match comments, too…) that a loss, now a strong possibility, could have hurt beyond all imagining. A loss after leading by two sets in a major final would have made the pain of his Wimbledon defeat seem like a tiny pin prick. A loss in THIS situation would have crushed Murray’s bones, sucking the marrow of life out of his body.

Djokovic, no matter what else Federer fans might think about him (I choose to admire him, but I know not everyone shares the same outlook… mileage does vary…), forced Murray to realize, more than ever before, how hard it is to win one’s first major singles championship.

Murray had doubted himself physically and mentally on many occasions in the past. The grabbing of the back, the touching of the toes, and other nervous tics revealed the symbiotic body-mind relationship that athletes must learn about and adjust to. In that fifth set against Djokovic, however, Murray was presented — not for the first time, but with more urgency than at any point in the past — a truly spiritual challenge. This match was not just about the body or the mind. It became a matter of heart.

Djokovic, even in the process of winning the third and fourth sets, worked harder than Murray because he was much less comfortable in the windy conditions. Murray, unsurprisingly, was much more adept at blocking balls back in the wind and forcing Djokovic to hit through the wind. The fact that Djokovic had also spilled more energy in the first two sets meant that Murray was capable of outlasting his gallant foe. Mental toughness was surely required in that fifth set, but what Murray also needed was that pinch of passion, that ability to fill his mind not with thoughts of what was slipping away, but what was still attainable and very much within his grasp.

You know how the story ended. Murray’s body language — which had been negative in the final set of each of his previous four major finals — became noticeably positive in that fifth set. He persevered. He fought. He won. He won against an opponent who forced him to tap into every last ounce of belief he owned… and measures of self-trust he didn’t know he had when he stepped onto the court four hours and 54 minutes earlier.

First had come the physical and mental challenges. Then came the supreme spiritual and existential challenges, with each step of the journey becoming more fraught with ecstasy and destruction in equal measure. Andy Murray moved closer to both triumph and disaster on an unforgettable Monday night in New York. The fact that he had to work so hard to climb the mountain speaks to the quality of this spectacular era in men’s tennis.

The fact that Murray succeeded in the climb says so much about the champion he now in fact is, the champion he — with Ivan Lendl’s help — has finally become.

US Open Week 2 Recap: Je ne regrette rien.

It seems like a case of life mimicking fiction, that Andy Roddick would have the last laugh – leaving the sport of tennis having won the last encounter in his non-rivalry with McFudderer; and McFudderer in return would manage to steal the headlines from Roddick on the last day of his career by crashing out of the US Open “early”.

And as tempting as it is for me to start with Federer’s utter no-show against Berd, I’m going to start with Roddick, because there is a fundamental difference between McFudd and Roddick’s exits from the Open yesterday: McFudd will be back with his cowbells ringing (moooooooo…), but Roddick has truly said his last goodbye to the sport at a competitive level, and as one rather whimsical Spaniard would tweet: even our guitars were crying.

Read More…

Circumstances, Yes. Excuses? No.

It is one of the simplest but most important distinctions in everyday human discourse: separating excuses from reasons, partitioning whining from the helpful explanation. The two get mistaken and conflated all the time. In the wake of the loss of the hero/central persona/object of fan affection on this, a fan-driven tennis blog maintained by people who are NOT paid to operate it, it’s worth diving into the difference between an excuse and a reason.

One of the best tennis commentators not found in front of a television camera is Andrew Burton (@burtonad on Twitter), longtime board moderator, content contributor, occasional in-person major watcher, and – most importantly – a man in full, an observer of the tennis scene who is magnanimous in all seasons yet unsparing in analysis if it needs to be critical. Mr. Burton calls ’em as he sees ’em, living up to an analyst’s creed even while he carries the flag of Federer fandom with evident love and fidelity.

I reference Mr. Burton because he is the champion of the view that there are no asterisks for any tennis match, ever. I respect the view and the thought process Burton uses to arrive at his strongly-held assertion. I largely agree with it, but I do reserve a few occasions in which that little mark – made infamous by Major League Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick’s application of it to Roger Maris’s home-run record, established in 1961 – is justifiable. This sets the groundwork for our larger discussion of “excuse-versus-reason.”

(Side note: Frick applied the asterisk because Maris broke Babe Ruth’s previously existing home-run record in a 162-game season. Ruth set his original record in a 154-game season. We can debate that topic until the cows come home, but that’s the first and most (in)famous occasion in which the notion of an asterisk entered a mainsteam sports conversation.) Read More…

US Open 2012 Day 5 Recap: It’s not exactly over yet.

Another one of the Grandpa Generation is off to the sunset after US Open – for Andy Roddick is hanging up his racquets after US Open.

There’s no way any decent tennis fan would have missed the announcement that one of the most colourful (if not exactly the most agreeable) personalities of the tour is retiring. With him meeting one of the stars of the Generation After Nadal-Djokovic-Murray, Bernie Tomic – it was supposed to be the marquee match of the US Open thus far. Fair to say some expected Bratomic to end the career of A-Rod. After all, he’s 11 years younger (on paper anyway ;)), supposedly stronger and faster, nearing the peak of his game whilst Roddick is on his swan song.

Arthur Ashe was packed to the capacity for that match, nearing the crowds of a final even. If Roddick was to go out, he would go out with a bang and in front of thousands of Americans.

But Roddick was not done yet. Read More…

Golden Ones Back It Up

In the first week of a major tennis tournament, the focus is not so much on the top dogs, but on the underclass of tennis — the floaters, the young pups, the 29th seeds, the aging journeymen (and women), and the 21-year-olds (or thereabouts) whose teenage years have passed, putting them face-to-face with the reality that they need to begin to figure out life on the tour. In many ways, week one of a major is that fascinating journey in which tennis fans and pundits survey a landscape full of men and women who are confronted with an urgent task: Make use of your talents, or risk waking up, at age 27, with a Lukas Rosolian resume that speaks to nothing other than wastefulness.

The men’s first round is finally done at the 2012 United States Open (a reality that tennis fans should not have to deal with on a Thursday morning; if the United States Tennis Association wants a three-day first round for the men, it should start the tournament on a Sunday the way the French Tennis Federation does at Roland Garros). The women, for their part, are halfway through the second round. Already, we’ve seen so many members of the tennis underclass exasperate and frustrate with early flameouts. Read More…

US Open Day 3 Recap: The Kimnevitab- oh stuff this.

I’ll spare Kim fans the cringe worthy wordplay. When your name is just one syllable, the temptation is too much, TOO MUCH I TELL YA.

It was just over 3 years ago when Kim Clijsters began her confident, self-assured procession to a US Open title, culminating in a 75 63 win over Caroline Wozniacki for the second slam of her career, in the second stage of her career.

A lot happens in 3 years – rankings change, careers bloom and wilt, injuries and desires get in the way. Day 2 and 3 of the US Open saw the exit of both Wozniacki (now title-less for over a year and struggling to stay in the top 10) and Mama Kim, who punctuated a full stop on her grand slam career with a characteristic smile and a wave.

We like to talk about the changing of the guard whenever an older player loses to a young’un, and perhaps it is. In her 67 67 loss to Laura Robson today, Clijsters was the one who looked increasingly more tentative, lingering well behind the baseline, unwilling to move out of her comfort zone. Robson on the other hand put her much underrated lefty serve to good use, and played a brand of brave, attacking tennis that might in fact benefit Murray one day in his neverending attempt to score high on the Murrayometer.

And so the tide advances. Exit Clijsters, enter Robson on the stage where the former shone the most. Or so we hope. It’s a neater, more poetic narrative for Clijsters to finish her career to a ‘Federer‘ and not a ‘Becker‘.

Yet none of it was surprising in the end. Clijsters had been plagued by injuries and planning her retirement for some time now. There was ultimately always something half-hearted and ‘gravy-on-top’ about Clijsters’ second career. Although she won more grand slams than in her first, and had gone through a more intense period of domination in her short 3 year return than she ever did in the first career, Clijsters’ second career always served to enhance the legacy of the first. As if to say: ‘look, I’ve always had it in me.

And so she did. That easy power, the movement and flexibility. The sense of calm and ease she brings to a sport that often inspires the very antithesis of calm and ease. During the first part of Clijsters’ career, I was in the camp that thought Clijsters had all the talent in the world, but minus the killer instinct to truly realise her talent. In her second career, Mama Kim proved me wrong and showed that maturity and self-assurance can equally be a vessel for success. Not all champions are created twisted and scarred.

So without making this sound any more like an obituary than it does: bye bye Kim. Mother, champion, and an all round nice gal.

xx doots