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.
Disclosure/preamble No. 1: Doots will have an Australian Open wrap-up. She’ll be sure to celebrate Stanislas Wawrinka’s win, so I’ll let her focus on that piece. I have it in me to celebrate Stan’s win as well, but in much the same way that a newspaper would have two writers cover different angles of a story, I’ll deal with one story so Doots can have the other, more pleasant task.
Disclosure/preamble No. 2: You know me as a tennis fan who writes about the sport. I have not expected to cover the sport, but there might finally be a chance that I’ll do so as a stay-at-home blogger before too long. Therefore, it’s good for me if I write something that isn’t meant solely for an audience of Federer fans.
On with the show…
Here I was, prepared to offer a far-ranging wrap-up of the 2014 Australian Open and write something bundled in a tidy thematic pouch. I had all the major points of emphasis lined up. No matter who won Sunday’s men’s final between Rafael Nadal and Stanislas Wawrinka, the template was there. Keeping in mind that the greatest achievement of Nadal’s career (just one person’s opinion, of course) was forged in Melbourne in 2009, I was expecting another crowning moment to occur in this match. However, if Nadal lost to Wawrinka, I still could have produced an essay with all of my larger planned themes intact.
Then, however, an injury reared its ugly head… or lower back, as the case may be.
I start with the men’s draw on the premise that we are headed for a Rafole final in Melbourne in two weeks unless someone stops them. But who might actually be capable of tripping the current Big Two?
Murray? Even the most die-hard fans of British tennis would have to concede that Toothface is nowhere near match-fit and ready to win the Aus Open.
Del Poopy? Surely, he is long overdue for a slam win over Rafa.
Wawrinka? There may be some level of cosmic balance overdue to My Friend Stanley after his five set loss to Djoko in Melbourne last year, but given Stanley’s draw, I doubt it.
Here’s a closer look at the men’s draw.
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…
1. Some things are worth waiting 77 years for. In case you’ve been living in a ditch free from the British press, Andy Murray finally ended his slow, teasing torture of the entire nation of Great Britain, beating Novak Djokovic 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 to clinch the Wimbledon trophy.
In 2012, when Murray won the gold medal at the Olympics, I mused whether this would in fact provide the mental breakthrough he needed to win a grand slam, any grand slam. The Olympics had the unique status of being a major title but not a major. The winner is both the centre of attention and yet one of many to share that lime light. And in truth, it seemed to take a huge load off Murray’s shoulders.
Within a year, Murray has won the US Open (with a major wobble in the final) and Wimbledon (with a minor wobble in the final game), and as much as I’ve disliked him as a player, it has been somewhat gratifying to watch him take advantage of the fate and opportunity provided by the Olympics and use it to strengthen a once fragile psyche.
2. All hail Marion, who – in two weeks – had morphed from the Maid to the Matron of the French tennistical hierarchy. Those reading this blog from way back may remember that I have never been a fan of Bart. Her game is at best quirky, at worst weirdly ungraceful and blunt. Her personality carries the same bluntness as her game. Marion loves and hates with so much transparency, at times making no attempt at being diplomatic in press conferences when her opinion is asked.
In short, on a tour dominated by Big Babe tennis, Bartoli is the oddball.
But in the same way that Schiavone’s win at Roland Garros a few years ago re-energised my love for women’s tennis, Bartoli’s victory at Wimbledon was a victory for variety on the WTA tour. Look past the Serenas and Marias on tour and you’ll find an underbelly of interesting players with quirky personalities who do not get enough (or any) attention.
Perhaps the biggest take-away from this Wimbledon is the mere fact that for a week at least, the spotlight was on them for a change: Bartoli, Lisicki, Flipkens .. even the doubles champs Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai. When was the last time we saw both singles and doubles winners with double handed forehands at a grand slam?
Seems to me that the level of variety on the WTA tour could in fact be something to be celebrated, rather than bemoaned after all. Read More…
For the second straight summer at Centre Court, Andy Murray prevailed in straight sets on a sun-baked Sunday afternoon against a player worn down by Juan Martin del Potro in a marathon-length semifinal. Last year’s Olympic gold medal match against Roger Federer and today’s Wimbledon final against Novak Djokovic felt very similar — they ended in the same amount of sets, after all. However, the Olympics are a once-every-four-year tournament with a best-of-three-set format until the championship match. Wimbledon, on the other hand, is a five-set tournament, and a tournament whose shadows cover the whole of tennis history.
Wimbledon carries the weight of nations and the weight of notions. Wimbledon is where tennis began. It’s where the sport’s cathedral stands. It’s where the sport’s original surface — now its most infrequently used surface — creates a tournament that feels more vulnerable than the other three majors.
This vulnerability has given rise to the demons and ghosts that have haunted tennis players for decades… especially those who represent the United Kingdom.
Even though the grass of Wimbledon today is more resilient — and therefore more conducive to long hardcourt-style rallies — than it used to be, it still holds true that opportunities come and go more quickly on this surface. A low, knifing slice can still do more damage on grass than on other surfaces. A flat serve will still skid through the court with more speed than on a slow hardcourt. Late in a grass-court tournament, a strong return hit just inside the baseline will often draw a bad bounce off the worn and chewed-up second-week playing surface. Opportunities feel a little more fragile on grass compared to other surfaces, creating more agony for a player and a fan base when an opening is missed. Read More…
None of us here at the Picket Fence – not Doots, not PJ, not LJ, and not yours truly – felt that Rafael Nadal was going to lose on day one of Wimbledon. PJ and I didn’t even feel that Rafa would fall when Steve Darcis took a two-set lead. We have naturally grown accustomed to seeing all the elites in men’s tennis escape big deficits in the first weeks or midpoints of majors, any time before the quarterfinals.
Djokovic beats the likes of Seppi and Wawrinka at the majors. Robin Haase will eventually submit to the likes of Murray and Nadal – this is the law of tennis physics. The likes of Benneteau and Simon fight well and hard, but they lose to Federer in the end. Of course Rafa was going to climb all the way back and defeat Darcis on Monday at the All-England Club.
Except he didn’t.
None of us here at the Picket Fence expected to write about Nadal’s ouster. To be perfectly candid, I’ll go one step further: I didn’t think I’d write about Nadal’s ouster on Wednesday, July 3, the date of his (once-thought-to-be-) likely quarterfinal encounter with this blog’s raison d’etre, Wogie/Pants/Granny Smith/Gramps/Tommy-Haas’s-Halle-Picture-And-Doubles-Buddy.
This Nadal guy, after all, had made five Wimbledon finals. Many of his fans – for whom this essay is intended just as much as it’s intended for Federer fans – have pointed out over time that grass has often been the surface on which Rafa has displayed conspicuous shotmaking creativity and resourcefulness. If you had asked a Nadal fan in early July of 2011 about the Mallorcan’s grass-court prowess, you would have received glowing reviews. This is a highly accomplished grass master… not as great as Sampras or Federer or Borg, but really damn good on his own merits and in his own right. As awesome as his clay-court prowess has become, Nadal’s ability to win the so-called “Channel Slam” twice while reaching five Wimbledon finals makes him far more than a footnote in Wimbledon’s decorated history. Nadal is much more a central figure in the story of The Championships than a peripheral one.
Surely, last year’s second-round loss to an out-of-his-mind Lukas Rosol was going to become an aberration, a one-off instance, an isolated accident not to be repeated during the final prime years of the Spaniard’s remarkable career.
Well, what do we say now?
Again, none of us here at Le Fence expected Nadal to lose on day one, but since it’s happened, an attempt must be made to grapple with this event and how it might ripple through the pages of time.
Please note the word “might,” which is different from the word “will” or something equally absolute or definitive. In the following paragraphs, please take care – whether you’re a Nadal fan or a Federer fan – to absorb one simple but very important point: This is not a final pronouncement, a set-in-stone verdict on the legacies of these two players, Nadal in particular. This is merely an attempt to take a seismic event and use it to ask pertinent questions about the future, shaping the parameters of the debate that will enfold Roger and Rafa when their careers ultimately end.
Nadal, Federer, and LeBron: Separating the Solo-Athlete Sports From Team Sports
Last week, American sports fans and journalists were enveloped in a persistent discussion-cum-frenzy about the legacy of LeBron James, depending on whether or not his Miami Heat would be able to beat the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. When Miami – on the verge of elimination – trailed San Antonio by five points with just under 30 seconds left in Game 6 of the series, LeBron’s legacy was, in the eyes of the pundits, about to take a massive hit. Then, however, San Antonio missed two free throws and failed to get defensive rebounds on two missed shots by Miami. The Heat hit two three-point shots in the final 21 seconds of regulation, sent Game 6 into overtime, and won in the extra period. After then winning in Game 7 two days later, the Heat claimed the NBA championship. LeBron’s legacy is now viewed as transcendent and on its way to supreme greatness.
Here’s the funny (read: strange and laughably inadequate) dimension of all this “legacy” talk surrounding LeBron James: He did not get either one of the two offensive rebounds that saved Miami’s hide late in Game 6. He had no role in the final Miami possession of regulation time, the one which enabled the Heat to tie the game and ultimately escape with an improbable victory. Simply put, LeBron needed the help of teammates to win. Had he lost, he wouldn’t have been the player most responsible for his team’s failure; Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, not to mention other role players, would have been on the hook.
You can see the obvious point here: Basketball players and other team-sport athletes can’t win entirely on their own. They need help from teammates to succeed. If you thought that discussions of tennis legacies were (and are) excessive and premature, the discussions of LeBron’s legacy and any other team-sport athlete’s legacy were (and are) even more absurd.
Many tennis fans – quite understandably – think that ANY discussion of a player’s legacy is, at this point, premature. I get that inclination. I respect it.
I also think that it’s actually possible to conduct a discussion of a player’s legacy before his (her) retirement. The key is to conduct said discussion in a respectful way.
I got into a heated discussion with some (thoughtful) tennis tweeps during the Australian Open. These tweeps were upset that I made a comparison between Lukas Rosol and Stan Wawrinka. Those tweeps thought it was unacceptable to make ANY comparison between Rosol and Wawrinka. My response was simply this: I was intending to link the two men in one specific respect, one element in which they actually did share a similarity. If two players are dissimilar in 937 ways but are linked in a 938th way, there should be nothing wrong with saying that Player X and Player Y share commonality No. 938.
It’s much the same with legacy talk about not-yet-retired tennis players. There’s reason to explore this topic precisely because the constraints and outside variables of team sports do not enter the picture with solo-sport athletes. Why should any person feel that s/he can’t ever discuss Nadal’s or Federer’s place in the sport? When history – be it glorious (Rafa’s eighth Roland Garros title) or humbling (Monday’s loss to Steve Darcis) – unfolds in real time, part of the fun and challenge of sports chronicling is to make sense of the moment.
Mind you, this attempt to make sense of a moment does not mean that the initial verdict, rendered right after match point, is or should be seen as a permanent assessment of the player involved. It is a first draft of analysis. There’s nothing wrong with the attempt to grapple with the legacy of an unfinished career… not in and of itself.
The only sin as far as I see it is to permanently and irrevocably paint a player’s career into a narrow space or a confined set of terms. Discussing a legacy isn’t a shameful act; insisting on knowing the full and defined extent of a legacy before a career has run its course is what’s ultimately inappropriate.
Can Federer and Nadal fans see this? I hope so. Let’s now spend a little time wrestling with what this Nadal loss MIGHT mean… not what it WILL mean, but what it MIGHT mean.
The Meeting Point Between Two Champions
The chilling, uncomfortable thought that emerges from “Darcis d. Nadal” is that in a very real way, tennis fans – no matter their allegiance – have begun to get a glimpse of an ATP Tour in which Nadal and Federer are no longer factors.
No, this is not an attempt to claim that Nadal is “done” or now finds himself on an irrevocable downswing, never to return to a prior level of greatness. Federer fans know this drill all too well. No, the above statement is meant to convey the sense that this upset loss shows what life could be like in a few years for the two players who have done more than any others to transform men’s tennis.
I personally expect Roger Federer to produce a few more stirring achievements before he ultimately hangs up his racquet as an ATP Tour professional. Yet, we all know that Fed is in the autumn of his career, not the bright and shining springtime of his 2006 reign. To merely evoke the thought of an ATP Tour without Federer as a prime contender at major tournaments is – however depressing – an encounter with a reality that is approaching. It might be approaching slowly, but it’s not that far in the distance anymore, and it won’t recede.
Let’s transfer the current dynamic surrounding Federer to Nadal. Perhaps it’s true for Rafa’s fans that the seven-month break from tennis competition represented the first true look at the abyss, of life without Rafa on tour – that’s a fair-enough assertion. However, after a genuinely dominant return to the sport over the past four months, it seemed that Nadal had re-established himself to the point that a deep Wimbledon run was more likely than not. Nadal, Federer and Djokovic just don’t lose in week one at majors. Surely, what happened in 2012 at Wimbledon was not going to repeat itself.
Now that it has happened, though, the mind must confront the new terrain and the possibilities it offers. (Note the word “possibilities” and not an absolutist word such as “certainties” or “ironclad truths,” etc.)
No, Rafael Nadal is not “done” on grass because he lost one match on a day when his knees did not respond well to the unique challenge of bending to retrieve low slices on a fresh and slippery lawn. Nadal could very well bounce back and thrive at Wimbledon, especially in 2015, when the three-week gap between Roland Garros and the Big W might give his body more time to recover.
What this loss to Darcis does, though, is that it makes the 2012 loss to Rosol less of an aberration. Accordingly, it does raise the question – not the final answer, but certainly the question – of whether or not Rafa can regain the form that made him so accomplished on grass from 2006 through 2011. Would I be surprised to see Rafa, champion that he is, find answers to his problems and make adjustments to his changed situation? Not at all. However, it could be that Nadal’s ability (more precisely, the ability of his knees) to hold up from a physical standpoint on grass and cement in best-of-five-set matches has been severely hampered. The upcoming U.S. and Australian Opens, combined with Wimbledon 2014, will provide more insights, but for now, the unsettling shockwave caused by “Darcis d. Nadal” is that it’s no longer foolish or unfair to think that Rafa won’t regain major-tournament dominance on non-clay surfaces. Such a thought might not be accurate as a point of analysis, but it is now reasonable and within the parameters of legitimate discussion. Such was not the case 13 months ago.
Federer and Nadal fans know what this means for the legacies of their respective favorites. If Nadal loses a measure of his staying power on grass and concrete surfaces, any remaining major-tournament encounter between the two men will be seen in an adjusted light. Federer might find openings in future major tournaments that – before this Nadal loss – seemed improbable. Conversely, Nadal – if physically diminished – could beat Federer under circumstances that would make the current head-to-head record even more impressive than it already is.
It’s fascinating to contemplate, isn’t it? Federer’s tame loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Roland Garros reminded Federer fans that the clock is ticking on Roger’s body and his career. How unexpected it is, then, that just 20 days after Roger’s exit from Paris, Nadal should run up against an unwelcome revelation of how soon he could potentially face a career-limiting reality of his own.
Again, none of this is known for either player, and none of what’s being said is being cast as a likelihood or certainty. The questions surrounding these two careers, though, are more relevant than ever before. The possibilities attached to these two careers – the directions they could take – are now more numerous and scattered than ever before. The intrigue enveloping Federer and Nadal as they both take steps into tennis twilight (albeit a twilight that could very well be delayed for a great many years…) is more real and genuine than ever before.
Final verdicts can, will, should, and must wait when Federer’s and Nadal’s careers are assessed in full. What’s scary for each fan base – Nadal’s in particular on this day of unexpected defeat – is that one can more easily imagine what a final verdict would ultimately look like. It is fun to contemplate how these two legendary champions will defy critics and hold the odds at arm’s length in the coming months and years, but that fun is tempered by the realization that these careers now seem tenuous at levels not previously felt.
The Fighter And The Opportunist
One day, I will sit in front of my computer and write a definitive appreciation of the career of Roger Federer. I will do the same for Rafael Nadal. On the day when each man announces his retirement – a day one hopes will be as distant as one can realistically imagine – I will pay tribute to two men who dramatically elevated my interest in and appreciation for everything that tennis is and can be. Praising Federer and Nadal in full is not something to be done now.
Offering you a sneak peek into my thought process? That’s something I can do in the present moment.
When I ultimately pay tribute to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – these two men and competitors whose careers are so deeply intertwined – I will write about Nadal’s ability to subdue Federer by fighting up to and beyond the normal limits of an elite professional athlete. I will write about Nadal’s ability to absorb and then thwart Federer’s best tennis with his inexhaustible defense, born of his uncommon resolve and competitive drive.
I will then say that whereas Nadal’s superabundant gifts emerged most centrally as a competitor, his effort did not occur in a vacuum, a context-free environment in which his body didn’t pay a price.
Sure, it is true that in isolation, Nadal – like Novak Djokovic – has at times displayed physical discomfort with a body part that, in the course of half an hour on court or perhaps the 48 hours until the next match, ceased to act up. This happens with players and their bodies. A moment of deep fear and uncertainty leads to a hesitant performance and negative body language, only for the mind to clear up minutes later as the mental adjustment is made and the mind-body dualism is regained. What seems like gamesmanship is really just insecurity felt by a flesh-and-blood being no different from you or me.
It is understandable that Nadal’s and Djokovic’s physical struggles are viewed with great suspicion by Federer fans. However, suspicion loses its legitimacy and reasonableness when confronted by the reality of Nadal’s extended absence from the tour in 2012 and at the 2013 Australian Open. There’s certainly no mirage or facade there.
The intertwined nature of the Nadal-Federer rivalry – and the legacies of the two players enmeshed in that rivalry – is built on and captured by this yin-yang tandem of realities: The extent to which Nadal has successfully fought and conquered Federer is accompanied by the price of those very same efforts. Phrased differently, the extent to which Nadal has served as the uncommonly resourceful foil for Federer is accompanied by the reality that whenever Rafa asked too much of his body, Federer was so consistently able to take advantage of Nadal’s absence. As a fighter (Rafa) and as an opportunist (Roger), these two men have grabbed such a disproportionately large share of the prizes tennis has had to offer over the past nine years, with Djokovic finally joining the party in 2011 and mounting a hefty (and still growing) legacy of his own.
Rafa’s uncommon greatness and his evident limitations are bound together in the following statement: No normal competitor plays 9 hours and 37 minutes of championship-stage hardcourt tennis – as Nadal did in Melbourne in the semifinals and finals of the 2009 Australian Open – without getting a stern message from his body at some point in the near future. What Nadal achieved in the first month of 2009 caught up with him in subsequent months. His efforts in Australia seemed superhuman, but Rafa’s body eventually did collect the payment it asked for in 2009.
Nadal made five straight major finals from Roland Garros 2011 through RG of 2012, pushing his body to ridiculous limits in grueling deathmatches against Djokovic on hardcourt surfaces in both Melbourne (2012 Australian) and New York (2011 U.S. Open). Come the summer of 2012 on the lawns of London, Nadal’s body once again demanded that its owner pay up, only this time with a much larger check: a check worth seven months’ rent. On one day here or one day there, Nadal’s knee issues didn’t really seem to be “issues” at all, but in the long run, the Mallorcan has certainly paid a high price for his physical and high-strain style of play.
It’s easy for a Federer fan to lament Roger’s head-to-head losses to Rafa, especially at the majors, and conclude that Fed lost primarily because of what he himself was unable to do. Yet, the very reality of Nadal’s present-day physical frailty makes his wins over Federer – in retrospect – look that much more impressive. Let’s be even more precise about the matter: Seeing Nadal so wholly vulnerable in the face of a low-ranked player in the first week of Wimbledon makes his wins over Federer that much easier to appreciate as the results of the Spaniard’s own competitive virtues and not his Swiss rival’s competitive failures. Head-to-head Nadal-Federer matchups should be seen as the results of the winner’s shining attributes, not the loser’s perceived inadequacies.
What’s the counterbalance to the highest level of praise for Nadal as the possessor of a superabundant competitive will? Federer’s superabundance – so different from that of his great rival – shone through (and still shines, in the present tense) as a performer, a man who didn’t just have a clutch shot for every occasion, but who possessed a level of variety and artistry that enabled him to function on every surface and handle every transitional period the sport’s calendar year had to offer. When the scene shifts from hardcourt to clay or clay to grass, Federer is (and has been) more ready to face whatever comes his way. It is this diversity and completeness which has enabled Federer to collect seven grass majors (at Wimbledon) and nine hardcourt majors, all while making five Roland Garros finals and at least five major finals at each of the four major tournaments (eight at Wimbledon, six at the U.S. Open, five apiece in Paris and Melbourne).
When one talks about legacies, there are – and will be – equally valid reasons to elevate one player over the other in this eternal Nadal-Federer comparison. I’m a fan of Federer, but I’m a deep admirer of Nadal, and so – in the spirit of mediating a predictable argument – I can sit here and tell you how said argument would unfold (because I’ve seen it so many times on Twitter and at Tennis.com).
Tell me if I miss anything here:
Nadal fans will tout the head-to-head. Federer fans will cite the bulk of clay-court meetings. Nadal fans will respond by noting Nadal’s hardcourt wins in the latter years of this matchup. Federer fans will counter with the indoor hardcourt record. Nadal fans will counter by saying that Nadal beat Federer plenty of times before entering his true prime in 2008. Federer fans will counter by saying that Nadal didn’t play Federer enough on hardcourts or grass in his pre-prime years because he was unable to make Australian or U.S. Open finals during that period of time.
Again, am I missing anything?
Back to the argument that I can replicate with ease: Nadal fans will note that Federer hasn’t beaten Rafa at a major since the 2007 Wimbledon final. Federer fans will note that the grass and hardcourt head-to-heads at majors are both statistically close and small sample sizes at the same time. Nadal fans will say that Rafa beat Federer in his prime in the 2009 Australian Open final. Federer fans will say that Federer has accumulated losses to Rafa on non-clay surfaces in his post-prime years, especially the 2012 Australian Open semifinals. Nadal fans will say that Federer was still favored by most pundits to win that 2012 Aussie semifinal. Federer fans will say that Roger is doing things in his 30s that Nadal is unlikely to do. Nadal fans will say that no one has maximized his career by the age of 27 the way Rafa has, and that an eighth Roland Garros title marks an achievement that Federer has yet to achieve at Wimbledon. Federer fans will note that Roger’s quarterfinal and semifinal streaks at the majors put him far beyond Nadal’s reach in terms of legacy. Nadal fans will point out that Rafa has won at least one major in nine straight years, eclipsing Federer’s mark and showing that the Spaniard owns plenty of longevity-based records, thank you very much.
One could go on and on.
What becomes apparent in this exercise is that Federer and Nadal – while linked in their ability to forge fantastic feats and accumulate awesome accomplishments – have arrived at their achievements in such different ways. Nadal would relentlessly fight his way to victory but require time off from the tour every now and then in order for his body to fully recover. Federer – more of a precision artist than a heavyweight boxer – has lost most of his knock-down, drag-out fights against Nadal but has tailored both his game and career to pluck the fruits of extended longevity and health. Both players have secured so many riches in tennis. Both have, in their own ways, paid a considerable price to do so.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will continue to write their legacies, to shape them as living organisms until they finally decide they’ve had enough. These legacies must leave room for plot twists and happy surprises, because Roger and Rafa have spent their careers creating magic precisely when so many critics thought they had no more tricks up their sleeves.
Did Nadal’s loss to Steve Darcis create a moment of finality in this rivalry and, by extension, this dazzling and expansive chapter of the story of tennis? No, it did not. Finality is not and never has been the word that is appropriate for the dynamics this event has unleashed. This is a new chapter in the story of tennis and especially the story of Nadal, but it’s merely a gateway to the next few years and what they might offer.
However, Nadal’s first-round loss at Wimbledon should force tennis fans to realize that the horizons of these two careers – as separate and shared testaments to different forms of similarly towering greatness – might not stretch as far as first thought. At Roland Garros, Roger Federer ran into the reality of age. At Wimbledon, Rafael Nadal ran into the reality of his body and its inability to make the kind of adjustment that came so much more naturally at the All-England Club in 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. This is not the end of the Golden Era of men’s tennis, but to paraphrase Sarah Palin, “I can see the 2016 ATP Tour from my house.”
The view isn’t pretty, and don’t think that Rafael Nadal’s knees are peripheral or irrelevant when you look at such a picture.
There’s always a price – for Federer, for Nadal, and for any athlete who enters the firing line of elite-level athletic competition. Legendary athletes make their craft look easy… but only because they put in the hard yards in the first place. Rafael Nadal’s lack of a deep fuel tank against Steve Darcis on day one of Wimbledon showed that there was – and is, and will be – a limit to what he can do. Paradoxically, Nadal’s limits remind us of the many times in which he has transcended them.
As Roger Federer knows, though, Rafa can’t transcend limits forever. That’s not how the human body was designed.
It’s a strange and novel experience as a Federer fan to watch him lose in the semifinal of a grand slam and feel a sense of pride mixed with disappointment.
We could talk about the match and how well Andy Murray played through out the 5 sets. We could discuss how Murray was aggressive, calm and unphased, how he served big and served at a high percentage, giving Federer few opportunities to pound on his typically wimpy 2nd serve. We could talk about this “new” Murray, having emerged when he took the gold medal at the London Olympics, encased in an impenetrable balm of self-assurance.
We could talk about all those things and more. But let’s face it – none of you pass by my little slice of cyberspace to read about Andy Murray, so let’s just get to the pride and disappointment part, shall we?
2012 post US Open happened in a blur. Full time work, training, admissions and life in general caught up with me and through it all, I lost the apetite for tennis. But there’s nothing like an Aussie heatwave to bring back happy memories of getting sunburnt on a tennis court.
And just in the first week of tennis for 2013, Toothface monotoned his way into the hearts of Brisbanites after defending his title there; Serena showed why it’s just too easy when you are the Queen S of the WTA; Vika suddenly found it quite convenient to be a woman; Ashley Barty, who I saw for the first time last week, proved to be a totally different player to the stereotypical young hype that I imagined (she could, however, do with a post-pubescent growth spurt). Monica Puig popped onto my radar for the first time in her 3 set loss to Angelic Carebear to remind me why I should (as always) watch more women’s tennis. And instead of actual match analysis, Channel 7 told me for the 573926th time that Grigor Dimitrov “modelled his game on Federer’s” for an entire week.
The real hype of the week Down Under though, was Bernard Tomic, who has managed to make the good people of Oz pee-pee themselves with excitement by winning an inconsequential match against B-grade Djokovic. But even the most inconsequential wins go some way towards redemption, especially when backed by a week of solid tennis in a nation starved for a modicum of talent.
Aaaand then … there is the anti-hype. Surely Sam Stosur is on some sort of quest to break the record for most number of consecutive matches lost on Australian soil? Watching Stosur’s 3 set loss Zheng Jie today, I am forced to come to one of those cliché conclusion that “God is fair”. He gave Stosur the power and weaponry to beat any player on the WTA tour, but none of the instincts and court-savvy. Zheng Jie on the other hand …
In amidst the hype and anti-hype, there are the notable voids. Where is WOGER? Where is WAFA? As much as I refuse to be yet another person to proclaim the end of the “Fedal era” (oh honey, that ended 3 years ago), what’s clear is that the Fedal party clearly ain’t gonna be on for the early hardcourt season this year.
But don’t despair, Woger has plenty of worthy frenemies to party with Down Under. And he’s even brought out the Pink Panther for Melbourne Park!
6 days til the Aus Open!
Hello lovelies! Apologies for my long absence. Life keeps getting in the way of my cyber-existence, and I’ve been going through some massive (but positive) changes in my life that has required me to be fully focused elsewhere.
But let’s talk Olympics, shall we?
There comes a moment when the expected happens to the expectant, and yet you are still left with a sense of disappointment that there was no miracle to stop it all from unfolding, like a Shakespearean tragedy prematurely foretold by the Chorus.
I have always said, coming into the Olympics final, that there was no way for Federer to win it. Let’s look at the factors in Murray’s favour here:
- Extra motivation after losing Wimbledon despite being up a set.
- Considerably less pressure: rather than being the sole hope of nationalistic glory in a grand slam, Murray at the Olympics is simply part of a bigger scheme – a ‘Team GB’ working towards a group medal tally. Since he is hardly the British poster child of the Olympics, much of the attention was directed away from him.
- A 31 year old opponent coming off a 4.5 hour match.
- A net that was decidedly British. Read More…