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.
The psychology of sports forms the basis for a brief commentary on the evolving Roland Garros tournament, currently lodged between the second and third rounds at the end of Wednesday’s play in Paris. The events of the past two days have enabled tennis observers to appreciate the inner game of the sport, the test between the ears that gives rise to such engrossing drama even when the raw level of play leaves something to be desired.
Plenty of coaches and sports psychologists have drawn from Timothy Gallwey’s seminal 1974 book, The Inner Game of Tennis, to impart to athletes the importance of acquiring the right frame of mind. It is obvious that the mind matters so much in tennis, a solo-flyer sport that demands the ability to handle a lot of loneliness. At the majors, the women don’t receive coaching during changeovers; every match at a major – for the men and the women – is a true test of the individual’s ability to solve problems on the fly.
Yet, for all the ways in which the primacy of mental toughness is so evident at a major, there’s one specific way in which the mind can get overlooked.
Yes, it’s important to be able to fight back when trailing, to persevere when things aren’t going your way. Yes, it’s important to be able to hit a clutch serve when facing a break-and-set point at 30-40, 4-5, in the third set of a match that is tied at one set apiece. Yes, it is important to deliver the goods at 5-all in a tiebreaker or at deuce in the 12th game of a set. However, those situations – as important as they are – don’t quite fit into the one situation that trips up so many players: Arriving at a midpoint in a set or tiebreaker when everything is going right and a once-unlikely victory becomes possible.
If you study a major tennis tournament closely enough, you’ll quickly realize how often this specific problem ambushes so many talented tennis professionals. Ernests Gulbis led Gael Monfils 3-2 in the second set in Wednesday’s featured second-round match at Court Philippe Chatrier. Gulbis busted out his best and most untouchable heaven-kissed tennis to break for a 3-2 lead, having already taken the first set in a tiebreaker. The flow of the match was headed in Gulbis’s direction.
Gulbis promptly lost serve for 3-all, and then donated a bunch of errors when serving at 4-5 to hand Monfils the second set, 6-4. The third set was glorious, but when Monfils got a lucky get-out-of-jail net cord to survive a break point at 5-all, he rode that bit of fortune to a tiebreaker win and a four-set triumph a short time later.
Understand this about Gulbis: He loses so many matches not merely in exasperating fashion, but after taking the first set. Gulbis can oh-so-easily find an exalted level of tennis, but his career has been such a study in underachievement precisely because Gulbis can’t stay on the mountain very long. It is a mental skill, not just a physical one, to remain locked in — no, not to the point where you hit ridiculous winners again and again, but to the point that consistency becomes built into performance so that the muscle memory becomes reliable.
Gulbis is perhaps the most prominent example on the ATP side of a gifted tennis player who allows himself to think about how well he’s doing… which opens the gateway for doubt to creep in as soon as a bad shot flies off the racquet. Svetlana Kuznetsova is the prime example of this dynamic on the WTA Tour. When a player should be relishing the ability to play well, the Gulbises and Kuznetsovas worry when it’s all going to fall apart — not consciously, but subconsciously, and certainly enough to hijack peak performance.
Another example of this counterintuitive dynamic — playing well until leading, when the prospect of victory becomes too much to bear — was in evidence in Wednesday’s second-round match between Roger Federer’s next Roland Garros opponent, Julien Benneteau, and Tobias Kamke. Benneteau, who – remember – has not won an ATP singles title in his career, led by two sets against an inferior opponent. The thought of winning (not losing) paralyzed the Frenchman, who proceeded to drop 10 straight games and fall behind 2-0 in the fifth. The fear of success, not the fear of failure, is the overlooked dimension of frailty in professional tennis, and Benneteau succumbed to it.
Fortunately for him, so did Kamke.
The German had little reason to believe for most of the match that victory was likely his. After his third-set escape, he had a right to expect a fifth set, but it was only at 2-0 in the fifth that the finish line appeared.
Naturally, that’s when Kamke disappeared.
It’s not as though the end of this match was dramatic. Benneteau held at love when serving for the match at 5-4. The end came not with a bang, but a whimper. It was at 2-0 in the fifth when Kamke lost hold of the proceedings. He lost this match in the early and middle stages of a set, not its endpoint. Gulbis, when blowing the 3-2 break lead in the second set – following one of his best stretches of performance in the match – gave Monfils the opening the Frenchman needed.
Head games are such a central part of tennis. “Ahead games” — at 3-2 or 2-0 in a set — show why those head games matter so much. Life seems too good to be true for a great number of tennis players only because they fear success too much.
If you follow a gripping major-tournament tennis match on Twitter, thereby seeing the online equivalent of a sports bar react to the same event you’re viewing on television, you are quite aware of the diversity of opinion which exists in the community of tennis fans. You’ve tasted this twice in a particularly potent way over the past 30 hours.
Many (though hardly all) fans of an elite tennis player alternately curse their own hero and rain invective upon the opponent who is making life so miserable for said hero. The fans of that elite player’s foremost rivals express the same sentiments toward the underdog who is trying to take down said elite player. Fans of players other than the elites? This group is blessed — FOOP (fans of other players, a term coined by Hannah Wilks, aka, the terrific @newballsplease on Twitter) are the ones who sit back, popcorn in hand, and usually emerge as the most amused or objective souls (or both) in the room.
You get to see the full spectrum of human emotions when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal try to successfully dance with death in the first week of a major. Quite a lot of women (enough to notice, anyway) want to have babies one moment, then bring death to tennis players the next. Quite a lot of men (enough to notice, anyway) profane themselves something fierce, and have the words “choke,” “disinterested,” and “declining” at the ready. These sentiments come from deeply emotional places, yes, but they are also rooted in a passion for the sport. Tennis fans get up or stay up at all sorts of unholy hours, disrupting their lives for the eight weeks in a year when major-tournament championships are contested. There is a knowledge, real and enduring, which often accompanies the most rabid devotions of a tennis lover, so it’s very much worth exploring the tensions that exist among various constituencies when a match like Roger Federer’s third-rounder against Julien Benneteau unfolds at Centre Court Wimbledon. Read More…
FINALS SUNDAY LINE-UP
Youzhny vs. Djokovic
The Headclobber is not the kind of player I’d expect to do well in a final. But then again, this is Dubai, a tournament he’s typically played well in.
His opponent is in a bit of unchartered waters himself, as Nole is oh-so-close to defending a title for the first time in his career. If his last 3 matches were anything to go by, he really, really, really wants to screw it up.
Ferrero vs. Ferrer
Wanting Ferrero to win. Picking Ferrer. Simply because logically, it just doesn’t make sense for JCF to be on such a Nadalesque run without losing a match.
Venus vs. Hercog
Err. Whut? Venus is on track to defend her second title in a row. This hasn’t been a bad start to her year by any stretch of the imagination.
Dementieva v Kleybanova
For every pound that Alisa Kleybanova loses, she takes one step closer to the top echelon of the game. I’m not having a go at her weight, I’m having a go at her physical conditioning. She’ll never be the fastest or the smoothest mover out there, but she can do something about the most exploitable weakness in her game.
That aside, I actually kinda love Kleybs. Her ball-bashing ways are strangely cathartic.
Meanwhile, Elena Dementieva has had 3 weeks off since Jan 1st. That’s taking into account that she crashed out of the Australian Open early.
Can someone knock some sense into that girl?
How can you be expected to “peak” at the slams when you play day in day out, often at the most mundane of tournaments. It’s no surprise she hasn’t managed to win a slam.
Usually I’m first to say “FUCK YOU ROGER FEDERER! Get out of Shankville”. But you know what? I can’t even say that. When Federer loses, people – even Federer fans (or especially Federer fans) – jump to the conclusion that he lost playing like shit.
But Benneteau actually won this one, and he won it with some pretty inspired tennis: at one point, dude had made 25 first serves in a row. Every half chance that Federer had was erased with zinging winners.
So I’m sitting here, left wondering: what else could Roger have done? My point is, Federer fans, stop overreacting. Save that for London.
The irony of it all was that Federer actually didn’t play badly: 15 aces, 0 doubles, 73% first serves, 41 winner to 23 UFEs over 3 sets.
The bigger irony is that Rafa actually played like crap and managed to survive because his whipping boy just couldn’t win one more point when he had to.
Where does that leave us for Year End No 1? 1300 points separate the two (taking off the Year End points). Rafa’s potentially in contention for 2000 points, Federer for 1000 now that he’s out of Paris.
Sorry Rafa, I’m going to have to root against you for a while.
Now let us commiserate, let us rage.
FUCK YOU TENNIS GODS.
Under Sam Stosur’s cool shades, there’s a slightly shy girl with a sweet smile. Love it.
For Sam, Osaka presented a chance for her to not only qualify for Bali, but cap off what’s been a breakthrough comeback for her in 2009 with her first singles title. But coming into the final with a title win/loss record of 0-5, I wondered if the pressure would get to her.
Of course, it helped that she was facing an opponent whose own title win/loss record was 1-9.
But despite a double fault on her first championship point, Sam pulled it off. Perhaps getting the title monkey off her back is the first step to a more productive singles career for my compatriot.
Let’s hope so, because it couldn’t happen to a nicer person.
Over in Shanghai, it was all dimples and man-love between Jo-Wills and Julien Benneteau, who defeated Fyrstenberg and Matkowski 62 64 for the doubles title, and got themselves some blades of glory.
More blades of glory in store for Davydenko, who took out Nadal 76 63 for his first Masters 1000 title this year.
What can I say? For the second time in the last two days – just too good. Davo took each balls ridiculously early in his trademark fashion and rushed Rafa around like a rabbit with acute angles.
Rafa had a chance to wrestle the first set, after Davo wasted 2 opportunities to go up an insurance break with some easy forehand errors, and then promptly conceded his next service game to Nadal. But not typically known for his tiebreak records, Davo found his mojo again, just in time to close out the set 73 in the tiebreak.
From then on, it was free-flowing, cruise-control tennis. When Davo’s on, it’s thrilling to watch, and damn hard to beat. Unless of course, you happen to be some potato-nose from Switzerland.
And please, let’s get one thing clear: this whole “blades of glory” thing doesn’t make Davo eye-candy. My limits stop at Robin Soderling and Ivan Lendl, y’all.
Some could argue that it shouldn’t even extend that far.
Okay, so maybe a leeetle bit cute.
As for Rafa, sometimes I wonder if players ever really change. You can make improvements, add to your game, change strategies. But when you’re under attack, when you’re low in self-confidence, or in Rafa’s case, coming back from several injuries, there is always a tendency to revert back to what you know. Ground zero.
Unfortunately for Rafa, it means that the changes he made to his hard-court game in the 12 months prior to his injury – improvements to the serve, aggressive play, and flatter groundies – have been largely missing since his return. Allowances have to be made for the fact that he hasn’t been physically 100%, but that’s no reason to receive serve from all the way back in Majorca.
9 winners to Davydenko’s 35. That says it all really. It’ll take a bit more time.
That concludes the “Asian swing” this year folks. And Lordy, it has been anything but swingin’.
Half-empty stadiums, numerous injuries, upsets plaguing both the WTA and the ATP, some rather frightening tennis cheerleaders… and all the while, the Marat Safin Heartbreak Train is still headed for that cliff edge.
But through it all, we also ended up with the triumphs of two massively under-appreciated Russians, Davo and Kuzzy.
Perhaps it’s not a complete fail afterall,
I’ve heard it works wonders against fanged creatures.
Roger looked sharper with a 6-3 6-4 over Lleyton Hewitt. Some of it was due to Hewitt’s limited mobility, and some of it was the return of Roger’s footwork. Clearly Mirka didn’t need another pair of legs around the house.
The first serve was MIA until the last few games of the match, not that it mattered, RFed didn’t face a single breakpoint all match and won 89% of points on first serve.
Roger and Lleyton first played against each other as 15 year old sons. More than a decade later, they’re still playing each other, but this time as a pair of papas.
Don’t even pretend that it doesn’t warm the cockles of your heart. If your heart had cockles that is.
Before we move on – the obligatory Puny Left Arm/Hair God Worship intermission (via Krist @ RF.com):
By contrast, much rustier from Andy Murray, who was at one point down a set and a break against Lucky Loser Julien Benneteau. But ever so fickle, Lady Luck changed her mind half way through the match and smiled on Toothface once more.
Julien faltered under the pressure of closing out the match, the 53-shot rally then drained the life essence out of him, and the Vampire got himself rolling. Final score? 4-6 6-3 6-1.
ANDY MURRAY: These are the matches that, you know, when you play badly and you don’t feel great and you’re not hitting the ball well, when you can come through matches like that’s it’s a lot better.
Everyone can win when you play really good tennis. It would have been easy to, you know, not given up, but to sort of mentally let him beat me. It’s good for the confidence. And I think the other players see that, you know, you’re fighting. You know, it was a big, big match.
Err, folks – is NOW a good time to fret?
The current Murderer H2H stands at 6-2. Given that Murray has been striking the ball much cleaner than Federer over the last two weeks (his last match notwithstanding) I’d pick Toothface for the win. But I have a feeling that both Fed and Toothface will want to preserve themselves ahead of the Open.
Regardless, expect it to be a good match – between the Establishment and the Challenger, the Hair God and the Toothface, the Real World No 1 and the “Reality-is-a-social-construct, didn’t-you-know?” World No 2…
In other matches, say 1-2-3-4!
All four of the top seeds in Cincinnati made it through to the semifinals, after the top 8 made the last 8 in Montreal just a week ago. A true testament to the consistency on the ATP World Tour these days.
Nadal, the Real World No 2, cruised past Berdych 6-4 7-5 with a second set that featured some of his best tennis since the clay season. Rafa’s major weapons – his movement, the forehand, and the slider serve out-wide – are certainly starting to click.
But dude, relax! It’s only Berdych, no?
Practicing his game face for the USO: via Daylife
With so much of the attention focused on Federer and Murray these days, should Rafa hoist the US Open trophy on Arthur Ashe in three weeks time, don’t say no one told ya he was comin’.
Oh yeah, Nole beat Simon 6-4 7-5. Umm … I got nothin’ on this one. Djokovic is making it rather easy for people to ignore him these days.
Watch your back folks, watch your back. You never know who’s going to creep up on you all of a sudden.
Boy, I’m so glad I didn’t watch the match between Ferrer and Federer live today. Just watching a recording of it made me want to stab myself in the eye with a pen.
For someone who likes to play in the wind, Fed was having so much trouble adjusting to it. The forehand was gone with the wind, the backhand stayed home to look after Myla and Charlene. He clearly didn’t get much sleep last night, and decided to take a nap in the middle of the first set.
I think at the beginning maybe my footwork was just a touch off. After that I think got it together, you know, and started to play better and better. In the end when it goes your way, all of a sudden you can actually use the wind to your advantage in a big way. That’s what I actually hoped to do the whole match today, but it’s not so easy sometimes.
It’s all your fault Myla! Barf on him Charlene! Threaten him with another set of twins Mirka! Do it for the Federer fans who have lost nails, hair and developed stomach ulcers from watching this guy play.
And in case you were wondering why we’re still sadistic enough to watch Federer if we’re slowly developing bald patches because of him: I, for one, live my life from one Fedgasm to the next. And despite his sub-par performance, Roger did deliver some Fedgasms towards the end of the third set:
Roger is due to face Lleyton Hewitt next round, who took out Roddick conqueror Sam Querrey 6-1 2-6 6-3. Real trouper, Lleyton, but you’re a Kiwi to me, for at least the next 24 hours.
Ahndee Murray had a much easier time squishing the Worm 6-4 6-1. Didn’t watch it, but with Murray’s defense and control over the ball, I expect him to feed junk balls and passing shots back at Stepanek. No problems there with the wind.
Rafa was down 0-3 briefly in the first set before rallying past Paul-Henri Mathieu 7-5 6-2. It’s been a while since I’ve seen Rafa play properly, but it was befuddling watching him slice. Has he always done that?
In other matches, Gilles Simon took out Davo 7-6(6) 6-4 6-4. Lucky Loser Julien Benneteau downed Garcia-Lopez in three sets to set up an unlucky meeting with Toothface. Djokovic took out Chardy in straight sets 7-5 6-3, and no one cares.
Lastly: someone requested the music to the Rolex Federer ads. This was sent to me anonymously a few weeks back, and the link expired, so I reupped it. Clickey.