The Golden Era of men’s tennis: long believed, now official
Many of us felt it.
Many of us thought it.
Many of us said it.
Now, it’s very hard to deny it: This is the Golden Era of men’s tennis.
It’s still an opinion, but now the subjective statement contains the feel and flavor of an objective truth.
Novak Djokovic’s capture of his first French Open title on Sunday gave this period of the sport’s history its latest measure of massive masculine meaning.
Just exactly how can anyone argue against the Golden Era idea at this point?
In terms of entertainment value and newfound commercial respectability, perhaps 1976 through 1984 remains the most significant period in men’s tennis history. The sport — previously amateur, almost always played on lawns when outdoors, and therefore still tethered to a genteel identity in the eyes of most (the image persists for some Americans, even today) — became rough, tough, gruff and highly colorful in the late 1970s.
Borg. Jimbo. Mac. Lendl. Vitas. Splashes of originality, abrasiveness and pugnacity enabled tennis to come alive. Racquet technology began to evolve. Hardcourts busted up the grass-and-clay singularity of the major tournaments. Television began to give the sport mainstream visibility in an era before (and during the infant years of) CNN and ESPN. Tennis reached a lot of fans in that first period. People who might not have given tennis a second thought as a sport — as a fan, as an aspiring athlete, or as a sportswriter — gravitated to the game in those years.
If your motto is “the first movement is the biggest movement,” perhaps one can say — in a very narrow and specific context — that 1976-1984 is the greatest era of men’s tennis.
Otherwise, what began in the 2005 Roland Garros semifinals — when a teenage Rafael Nadal defeated top-ranked Roger Federer and began to build The Citadel known as Court Philippe Chatrier against his Swiss rival — is the finest and most luminous era men’s tennis has ever known.
Sunday’s events in Paris — on that same piece of crushed red brick — confirmed the notion.
The story of the Big Three is not a completed story.
We have seen both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal bounce back from injuries before. Yes, the older they get, the harder it will be to reclaim past glories, but if nature and luck can conspire to usher them safely through the next three years, who knows how many delightful surprises they can provide?
Legends have been known to do things most mortals can’t. It is in the nature of a legend to transcend ordinary expectations.
Yet, let’s offer — just for the sake of creating parameters — the notion that Federer and Nadal don’t win another major title. (I know no non-Serbian person wants to think about that idea, but let’s briefly introduce it.)
Even if the two pioneering figures of the Golden Era don’t deliver another large-scale thunderbolt, this is what we can already say about Roger, Rafa, and the man — Novak Djokovic — who has both joined and eclipsed them with his championship at Roland Garros:
The Big Three:
- All won at least 12 major titles. Moreover, it’s a near lock that Djokovic will make this number 14 within the next year. Just contemplate that: Three men will win at least 14 major titles apiece. Three men will match or exceed Pete Sampras’s major-title haul. Three men — when they retire — will all share the the following distinction: None of their historical predecessors, not one, will own more major titles.
- All won career Grand Slams. Three of the eight men to ever collect championships at all four majors will have existed in this era, this 12-year period which still has a few years left.
- All tied or set the Open Era record for the most championships at one of the four majors. Djokovic owns the most Australian Opens with six. Nadal claims the most French Opens with nine. Federer doesn’t own an outright record, but he shares the record for most Wimbledon (7) and U.S. Open (5) titles in the Open Era.
- All set the match-streak record at one major: Djokovic won 25 straight Australian Open matches; Nadal 39 straight French Open matches; Federer 40 straight U.S. Open matches.
- All own or share the record for the most consecutive singles titles won at each of the four majors: Djokovic (Australian); Nadal (French); Federer (tie, Wimbledon, and tie, U.S. Open).
Even if Federer and Nadal don’t win another major, the two — with Djokovic — will create more records at the majors in terms of longevity, winning percentage, annual streaks, rounds reached, and more.
None of this includes the 81 combined Masters 1000 titles — placing the Big Three in the top three.
None of this includes all the times these three have left Andy Murray — owner of 10 major finals appearances, 19 major semifinals, and 12 Masters 1000 titles — at the altar of tennis history.
None of this includes some of the titanic matches in the sport’s history — Wimbledon 2008 (Federer-Nadal), U.S. Open 2010 (Djokovic against both Federer and Nadal), U.S. Open 2011 (Djokovic against both Federer and Nadal), Roland Garros 2013 (Djokovic-Nadal), and Wimbledon 2014 (Djokovic-Federer).
This is an unofficial statistic more than an official one, but if roughly two-thirds of the planet Earth is covered by water, roughly two-thirds of the book of tennis records has been covered by the Big Three since this era began… and that book will only acquire dozens of additional records in the years ahead.
Borg and Connors and McEnroe and Lendl knew how to fight and entertain, but the best player of the lot (Borg) didn’t stick around long enough to establish his legend in the stratosphere. Lendl is an historically underrated player, but he did lose all those major finals while enduring his Wimbledon curse. McEnroe burned out, an artist whose creativity was as fragile as it was brilliant once he reached a certain point in his career. As remarkable as he in fact was, Connors won only three majors outside New York and the U.S. Open. Even though he didn’t travel to Australia for a tournament whose prestige didn’t rise to a higher level until 1988, Connors still missed out a lot on the French Open and Wimbledon.
Never before has men’s tennis featured such dominance — primarily at the majors, but also in its second tier of tournaments — among a small group at the top. Never before has this sport formed such a brick wall, keeping underdogs out of the premises with near-total regularity. If one or two members of this Big Three faltered or suffered an injury, the other was there to hold the fort.
Each player could retire as the historical leader on one surface. Rafa is “El Rey de Clay,” Federer the top brass on grass, Djokovic poised to become the Elite of Concrete if he can stack together just two more hardcourt majors in the coming years. (He currently trails Federer in hardcourt major titles, 9-8, but he’s likely to hit 10 before he’s done.)
Getting tired of all these milestones?
They do all tend to blur together, don’t they?
Yet, that’s precisely the point: It’s impossible to keep track.
We were dazzled by Borg and McEnroe and Lendl and Connors 35 years ago, but we weren’t bewildered by the extent to which they swallowed up the record book.
Maybe the tennis fan of 2016 lives with a mindset that’s different from the tennis fan of 1981, but if the record books define a sport’s history, this era of men’s tennis has defined the profession with a sweep and scope we’ve never seen before… and won’t soon see again.
This is the Golden Era — no, it’s not a fact, but if ever an opinion felt like a fact, it does today, after Novak Djokovic completed one of this group’s final (and few) historical loopholes.
Nole, all day: Djokovic pushes his way into tennis immortality
Look at that cover photo. Look at that smile from Serbia’s greatest athlete. They are both worth more than 10,000 words.
Novak Djokovic, Coupe des Mousquetaires firmly and finally in his own mitts, could finally melt into satisfied relaxation. The one nicknamed Nole could — at long last — savor the blissful relief of completing his long climb of the French Open alps.
That long alpine climb was thwarted near the summit a year ago on the first Sunday of June. Interestingly enough, the alpine journey was stopped by a Swiss man. (Four years earlier, a different Swiss man stood in Djokovic’s way in Paris.)
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.
Australian Open 2014: When Will The Hate End?
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.
Aus Open 2014: Fail better.
It’s a somewhat awkwardly phrased, yet oddly poignant line from Irish poet Samuel Beckett:
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
When I first saw the tattoo on the inside of the Stanimal’s forearm, I found it corny. Melanie-Oudin-BELIEVE levels of corny.
I don’t know … Real belief, true grit, these aren’t things you need to wear on your foot or etch into your flesh. You either have it or you don’t.
But as the week progressed and I gradually forgot about my cynicism, this line came back to me, again and again. It had me puzzled. It had me thinking:
Isn’t tennis all about winning? Certainly, there is nothing in this sport or in any other that regards failure as something to be repeated. How exactly does one “fail better”? And why is this a sentiment worthy of being articulated, appreciated and inscribed onto human flesh? Read More…
Australian Open 2014: Frazzle Post
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.
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…
The Weight Of Nations, The Weight Of Notions
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…
There’s Always A Price
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.
Why Majors Matter… And Why Nadal Matters More
This distinction might not seem important to some, but it’s necessary for me to share it — not because it’s somehow right (it isn’t) or superior (no…) or enlightened (not at all), but simply because it frames my perspective and experience: I am a sports fan who loves tennis, not a tennis fan who might occasionally give a passing glance at another sport. I try to love and appreciate tennis for what it is, but I also love tennis because it offers so many of the best and richest moments that can be found as a sports fan.
Tennis, to use the familiar but apt phrase, is “boxing without the blood.” It is combat without concussions, ferocity without broken bones (or a competitive context that might encourage the smashing of another human body). Tennis is a supreme test of problem solving within the tumult of competition. It possesses golf’s feature of performing from a stationary position (in the act of serving), but it also requires shotmaking while on the move (every shot other than the serve). Tennis owns baseball’s quality in which a central performer (a pitcher) must initiate action, but it is also akin to baseball in that it requires a reactive dimension (the hitter trying to read the pitch and hit it back in the direction it came from). Tennis requires its practitioners to cultivate the basketball skill of moving quickly within a confined playing surface and making judgments within a short period of time. Tennis calls forth so many physical resources from the human person, yet within a context of nonviolent competition. The ability to resemble boxing yet draw no blood makes tennis one of the more complete and satisfying sports around. Appreciating other sports enhances what I see in (and enjoy about) tennis instead of detracting from it.
Tennis, like any other sport, calls forth greatness in so many ways from all sorts of personalities. Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl were great champions. So, too, were John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were studies in contrasts. Margaret Court and Billie Jean King similarly took very different paths to the same lofty reaches of success. Saturday’s Roland Garros women’s finalists, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, have climbed mountaintops in the sport. Justine Henin and Victoria Azarenka have done so as well. You don’t have to possess one kind of mindset to reach the zenith of your tennis life, but any great champion has to find the combination of hunger and concentration that can withstand both the opponent without and the even more dangerous opponent within. There is a simple, distilled purity about competitive tennis that strips bare the participants and – by virtue of being untethered to any individuals other than the one standing on the other side of the net – creates the most satisfying resolutions to its seasonal dramas. Any tennis fan knows this.
What the 2013 Roland Garros tournament has affirmed for me, as a sports fan who loves tennis, is that the best-of-five-set format, coupled with the lack of a tiebreaker at 6-all in a fifth set, enables tennis to be all that it can be.
The very same format also enables Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to be all that they can be. (Since this is a Roger Federer tennis blog as well as a general tennis blog, one can quietly add that it enabled Federer to be all that he could be as well.)
Sport in general becomes transformed — imbued with meaning, urgency and sweet, aching poignancy — precisely when something of great consequence is at stake. Championship events are so enjoyable to watch because they unmask pretenders. They expose the hopefuls who have little more than hope itself, a Roman appetite for victory but not the Spartan will needed to achieve it. Championship events — events that MATTER — call forth that combination of clarity and conviction, talent and hustle, passion and poise, which enables one athlete or team to rise above another, to forge a reptuation that is talked about and celebrated for weeks, months, years, lifetimes. This is the magic of sport as a generational unifier and a constant source of pleasure (and the pain attached to it) in a life that can be so dreary when other fields of endeavor are involved (politics, institutionalized religion, war, corporate scheming, etc.).
This notion of consequence in a sporting event — a competition which confers value, prestige, and stature upon its winner — is the reason why I watch. It might not be your reason, and it might not be the objectively correct reason, but it’s mine.
Consequence is, in short, the lifeblood of sports. It is the simplest way to explain why (again, this is personal opinion and not objective fact…) major-tournament tennis matters more than non-major-tournament tennis, even if the Masters 1000 events are organized and operated better than the Grand Slam quartet.
I can’t speak to the experience of a European or Australian (because I’m not a member of either group), but in the United States, team sports own a linear quality in which the months of a season march toward the playoffs and culminate in a final outcome decided by a championship playoff series (or a single game known as the Super Bowl). Most competition is dedicated to the purpose of making the playoffs, but the prized events are the playoff games themselves, the set-apart showdowns when reputations are changed and affirmed, when the publicly-acknowledged stakes make the winner’s survival of pressure that much more impressive, the loser’s shortcomings that much more acute. This might be an American view and not the view of one from another continent, but such is the tortured and stomach-churning glory of sport, the knowledge that a conquest was forged in the face of the knowledge that disaster was the ever-present and all-too-possible alternative. If the pain and (here’s that word again…) CONSEQUENCE of a loss were not that great to begin with, the spoils of victory must not amount to much.
Dear readers, as I cut to the chase, this is why best-of-five-set tennis is a true test of champions, a true revealer of the full measure of sporting excellence. This is why tennis, which is not really a team sport, needs these four major tournaments each year as the set-aside markers of elite performance and supreme achievement. This is why a 6-all tiebreaker in the final set (except for the U.S. Open; thank goodness U.S. Open finals haven’t needed fifth-set tiebreaks over the years…) is such an unworthy way to end a major-tournament match. The 2006 World Cup Final between Italy and France was decided by a roll of the dice, and the same thing applied to the 2012 European Championship semifinal between Spain and Portugal. The consequence of the moment was not matched by the random nature of the resolution to the competition itself.
In tennis, thank God, it’s different.
In tennis, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic fought so hard in the fifth set of Friday’s memorable semifinal precisely because they both knew that they had to score a clean victory — by two games, not seven points by two. It’s no idle coincidence that Nadal and Djokovic have now forged two five-set epics at majors (epic in their contentiousness and drama, not as much for the raw quality of play) precisely because both men knew that they would have to suffer in order to reach the finish line. It’s no idle coincidence that Nadal has now won two late-stage major-tournament matches with a 9-7 fifth-set scoreline; playing to his limits is what Toni Nadal (however much Federer fans might indeed hate him) has impressed upon the Mallorcan from the very start.
Djokovic, one of the most marvelous competitors tennis has ever seen, has asked more questions than anyone else who has ever played Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, a reality affirmed on Friday in Paris. (Robin Soderling didn’t ask MORE questions than Djokovic; he kept his interview of Nadal fairly short in 2009.) We would not have seen such a lengthy and dramatic interrogation if the stakes hadn’t been so high. We wouldn’t have seen Nadal patiently answer Djokovic’s questions if the Spaniard’s clay-court legacy didn’t matter all that much. We were able to see — in a way we hadn’t quite seen before on clay (in other venues, yes, but not on Court Philippe Chatrier) — the extent to which Djokovic and Nadal are the two most unkillable players in men’s tennis at the present moment. We were then able to see — at 4-all in the fifth set — the extent to which Nadal can protect his fortress, his citadel, his refuge at Roland Garros, the 58-and-1 castle that will likely become 59-and-1 on Sunday against first-time major finalist David Ferrer.
Even before the fifth set played out on Friday, it’s worth noting that Djokovic plainly faltered in sets one and three. Why was he so out of sorts? One can raise all sorts of reasons with varying levels of legitimacy. Your mileage may vary, of course, but the one unshakable constant is that at Roland Garros, one must win three sets from Nadal, not the two found in a Masters 1000 event, in order to walk off the court a winner. You can argue at the margins and pick at the periphery of today’s match, but in the end, the awareness of needing to win three sets against Nadal impressed upon Djokovic’s mind the daunting nature of the task at hand. The Serbian star, as valiantly as he indeed fought on Friday, still couldn’t close the sale, even with his two-handed backhand and all the matchup advantages he reaffirmed in his win in Monte Carlo this past April.
Djokovic can have Monte Carlo, just has he had Madrid and Rome in 2011.
Nadal, though, will still take Paris. Nole still hasn’t been able to wrest the City of Light from the Mallorcan’s hands.
Each of the past three years, a very different clay-court season has transpired, forming a distinct subtext to Roland Garros. In 2011, Djokovic entered Paris as an untouchable man, having knocked Nadal off the clay-court pedestal.
He couldn’t take Paris.
In 2012, Nadal won in Monte Carlo and Rome while Djokovic plainly struggled.
Nole couldn’t take Paris.
In 2013, Djokovic won a head-to-head matchup yet again, and even though Nadal won in Madrid and Rome, Serbia’s finest tennis player — in a way that was not quite as prominent in 2011 — made it plain that Roland Garros was his focus, his goal, his prize to win.
Djokovic still couldn’t take Paris.
Three years have given us three intrigue-rich buildups to Roland Garros, three crescendos to the clay-court season filled with whispers that “this might be the time Nadal finally goes down in Paris.” Plenty of people in the tennis community gave Djokovic a strong chance in each of these years.
Three times, Nadal has protected The Citadel, the enduring bastion of his greatness, the surface on which his tennis achievements rest.
If today’s semifinal had been a best-of-three-set match, if the tournament had been something less than the one clay-court major championship on Planet Earth, we wouldn’t have seen what we saw. We wouldn’t have been moved to the extent that we were (well, some of us, anyway; I know that many Fed fans were bored with it all — hey, mileage may vary). We wouldn’t have seen two men stripped naked, forced to perform in the face of physical limits and withering pressure.
Masters 1000 tournaments — God bless them — are necessary and significant revealers of skill and quality within the realm of tennis. What you saw on Friday in Paris, though, was the ultimate test of a champion, the kind of showcase that leaves an enduring imprint on mind, heart and soul. Masters tournaments create warm memories; what you saw on Friday steps into the pages of time as a reminder of what is possible when human beings play sports.
It is to Rafael Nadal’s unending credit that once again, he has prevailed on one of tennis’s biggest stages. Nadal has answered every last question in one of the events that confers added immortality upon its surviving gladiator, the last man standing in the arena.
The notion of a “major” championship implies that other tournaments are “minor” by comparison. The words are appropriately used, tennis fans. Somehow, everything that is consequential about the clay-court season — everything that matters with respect to the historical legacies of two legendary tennis players — rests on what happened Friday in Paris.
April in Monte Carlo? That’s a minor detail at this point, wouldn’t you say?
Roland Garros 2013: Deriving Cachet From a Cliche
Welcome to the beginning of All I Need Is A Picket Fence’s coverage of the 2013 Roland Garros tournament in Paris.
Doots, Le Foundress of Le Fence, is living “Le Life” in the City of Light. She’s attending the tournament in person and will have all sorts of tales to tell. You’ll get pictures and on-scene observations of the experience of attending Roland Garros, Doots’s final leg as part of her now-completed “Fan Slam.” She’ll tell you all about it very soon.
(Hey, wait a minute — there was this Swiss guy who completed a Grand Slam in Paris as well, and a Russian woman who did the same thing last year. Doots is following in the footsteps of the two tennis players she primarily blogs about. Paris is a city made for blending life and art, dreams and reality. Feel the poetry, Picket Fencers. Feel the poetry.)
While we wait for Doots, let’s get our Roland Garros coverage off the ground by overviewing the first two days of competition. Many unremarkable things have happened:
On the WTA side, Nadia Petrova suffered a stomach-punch, come-from-ahead loss. Serena Williams threw down the proverbial hammer. Sorana Cirstea and Ana Ivanovic took their fans through an all-too-typical emotional rollercoaster. Julia Goerges continued to struggle.
On the ATP side, it wasn’t quite business as usual — not to the same extent as the WTA. Lleyton Hewitt fought valiantly and lost in five sets. Gilles Simon played a long, drawn-out, and exasperating match (against Hewitt). Other than those familiar occurrences, the men threw a lot of curveballs at tennis observers. American men (yes, PLURAL) actually WON first-round matches. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won without fuss or drama, and Richard Gasquet did the same. No French absurdist theater at Roland Garros — not yet.
You want to know how shocking the first two days of men’s competition have been in Paris? ROBIN HAASE won a tiebreaker! That says it all, does it not?
“NOBODY BEATS ROBIN HAASE 18 TIEBREAKERS IN A ROW!” — Vitas Gerulaitis, probably
The women’s tournament has given us some precious gems and poignant moments from two days of play: Venus Williams emptied herself on Court Suzanne Lenglen, giving everything to tennis — just as she has throughout her distinguished career — only to fall short against Urszula Radwanska, whose lobs and mixed-pace shots ultimately frustrated Venus in a 3-hour, 19-minute scrap of appreciable quality.
Virginie Razzano, who — remember — lost her fiance two years ago, earned a second-round paycheck with the possibility of a third-round prize. Razzano has suffered shattering, devastating grief… and lived to find sustenance from sport. The first days of a tennis major are special because they give the likes of Virginie Razzano a day — and a payday — in the sun, validating many years of perseverance. Razzano will make almost $53,000 U.S. even if she loses her round-of-64 match. That take-home pay will cover a lot of expenses, justifying the decision to continue playing in the shadows of loss and loneliness. The greats play for championships, but many players at the majors are playing for that big infusion of prize money in the first week of the tournament… and for the love of a sport that has meant so much to their lives.
With that general recap in the books, let’s move to our featured selection from the first two days of Roland Garros 2013, a quick reflection on the difference between the elites and the pretenders in the sport.
In one corner stands Rafael Nadal, the best male clay-court tennis player of all time. In another corner stands Tomas Berdych, a player with evident major-championship talent but only one appearance in a major final and only three semifinal showings. The matches these two men played on Monday in Paris revealed so much about their careers.
With Nadal, the obvious narrative was nevertheless the narrative that genuinely applied to his first-round encounter with Daniel Brands. Nadal absorbed an opponent’s best punch for nearly two full sets and found himself down 3-0 in the second-set tiebreaker, already trailing by a set. This was not about Nadal failing to perform; Nadal was staring at the possibility of a two-set deficit because Brands adopted and executed the distinctly Rosolian approach of going for low-margin shots at every turn… and usually making them. Brands played like a man possessed, but as soon as a second-serve return missed at 3-0 and a nervous chipped approach missed at 3-2, Brands lost confidence. Nadal, tied at 4-all in the breaker, pounced on short balls in the last three points, clearly relishing not only the challenge he was given, but his ability to meet said challenge.
There is something to be said for the claim that the best competitors are the ones who really are joyful — not just free from fear, but filled with song — in the face of tense and decisive hinge-point moments. Mindsets make the men and women who surmount obstacles and grow bigger when the stakes become higher. Nadal didn’t play all that well for much of this day, but when the moment mattered the most, he became the big dog in the arena. Brands hit so many big-league shots, but he couldn’t call forth the thunder when he really needed it, when he could have gained a two-set lead and — later — when he was on the verge of breaking back to even the third set at 4-all. This is how great players survive upset bids, and it’s how people with Daniel Brands’s level of ballstriking ability wake up at age 25 and realize how much money they’ve left on the table in their professional careers.
With Berdych, the Nadalian dynamic was inverted — as it so often has been for the Czech in his career — on Monday against Gael Monfils.
You will recall that in the 2012 Australian Open, Berdych was on the verge of taking a two-set lead over Nadal in the quarterfinals, but couldn’t close the sale. Berdych has suffered that kind of loss so many times in his ATP existence. In this match against Monfils, Berdych faced a talented opponent who was performing well and playing in his home country. Berdych received a brutal draw at this tournament and had to play what amounted to a “road match” in round one. Losing here — given the way Monfils played on Monday — was not a great sin in itself. What will linger for Berdych is that, in a clean inversion of the Nadal pattern, Berdych played well until those moments when he really needed to elevate his game.
Through 4-all in the first-set tiebreaker, Berdych had competed really well. Monfils came out of the blocks with force and fury, lashing his crosscourt forehand and generating substantial depth on his groundstrokes. Monfils’s past year on the ATP Tour has been ravaged by injuries, uncertainty, and an inability to make a major mark on men’s tennis, but the Monfils who shoved around Berdych for much of the first set is the player who made the 2008 Roland Garros semifinals and has displayed the kind of ability commensurate with a top-10 player. Berdych stood up to Monfils and had given nothing away when 4-all arrived in the first-set breaker.
Then, however, Berdych wilted. An inside-out crosscourt forehand — poorly chosen and poorly executed — gave Monfils a crucial piece of leverage. Two more errors a few moments later handed Monfils the first set. Berdych erased a two-set deficit and very nearly pulled out the match in the fifth, but that first-set failure made Berdych’s mountain that much tougher to scale. Whereas the Nadals of the world struggle for much of the day but then succeed in defining situations, the reality of tennis life takes a 180-degree turn for the Berdyches of the sport.
That’s all for now. Stay tuned for Doots’s dispatches and more Fencing as the tournament of the terre battue rolls along in Paris.
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