Wow, looking back it’s been almost a FULL YEAR since the last Federporn Friday post. I guess there wasn’t much to celebrate with FPF in 2013, but when I get to take pictures of Mr Adorkable in person, you betchya I’ll try and wrangle some FPF time from dootsiez.
This year dootsiez and I braved the humid Brisbane heat and saw Wogie, up close and personal (and by up close I mean 2nd row from court biatches) in Pat Rafter Arena. With my new camera and lens in tow, I braved the bicep killing weight of my kit (dootsiez can testify how heavy it is) and made sure I brought you some of my best work so far.
I guess think of this as a pre-Australian Open celebratory FPF… a chance to celebrate… Read More…
Happy new year bitches. Long time no blog.
As some of you might be aware, I kicked off 2014 by heading to Brisbane to bask in the sweaty glow of Turderer, and the final loss aside, it was a glorious week. One that had me itching to log onto wordpress and start tapping away again. And ain’t that one of the most liberating feelings in the world.
1. Sensational sports headlines went up all over Australia today: Ashes Whitewash! Hewitt beats baffled Federer! Let’s party like it’s a new millenium!
Theoretically speaking, there is of course no shame in losing to Lleyton. Even as a tour veteran with a bionic foot, Hewitt remains a smart, strategic and persistent player, and more crucially yesterday – not one to falter on key points. In his three set victory over McFudd, Lleyton played some of the most inspired tennis we’ve seen from him in years, and his victory speech showed just how much a title in Australia meant to him at this stage in his career, a poignant moment for fans on both sides of the fence.
Great athletes collect their share of “forevers,” the moments and achievements no one can take away from them. This championship seven years ago, that comeback four years ago, this resurgence one year ago, that classic match five years ago — no one can alter certain passages of history once they’re written into the great book of life.
Yet, life goes on — past glories, as rich as they might have been at the time and as comforting as they might still be in quiet moments between competitions, give way to the present day and its new challenges. Even though thousands of obstacles have been surmounted in the past, there’s a new hurdle to be cleared today. The cheers of the crowd echo through the pages of time, but they can’t drown out the groans of lamentation that define the present-tense reality of sport for a fading champion.
This is the falsity of forever, and it’s precisely what Roger Federer is confronting as he prepares for the 2013 United States Open tennis tournament in New York. You can be a great Broadway performer for many decades, but in tennis, you get one decade of opportunity if you’re lucky. Many a Broadway play has been written about the harsh mistress known as Reality, and right now, Federer knows that his decade of tennis primacy has run its course in many ways.
It’s been something to behold, and it will forever be remembered with boundless admiration by tennis fans and chroniclers alike, but a decade of supremacy eventually loses its hold on “forever,” because time is the enemy of the athlete.
For a full decade, Federer inhabited the top 5 of the ATP rankings. For nine full years, he made the quarterfinals of majors without cessation or interruption. Those two realities alone do so much to underscore the extent to which Federer has held up under pressure over an extended period of time. For so many years, he’s been the target, the standard by which his contemporaries have measured themselves. In 2006, Rafael Nadal’s sustained dominance at Roland Garros, coupled with his emergence at Wimbledon, unmistakably showed that the Spaniard had joined Federer as a transformative figure who was going to be a measuring-stick player for everyone else on tour. Read More…
1. Some things are worth waiting 77 years for. In case you’ve been living in a ditch free from the British press, Andy Murray finally ended his slow, teasing torture of the entire nation of Great Britain, beating Novak Djokovic 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 to clinch the Wimbledon trophy.
In 2012, when Murray won the gold medal at the Olympics, I mused whether this would in fact provide the mental breakthrough he needed to win a grand slam, any grand slam. The Olympics had the unique status of being a major title but not a major. The winner is both the centre of attention and yet one of many to share that lime light. And in truth, it seemed to take a huge load off Murray’s shoulders.
Within a year, Murray has won the US Open (with a major wobble in the final) and Wimbledon (with a minor wobble in the final game), and as much as I’ve disliked him as a player, it has been somewhat gratifying to watch him take advantage of the fate and opportunity provided by the Olympics and use it to strengthen a once fragile psyche.
2. All hail Marion, who – in two weeks – had morphed from the Maid to the Matron of the French tennistical hierarchy. Those reading this blog from way back may remember that I have never been a fan of Bart. Her game is at best quirky, at worst weirdly ungraceful and blunt. Her personality carries the same bluntness as her game. Marion loves and hates with so much transparency, at times making no attempt at being diplomatic in press conferences when her opinion is asked.
In short, on a tour dominated by Big Babe tennis, Bartoli is the oddball.
But in the same way that Schiavone’s win at Roland Garros a few years ago re-energised my love for women’s tennis, Bartoli’s victory at Wimbledon was a victory for variety on the WTA tour. Look past the Serenas and Marias on tour and you’ll find an underbelly of interesting players with quirky personalities who do not get enough (or any) attention.
Perhaps the biggest take-away from this Wimbledon is the mere fact that for a week at least, the spotlight was on them for a change: Bartoli, Lisicki, Flipkens .. even the doubles champs Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai. When was the last time we saw both singles and doubles winners with double handed forehands at a grand slam?
Seems to me that the level of variety on the WTA tour could in fact be something to be celebrated, rather than bemoaned after all. Read More…
For the second straight summer at Centre Court, Andy Murray prevailed in straight sets on a sun-baked Sunday afternoon against a player worn down by Juan Martin del Potro in a marathon-length semifinal. Last year’s Olympic gold medal match against Roger Federer and today’s Wimbledon final against Novak Djokovic felt very similar — they ended in the same amount of sets, after all. However, the Olympics are a once-every-four-year tournament with a best-of-three-set format until the championship match. Wimbledon, on the other hand, is a five-set tournament, and a tournament whose shadows cover the whole of tennis history.
Wimbledon carries the weight of nations and the weight of notions. Wimbledon is where tennis began. It’s where the sport’s cathedral stands. It’s where the sport’s original surface — now its most infrequently used surface — creates a tournament that feels more vulnerable than the other three majors.
This vulnerability has given rise to the demons and ghosts that have haunted tennis players for decades… especially those who represent the United Kingdom.
Even though the grass of Wimbledon today is more resilient — and therefore more conducive to long hardcourt-style rallies — than it used to be, it still holds true that opportunities come and go more quickly on this surface. A low, knifing slice can still do more damage on grass than on other surfaces. A flat serve will still skid through the court with more speed than on a slow hardcourt. Late in a grass-court tournament, a strong return hit just inside the baseline will often draw a bad bounce off the worn and chewed-up second-week playing surface. Opportunities feel a little more fragile on grass compared to other surfaces, creating more agony for a player and a fan base when an opening is missed. Read More…
Nothing constructive to say at this point. Except that TENNIS HAS BEEN VIOLATED, THE COLOUR ORANGE HAS BEEN VIOLATED, and by some mercy from the tennistical overlords above, I wasn’t there to witness it.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the sensation of solid earth falling away from your feet.
Let us mourn, bitches.
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.
Happy Wimbledon, my lovelies!
This is Doots checking in my epic adventures post-Roland Garros. And time sure does fly when you’re having fun: it’s our favourite time of the year again. Although this year, Wimbledon comes with a sense of foreboding doom, as Federer drew Nadal in his quarter and Murray in his half, while Djokovic prepares to inhale his way to the final through a plate of gluten free cupcakes.
Diabolical draw aside, Wimbledon is still a good place to be Roger Federer.
There is nothing quite like the first day of Wimbledon. The grass is greener, the whites are crisp, and the world is a pristine bubble full of those sweep pops of tennis balls on tightly strung strings. There’s not much to say about Federer’s first round match against Victor Hanescu. The Romanian never looked like he possessed any weapons to threaten Federer. Even the typically big serve was castrated against Federer’s excellent returning.
The stats do tell a story: Federer faced no breakpoints and converted 6 of 8 on Hanescu’s serve. He won 90% of points on his first serve, and hit 32 winners to only 6 unforced errors (14 to 13 for Hanescu).
But of course, there is more to tennis than statistics. There was that reflex volley in the first set, when Federer almost casually stuck his racquet out in front of the ball, as if to say “keep calm and carry on. I do this in my sleep.” There’s Federer chasing a drop shot, skipping past the winner like a school girl in a field of tulips. And then there’s that backhand lob in the third set followed by a cheeky grin. The satisfaction of soaring higher than a giant.
Given the draw, I may not feel great about Federer’s chances at Wimbledon this year (it’s not a lack of faith, folks. Beating 2 of the Big Four is doable. Taking out three of three is a near impossibility), but I do feel a lot better about his form coming into the tournament than I did back at Roland Garros after the match.
Elsewhere, things were less poetic as Victoria Azarenka found herself sobbing uncontrollably in pain after landing awkwardly on her knees while serving.
Warning: this may be hard to watch for some.
Fortunately, Azarenka was able to play on, defeating Koehler 61 62 despite appearing to be quite shaken for the rest of the match. Koehler paid the price for not taking advantage of her opponent’s condition and making her run. Opportunities don’t come knocking too often for the lower ranked players on tour, and it’s a shame that when it does, so few players take their chances against the top dogs.
One player who did take her chances was Monica Puig, who claimed the first “upset” of the tournament by taking out the fifth seed Sara Errani 63 62. Not that Errani is a titan on grass, if you recall her being on the losing end of a golden set to Shvedova last year. But en route to victory, Puig hit 38 winners with her brand of feisty, aggressive, flat hitting tennis that Errani had no answer to on this surface.
Not bad for a 19 year old playing her first grass tournament as a pro.
Puig has been overtly confident about her talent in the media recently, but given my predisposition to her game, I’m inclined to feel that overt confidence is not so awful a trait in a teenage professional athlete.
Play continues for Day 1, but it’s a wrap from Down Under. Work does have this annoying habit of getting in the way of tennis. Good night and morning, wherever you are.
“Don’t trust anyone over 30!”
That was the rallying cry of the 1960s American counterculture movement, raging against the Establishment. The System. Entrenched Power.
The two Golden Oldie Tommies — Robredo and Haas — are not part of the power structure in men’s tennis. Roger Federer, on the other hand, is. Yet, those three men — while living on different sides of the tracks — all created very special memories in the first week of Roland Garros. They proved that, yes, you can sometimes trust someone over 30. Grandpas might not be agents of the counterculture, but they’re cool in both senses of the term — they’re composed under pressure, and they’re the life of the party in Gay Paree.
This being a Federer fan blog as well as a general-service tennis blog, we’ll make sure to emphasize how the old-man narrative at Roland Garros in 2013 magnifies Roger’s legacy. Our story begins, though, with Robredo.
Robredo’s Marathon Mastery
It’s been 86 years since another man forged two-set comebacks in three successive major tournament matches. In the 1927 Wimbledon tournament, Henri Cochet turned the trick. One would think that in light of all the amazing comebacks registered over the decades in men’s tennis — think of Pancho Gonzalez over Charlie Pasarell at Wimbledon in 1969, or Novak Djokovic rising from the dead against both Andreas Seppi and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga last year at Roland Garros — SOMEONE would have won three straight five-set matches after losing the first two sets in each of them. Yet, no one did… not in 86 years.
Not until Tommy Robredo took center stage in Paris this past weekend.
Keep this in mind about Robredo: He had to take more than a year away from the sport due to a left leg injury that required surgery. Robredo, who has made multiple major quarterfinals and spent some time in the top 10, dropped to No. 470 in the world rankings 12 months ago (a statistic courtesy of ATP tennis researcher Steph Trudel). Of all the people who would figure to break this 86-year drought, Robredo resided at the bottom of the list. He had to fight off four match points — two as a receiver of serve — to defeat Gael Monfils on Friday. His Sunday comeback against gack-prone Nicolas Almagro completed one of the most marvelous feats in modern-day tennis… not because Robredo lacks talent, but because the Spaniard’s absence from the sport had not exposed him to the grind of the majors and the five-set gauntlet that is part of them.
Robredo wasn’t much of a factor in the clay-court tournaments that preceded Roland Garros. It’s not as though he possessed a full supply of match play that prepared him for extended five-set combat. He did this on the fly, and from a position of relative obscurity, without having any momentum to catapult him into this tournament. His achievement is truly remarkable.
Like a Haas, Like a Boss
Whereas Tommy Robredo’s tennis career was interrupted by a leg injury, Haas — as you might know — has seen his hard-luck career get derailed by not just his own injuries, but injuries suffered by his parents in a motor-vehicle accident. Haas has needed to step away from tennis for at least three extended and separate periods of time. He has needed to care for his parents; rehab a shoulder injury; and rehab from a hip injury. A black cartoon raincloud has hovered over his career. Yes, he has allowed some winnable matches at majors to slip through his fingers, but one can only wonder how Haas’s tennis life might have unfolded had he not been so frequently visited by adversity.
When Haas lost 12 match points in the fourth set on Saturday to John Isner, the German-American — forced into a fifth set — had to feel miserable. Who wouldn’t? He didn’t play poorly on 10 of his 12 match points — Isner simply served bombs on most of them — but he double faulted when handed a match point late in a fourth-set tiebreaker. That kind of failure can and does linger in the mind of any athlete. Haas was broken in his first service game of the fifth set, and when he fell behind Isner, 4-1, the match — while not over — certainly pointed to an Isner victory.
Haas, a tormented player who conducted a lot of open verbal dialogues with himself during Saturday’s third-round match, insisted on fighting to the very end. He got a look at a break point when trailing 4-2 and converted it to get back on serve. Later, at 5-6, Haas saved a match point on his own serve. Finally, at 8-all, Haas broke Isner, and when he held one game later to take the match 10-8 in the fifth, a number of accumulated demons had been banished.
Haas, with his movie-star looks, could easily transition to other less strenuous careers. He could spend more time away from the court with his wife, Sara Foster. He could put his body through so much less wear and tear. Yet, Haas has chosen to climb the mountain at 35 years of age. He’s not a top-tier contender at majors (the same goes for Robredo), but something deep inside him is pushing him — to compete, to persevere, and, most of all, to win a lot of high-stakes tennis matches. He is looking to the center of his very being. When he looks there, Haas sees a lot of fire left.
The Great Federer
One of the paying customers at Court Philippe Chatrier on Sunday evening in Paris was Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays The Great Gatsby in the latest movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic. The last line of Gatsby, shown in the film, is as follows:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
When a great athlete advances in years and loses the full-flight quickness that once characterized his peak years as a professional, it is so easy to travel into the past, to reminisce about days gone by, when legs were young and first steps to the forehand corner came easily. It is so easy for fans of Roger Federer to recall the halcyon days of 2006 and 2007, when the wine flowed and the wins piled up and the band played a ceaselessly merry tune. Today, it is so much more of a grind for Federer to win at the highest level.
He’s won “only” one major since the 2010 Australian Open. Rafael Nadal (2010) and Novak Djokovic (2011) announced their presence as the two ATP players immersed in their best years, performing at the height of their powers. Federer has to settle for being “only” the third-best player in the world, “only” a semifinalist on most occasions at majors. He played bravely and well against Andy Murray in the semis of the 2013 Australian Open, but was beaten by a younger player who was simply and unquestionably better. It’s not that Federer has declined — he really hasn’t — but that the competition is aged 26 and 27 while Gramps/Pants/Granny Smith/Woger-With-A-Chewwy-On-Twop is approaching his 32nd birthday. It’s simply more of a climb these days. Success still arrives, but at the expense of more effort from an older body.
It’s so natural to want to think about the past, especially when almost everything that could possibly be achieved in any kind of profession has in fact been attained. Federer’s won the Grand Slam. He’s won 900 matches. He’s won seven Wimbledons. He’s reached 23 straight major semifinals and now 36 major quarterfinals. He’s made 10 straight major finals. He’s reached 40 major quarterfinals, 33 semifinals (with a chance for 34 on Tuesday), and 24 finals. His name already litters the ATP record books, especially in the Open Era. He doesn’t need to hit another tennis ball to prove anything to his fans or to the wider tennis community.
Yet, he continues.
He continues to fight like a junkyard dog, gutting out another comeback from a two-sets-to-one deficit in the early rounds of a major. Though pushed yet again by Gilles Simon at a major (hello, 2011 Australian Open second round), Federer once again managed to find solutions in a fifth set against his fellow Frenchman. (Federer is Swiss, but please — he is loved as a native by the Paris crowds. He’ll meet Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in an all-French quarterfinal.)
Federer the problem solver continued to find the right assortment of shots in the right moments. He continued to hit clutch serves when the pressure of the match reached its zenith at 5-3 in the fifth. He faced his nerves, which brought him so close to an exasperating loss of serve at 5-3 and raised the possibility that he would lose yet another match after failing to win match point. He withstood all the pressure, all the heat, that comes with being a target for the competition.
He made another major quarterfinal, earning the right to say that he has not missed the round of eight at a major for nine full years.
Nine. Full. Years. (Imagine a golfer finishing in the top 8 of each and every major tournament for nine full years without interruption.)
Nothing can or should diminish what Tommy Robredo and Tommy Haas have done this past week at Roland Garros. Comparisons between or among similar feats should not reflexively be seen as diminishments of one feat; they can and should be seen as elevations of the other.
What Robredo and Haas have done the past few days stands on its own merit. The two members of the thirty-something crowd have won legions of new admirers while becoming even more beloved by longtime tennis diehards. The hunger and passion Robredo and Haas displayed — both during and after their victories — moved a lot of people very deeply, showcasing tennis at its inspirational best.
Yet, with all of that having been said, it is certainly worth noting that Robredo and Haas arrive at their passions quite naturally: They’ve never made a major-tournament final. The elusive quest for supreme glory is something that looms before them, a long-denied prize that might never be captured but is still worth chasing.
Roger Federer? He’s won just about every prize imaginable, Davis Cup being an exception. He’s prevailed in just about every kind of situation in tennis, Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros being the one fundamental exception. Federer has had none of the bad luck Robredo and Haas have suffered. He is not impoverished in terms of achievements and successes the way Robredo and Haas are. Yet, his level of fight is just as substantial, his hunger just as evident.
Roger Federer comports himself and plays his sport with a distinct Old School flair. He’s not a member of the counterculture. Yet, he’s a man over 30 who can be trusted even more than Mr. Robredo and Mr. Haas. You see, Robredo and Haas are producing pieces of one-time magic that are unlikely to be reduplicated. They’re making the second week of a major with guts and guile, winning by the skin of their teeth and fending off all manner of challenges from without and within.
Roger Federer? He’s been getting to the second week of a major for nine full years, competing more like a starving artist than a man who — monetarily and professionally — has accumulated a king’s vast riches.
Tommy Robredo and Tommy Haas are very, very special tennis players who have added to their legacies of achievement.
Roger Federer is, shall we say, Specialerer.
The Special-est, you could say.
The man over 30 who should be trusted by anyone and everyone in tennis.
I close with another quote from the era of The Great Gatsby.
In 1931, The Sporting News said this about the sport that sustained the United States through overwhelmingly tough times in the first third of the 20th century:
Great is baseball — the national tonic, the reviver of hope, the restorer of confidence.
We human beings need uplift from outside sources. We need pick-me-ups from people and cultural beacons and social occasions that inspire us, excite us, and introduce us to new horizons of possibility.
For the tennis player, the solo athlete, this inspiration has to come primarily from within. Therefore, a variation on the Sporting News quote is something that applies both to Mr. Federer and to our own (tennis) imaginations at the same time:
Great is Federer — the enduring tonic, the reviver of hope, the restorer of confidence.
Inevitably after another Federer loss to the Clay Monster, I go through the stages of fury, demoralisation, resignation, and the search for silver linings. And here are the silver linings:
- Roger made the final. And as kaput as his side of the draw was in Rome, he took it one match at a time and played some gorgeous tennis during the course of the week.
- If Federer’s main goal in Rome was to get some much-needed match play before Paris, then consider it mission accomplished.
- Rafa goes into Roland Garros seeded #4, which means that provided Murray doesn’t pull out before the draw, Federer and Nadal cannot meet unless it’s in the final. And would I take another Fedal final in Paris, even after so many frustrating years of little success? YES I WOULD BITCHES. In a heartbeat.
- In giving him a new haircut, Federer’s hairdresser had clearly cut off some chocolatey strands of SHEER AWESOME, which would explain the slump in form. But never fear bitchessssss, that only means we’re in prime position for the greatest comeback in the history of HAIR.
- HE LOOKED LIKE A GIANT GRANNY SMITH ON LEGS. I MEAN, WHO LOOKS CUTE IN APPLE GREEN? ROGER FEDERER DOES APPARENTLY. IS THERE ANYTHING THE MAN CAN’T DO? (Other than, ya know, beat Nadal on clay over 5 sets). NO. THERE IS SIMPLY NOT. That is all.