This column was supposed to be a sports obituary.
Early Thursday, my favorite tennis player, my favorite athlete really, Roger Federer, lost in the Australian Open semifinals to Novak Djokovic. For the first time since I was in high school (which I promise you, was quite some time ago), Federer didn’t hold a single Grand Slam title, and more importantly, hasn’t even made a Grand Slam final since last year’s Australian Open. In Fed’s world, four straight losses before a major final, is four too many.
Granted, there’d been signs of Federer’s decline for a while now, some dating all the way back to 2008. But whenever we counted him out, it always seemed like he’d bounce back with another dominating title at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, and once even in Paris.
Finally though, it seemed like the loss in Australia, where- for the second time in two majors- he couldn’t get by Djokovic, was the nail in the coffin. The guy I had watched grow from quirky upstart with a bad ponytail to the No. 1 player in the world, and ultimately to the best player of all-time was officially washed up. Needless to say, it left me more depressed than one of the girls on The Hills if she hasn’t taken her Valium in a week.
But then a funny thing happened: I actually sat down and watched a replay of the Djokovic-Federer match. It wasn’t nearly what I expected it to be.
Then again, this is also why I always feel obligated to watch every match, tournament or game that I plan on writing about. Because a box score or recap only tells a part of the story. Seeing everything in living color, with your own two eyes, can often show a different one.
Well, when I sat down to watch the Federer-Djokovic match, I was anticipating the worst. I already knew that Djokovic had won in straight sets, and I was expecting it to be ugly. Like Tyson vs. Spinks or JWoww vs. Sammi kind of ugly. Going into the match, we knew that Novak was the younger, sprier and stronger player, and I assumed sitting down and watching would be a two and a half hour verification of that.
Except that’s not what happened at all. Yes Djokovic won, but not only was it not one-sided, you could make the case that Federer was the better player through a big part of it. Roger didn’t lose on serve once in the first set, and easily could’ve taken it in the tiebreak. Then in the second set, he was up 5-2 and cruising, before taking his foot off the gas, and letting Djokovic back in. Within minutes, it was 5-5, Djokovic had again seized control, and Federer was left with the same glaze in his eyes my grandma gets when you try to explain the internet to her. Novak cruised in the third, and won the match.
But while all the match reports said one thing, Federer-Djokovic wasn’t the one-sided beat down everyone made it out to be. Instead, it was a hard-fought and back and forth for the first 60 percent, before Federer lost focus and control. And even as great as Federer is, you just can’t do that against someone as skilled as Djokovic.
Still, as I took everything in after the match, I couldn’t help but think that my idea for Federer’s obituary was way too premature. Because the truth is much better: Tennis is in the midst of a Golden Age.
Looking across the board right now, there appear to be four guys that are head and shoulders above everyone else: Djokovic, Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal. Sure others have their moments given the right circumstance or surface, but ultimately, after years of “Roger or Rafa,” we now have four guys that you’re comfortable saying, “I could see this guy winning this tournament,” every single tour stop.
What makes things really fun though, and what ultimately makes this the Golden Age of tennis, is that these four guys are all at slightly different points in their careers. And with that, a cool converging of eras has occurred.
Starting with Federer, he’s no longer the dominant force of nature like he was in his prime, when I fell in love with his game. He’s a bit older, and a step slower, and with two young kids, undoubtedly no longer a young man, but instead, just a man. At least in tennis terms.
As we saw in Australia, he’s also no longer the guy that can go into Grand Slams, play flawless tennis for long stretches and not drop a set for matches at a time. More increasingly, there seem to be one or two early round matches that give him trouble, and draw him into five sets. Ultimately though, that’s ok. Time stops for no man. Even the Fed Express.
Still, what Federer is- even closing in on 30-years-old- is a guy that should be favored against everyone other than Djokovic, Murray and Nadal, and can absolutely lay waste to any of the non “Big Three,” on any given night. That’s exactly what happened in the Australian quarterfinals against Stanislas Warwinka, where, what was supposed to be an exciting match, turned into a 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 Federer laugher. It was over before it began and had less drama and excitement than a Friday night in Salt Lake City. Federer might not be able to turn on the fifth gear every night, but can still get there often enough.
That match was also why I believe Federer still has at least one major title left in him. On the right surface, in the right circumstances, is there any doubt Federer can take down seven matches in a row and hoist a championship trophy? It not only seems feasible to me, but probable.
As for Fed’s biggest rival Nadal, the guy is clearly in his prime, and clearly the best player in the world right now. At this point he’s won on all surfaces and all venues, and entered Australia looking to become the first man in two lifetimes to hold all four major titles at once.
Of course if Australia proved anything, it’s that Nadal’s biggest opponent continues to be himself. I know it sounds like I pulled that last sentence out of the cliché machine, but it’s true. When healthy, Nadal goes about his work like executioner. One set, two sets, three sets. Match. At Roland Garros, Wimbledon and on the hard courts. And that’s exactly how he was playing in Australia, as he entered his quarterfinal match with David Ferrer without dropping a set in the entire tournament.
Eventually though he did lose to Ferrer, in large part because of a thigh injury. We don’t know if Nadal will be sidelined, and for how long, but it did once again call into question how long he can keep playing his battering ram style. Nadal has had shoulder and knee injuries in the past, and this thigh thing just makes us wonder again, “How long can he keep this up?” Nadal isn’t even 25, yet essentially has the body of the 50-year-old limping around on your company softball team. I still contend that he’s firmly in the midst of his prime, and when healthy, far and away the best player in the world. But is being fully healthy even realistic at this point? Listening to Nadal talk about it, I don’t think even he’s sure.
Then of course there are the two finalists in Sunday’s Australian Open Final: Djokovic and Murray.
The biggest complaint sports fans have had of tennis in the last half decade has always been, “Why would I bother watching? The same two guys win every tournament.” That’s not entirely true, but considering that Nadal and Federer have won 25 of the last 28 majors, it’s not totally false either.
Well it’s only fitting that after years of teasing us, it’s Murray and Djokovic who are meeting in Sunday night’s final. Maybe they’re not playing for the title of “Best in the World,” because until we learn more about this thigh injury, that’s still Nadal. But at the very least they’re playing for “Best Right Now.” And after having been on the cusp forever, aren’t we all ready to see one of them take that next step?
For Djokovic, his transformation from occasionally immature child, to full-fledged man, has been fun to watch. He’s a guy whose mental toughness was questioned years, only in the last two Grand Slams, it’s been him who has out willed Federer. Not to mention gave Nadal everything he could handle last summer at the U.S. Open Final. Novak has always had the personality and character of a world No. 1. There’s no doubt he’s playing like it right now.
As for Murray, well, he broke through a while ago. Still, it’ll be hard not to root for him to win his first Grand Slam title Sunday, considering, well, that he might have more pressure on him than any other athlete in the world right now. Crazy, but true.
If you don’t know, Murray is trying to become the first Brit since 1936 to win one of the four majors. Yes that’s a crazy stat, but only amplified by the fact that he carries the weight of a nation on his shoulders. And he's doing it in an individual sport with no teammates or coaches to take the burden off him. Ultimately, Murray’s on an island, fending for himself.
Seriously, think about that for a second.
Just for comparisons sake, we all pretty much agree that LeBron James has more pressure on him than athlete out there, right? He’s got to win this year in Miami or else, right? Well, imagine if LeBron had to do it all with no teammates to take some of the pressure off him, and was trying to win not only for the city of Miami, but for the entire United States. That’s what Murray goes into every major with. Truth be told, I’m not sure how he’s even got any hair left.
So there you go, that’s what’s at stake Sunday, and for the next couple months in tennis. We’ve got four great players, one just removed from his prime, two squarely entering theirs, and one guy stuck smack dab in the middle. All are playing at an incredibly high level, and each can beat any of the others on any given day.
And while the rest of the media is trying to push a “changing of the guard,” angle with a Djokovic-Murray final, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Sunday’s final is just the start of something really special.
For four great players, and for tennis fans everywhere.
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