On many more occasions than is worth counting throughout this Australian Open, announcers made mention of how hot it is, how hot it’s gotten, how hot it can be. All of us know this all the time, increasingly, even in the sullen cold of a North American East Coast early morning in January. When it’s cold, we pine for the heat; when it’s hot, oof, maybe the cold isn’t that bad, actually.
In leaving behind what I imagine is the world’s most-discussed small talk topic, we broach the actual tennis. Seven years ago, on this very court, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal battled over five sets and nearly six hours, culminating in a Djokovic win but what Rafa referred to in the interim as the greatest match he ever played.
Who knows how the Spaniard feels about that assessment now, but it would be hard to imagine him bestowing such an honorific on his showing in this year’s final. With Djokovic’s 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 victory, the Djoker claimed his seventh title in Melbourne and his third consecutive major. The heat never bothered him anyway.
Photo courtesy of moi
“Ladies and gentlemen, due to the humid conditions, Millman is going to change his attire.”
In the middle of the second set on during the men’s quarterfinal at the US Open on Wednesday night, with his opponent, Novak Djokovic, up a set already, unseeded John Millman took a precautionary measure with regard to his attire. He was sweating through his shirt, his shorts and maybe his shoes and hat, and he wasn’t going to stand for it anymore. For all intents and purposes, it’s been the story of the tournament in Flushing Meadows: the heat is just too damn hot.
The weather is a clichéd topic, one befitting casual acquaintances at a party while waiting for someone better to arrive, anyone who rides public transit at any time and Al Roker. At best, it should merely be tertiary fare for the final Grand Slam of the year. Yet, it has defined many of the matches so far, including Millman’s shocking, four-set upset of Roger Federer in the round of 16. Mother Nature would not sway Novak Djokovic so easily.
Courtesy of AFP/Getty Images
“It can be cruel, sometimes.”
This is how Roger Federer, 2017 Wimbledon men’s champion and an eight-time winner at the All-England Club, summarized the tournament run of his opponent in the final, the Croatian Marin Cilic, but he may as well have been talking about any aspect of reality. You wake up, you check Twitter, you catch up on the overnight happenings of a world spinning increasingly out of control, you agonize at the absurdity of things, and then you see Roger Federer’s name trending. Wash, rinse, repeat.
But it’s Federer, who, in defeating Cilic 6-3, 6-1, 6-4 on Sunday morning to finish off a totally spotless Wimbledon in which he did not drop even a single set, that keeps you grounded in reality, even at 35. That isn’t to say tennis can’t be weird, or that Wimbledon as a whole wasn’t – on the contrary, this year’s edition served some of the strangest notes and outcomes in recent memory. But all of that is just noise, the subtle details in an otherwise all-white outfit befitting of a 19-time Grand Slam champion.
“Open” is a peculiarly malleable word, one which shifts with the times and becomes whatever the ones weaponizing it desire. Fields can be open, as can forums; countries, well – that’s up to big wigs.
Merriam-Webster takes one opportunity to define something that is open as “enterable by both amateur and professional,” as well as, primarily, “having no enclosing or confining barrier.” When confronted with the realities of the 2017 Australian Open, it is vital to keep these two, in particular, in mind. The former is a matter of practice and formality; the latter is a guide to understanding the drafts that continue to slip through the windows of two tennis players born just under two months apart 35 years ago: Serena Williams and Roger Federer.
Over the past few days, I’ve been struggling to comprehend what I watched happen in the finals at the first major of the year. Literally half a world away, four tennis players on the wrong side of 30 survived tough draws, lucky breaks, stunning upsets and injury scares to reach a pair of Grand Slam finals which would’ve appeared unremarkable a decade ago but which, in 2017, were downright anachronistic.
The English poet Francis Quarles, noted paraphrase royalty, once wrote, “The way to bliss lies not on beds of down, And he that has no cross deserves no crown.” As was more or less his M.O., and the standard run of play in seventeenth century literature, he was drawing largely from The Bible, though you could be forgiven if in a vacuum you thought he may have been discussing the rise of Stan Wawrinka, 2016 U.S. Open men’s champion.
Four sets: that’s all Stan Wawrinka needed to upend Novak Djokovic in the men’s final of the U.S. Open, which he captured in a magnificent 6-7 (1-7), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 win that elicited some of the best shot-making either player has ever flashed. Once an underperforming prodigy, Wawrinka is now, against most well-meaning odds, a three-time major champion as well as, for the moment, the king of New York.
Putting a torch to a flame: that’s one way of dealing with the vexation of presumed certainty turning to capricious doubt. Nothing is certain, and doubt can be a useful progenitor for inspiration. Even Jesus looked around in anger.
Down a break in the fourth set to Ilya Marchenko, Stan Wawrinka looked inward, his steely resolve having forsaken him, and, as has happened on many occasions before, dispelled the rage within him via the destruction of a racquet, an inanimate Judas for lack of anything else.
Getty Images/Quinn Rooney
If, at the beginning of 2014, I would have asked you to guess what Swiss male tennis player was going to win two majors over the following two years, you almost certainly would have guessed Roger Federer. Steady Fed did not win a major the previous year, but a nagging back injury limited him, and in periods of health you could still see his heady mastery of the game on full display. A recovery was inevitable, and anyway, it wasn’t looking like the next generation of tennis talent was prepared to challenge the Big Four. It mostly still isn’t.
Almost three complete seasons later, however, another native of the neutral country has emerged as a worthy adversary to the quartet that has dominated the men’s game for the last decade. The son of farmers, Stan Wawrinka is a two-time Grand Slam champion and, at 31, may be playing the best tennis of his life.
A common rhetorical question among, I imagine, people not in my tax bracket, particularly around holidays and on big occasions such as weddings, asks what you get the man who has everything. If you live a lavish lifestyle, you presumably have all the needs of life covered, as well as any material possessions. It’s awfully difficult for your famous birthday party guests to get you peace of mind, or to cleanse your conscience of the many great sins you committed on your way to the top.
Roger Federer seems like somebody who fits this bill, having accomplished more than any other male tennis player in the Open era and likely being content, if not exactly pleased, with his dazzling semifinal run and subsequent exit from Wimbledon. As of his victory in this year’s French Open, Novak Djokovic is the same, as is Rafael Nadal, whose fall from grace has been as swift as his run at Roland Garros was dominant. All of which leaves the other member of tennis’ Big Four thoroughly othered, despite looking over the edge once more. Repeat after me: Andy Murray finds himself in a major tournament Final, against Milos Raonic at Wimbledon on Sunday, though it may again end up feeling like he has crashed the wrong party.
Without looking (actually, without being able to find it exactly), I know that David Foster Wallace once said or wrote something to the effect of, “Some people seem to think that being a tennis prodigy is easy. It’s not.” I’ll get lambasted for the deployment of an indirect quote like that, and somebody is bound to find it, but I welcome the opportunity to be corrected on something as banal as a David Foster Wallace quote on tennis. I really do.
Anyway, perhaps the only role more difficult to fill than that of tennis prodigy is that of aging tennis legend and, by extension, its subset, “aging greatest men’s tennis player ever.” The shadow of retirement looms large in professional sports, where most athletes are finished by their mid-30s at the latest. More often than not, the kids come up from behind even more furiously than that, pushing pillars of sport to the edge with increasing efficiency. No athlete’s autumnal period, however, has been longer, nor sunset faded more slowly, than that of Roger Federer.
In the parlance of modern tennis, Roger Federer has become the default, that against which any and all challengers fill in a blank as some kind of placeholder until the younger, better next generation arrives. For many players over the last decade, most notably Spanish clay court foil Rafael Nadal, it is a frustrating truth which is, nevertheless, true, because playing in the shadow of a man who has won seventeen Grand Slam titles since 2003 leaves you in a begrudging negative space, an elephant graveyard where hyenas battle for Federer’s scraps.
Unlike Nadal, Andy Murray and other would-be mutineers, however, Novak Djokovic has always looked like he feels comfortable in that negative space. His rocketing serves, his maddening return game, his consumption of grass: this is the one they colloquially call “the Joker,” and he is the best tennis player alive.