On a breezy August evening, one perfectly fit for briefly forgetting both the sweltering summer and its miserly, frozen, hibernating kin, I sojourned to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, Queens to take in the selected offerings from the first round of this year’s US Open. Specifically, three players – Rafael Nadal, Aryna Sabalenka and Nick Kyrgios – offered their assorted splendors to varying degrees, making for predictably excellent tennis. There are worse ways to turn the night into the morning.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
On June 20, 1789, a group of peasants, serfs and wage-laborers, representatives of France’s lower-class Third Estate, found themselves locked out of a meeting in Versailles which King Louis XVI ostensibly called to formulate strategies which could pull the nation out of a state-induced financial crisis. Outraged, the oft-ignored Third Estate reps decided to call a meeting of their own, which they held on a tennis court, and at which they signed an oath against the heads of state which eventually led to the French Revolution. Historians now cite the Tennis Court Oath, originally an act of desperation from an outraged people, as one of the most important events in European history, and we continue to feel its reverberations today.
On Wednesday, a different revolution from a different outraged person occurred roughly fourteen kilometers from Versailles on another tennis court. Its effects, while far less deleterious to the French government, could have a similarly wide-reaching impact on the status quo, particularly the oft-ignored, #1-ranked player and the reigning king against whom he staged his coup.