DIGGING DEEP

I’m gonna start this blog on a somber note.  While we watch and enjoy the being a part of tennis history at the All England Games, let us remember that in the last twenty four hours, several American families have lost loved ones to the needless violence that has recently strengthened its grip on the U.S.

It is a wonder, the damage hate can bring to a nation, and to the world.  The fact that this hate is based on something as trivial as skin pigmentation, makes it all the more mind boggling.  Our prejudices as people are often baseless and inherited… two tragic facts.  The problem facing the most powerful country in the world is skin deep.  Dig a little deeper, and we are all pretty much the same.

What was the difference between Federer and Raonic today?  In the face of their five set classic, you can toss those differences aside.  17 Slams?  One handed backhand or two handed backhand?  A ballistic serve or a precision based delivery?  The power game vs the complete game? The rising star vs the aging champ? All of that was a blur today in the midst of breathtaking rallies, fantastic cat and mouth games, blistering ground strokes, rousing battle cries and a thunderous center court that would make the roman gladiatorial arenas, proud.

These two men were chasing destiny in very different and yet similarly profound ways.  Federer had put his heart and soul into winning this tournament – I still get this nagging feeling that it might have been his last – and he willed his aging and breaking body to summon every ounce of talent, and strength left to do it.  Raonic has been working hard to catch up to the Big Four’s level.  He has stared at the great divide between those four and the rest of the tour and taken steps to cross it.  He was close in Australia and as it stands, he’s much closer now.  Coming into this match, both these men had come back from two sets down to win matches, in the tournament.  In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been in any doubt whether or not this match would go the distance.  Federer and Raonic both dug deep and showed just how wonderfully competitive and resilient, their human spirits are.

In the end, youth and hunger won over age and experience.  Yet, that is not what really matters.  What matters is to realize that in that moment, the backgrounds, the races or cultural differences of everyone packed in center court, did not matter.  We were all cheering spectators, watching and applauding a grand performance by simple tennis players.  When everyone rose as one, that ‘world’ was united.  That is the power of sport and goodwill.  As Raonic moves on to the final to face Murray, we would do well to remember that one more time.

Rest In Peace to all the victims.

 

On the Precipice of Defeat and Back

You cannot truly measure greatness.  You can describe it and possibly define it, but measuring greatness is as futile as trying to weigh a human soul.  Some things are better appreciated in the moment than analyzed.  Yet it isn’t the end result that keeps us tennis fans enthralled, it is the process of trying to achieve it.   The reason why we will all be having a G.O.A.T debate twenty years from now is because it is practically impossible to capture the true meaning of being “the greatest”.  Yet the subject in itself is compelling and so we talk, fueled by the memories of iconic accomplishments and titanic matches much like the one yesterday between Roger Federer and Marin Cilic.

Looking at the draw, it was clear that this potential match up was going to be a dangerous one for Federer.  The first thing that jumped out to me was the glaring difference in the quality of the opponents.  Pella, Willis, Evans, and Johnson could all have been opponents in a challenger level tournament.  The draw gods had been kind to Federer and his making quick work of these opponents, was expected – even for an almost thirty-five year old champ, returning from injury.  But now into the quarterfinals, he would be facing his first real test in the tournament and his first seed.  Marin Cilic.

Cilic is a bit of an enigma.  It is easy to forget that he is a grand slam champion.  I wager, that Marin Cilic is the least covered grand slam champion of all time.  Even an out of competition Del Potro manages to generate more headlines than the quiet Croat.  I think Cilic himself forgets that he is a grand slam champion.  He’s struggled with a few injuries over the last twelve months, but the danger is always there, that he’ll one day remember who he became two years ago at the U.S Open.  That day came yesterday.  You just knew this one had classic – or upset depending on how you look at it – written all over it, from the first set.  The match followed a similar script to that of Querrey and Djokovic, a few days earlier.  A competitive first set, ended in a tie-break victory for Marin Cilic.  He rode the momentum to a more comfortable second set victory and showed no signs of letting up in the third.

I’ll be honest in saying I’d penciled Cilic down as the winner at this point.  Out of all the big serving giants, an in-form Marin Cilic is probably the most dangerous to play against.  It has very little to do with the big game he brings to the court either.  At the core of Cilic’s game is a high tennis intellect.  He is by all accounts a cerebral assassin, quietly analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent, while fine-tuning his game to exploit those weaknesses.  It adds a different element of potency to a game that is already potent by it’s very nature.  As my coach used to say, “the only thing more dangerous than a big serve is a big serve with direction.”  Cilic came out with a definite game plan: break down the Federer backhand with weighted shots off of both wings, hit the sledge hammer into the open court, and cover the net with the massive wing span he possesses.  For a time it worked like a charm and it appeared that not for the first time, Federer was being ushered out a tournament, by a dangerous hard hitting opponent.

However, you don’t get to win 17 grand slam titles without having some grit to your makeup.  Sets three and four were probably the most harrowing sets to watch, if you are a Federer fan.  Yet Federer himself was able to steel his nerves against the barrage.  He refused to break under the pressure and forced the fourth set.  The movement hadn’t quite been there, and the free flowing game hadn’t been given room to flow much at all, but the survivor was wide awake.  Survive he did.  Once Federer took the third set, I found myself holding off on my victory blog post for Cilic.  This felt like 2009 all over again and once Federer’s begun to solve the rubix cube that is his opponent’s game, it is almost impossible to stop him.  From here on, the match began to follow a familiar script.  The dismissal of those match points were like the punctuated endings of set points.  The match had reset, once Federer won the third set.  It was just a matter of time now, and after winning a tie-break for the ages, Federer ever the legendary front runner, wasted no time in jumping on top of the decider.  He closed it out with an ace and a customary finger wag.

In the aftermath of this latest storied performance by a living legend, it is easy to forget that the tournament is not over.  Federer has to win two more matches to solidly make monkeys out of just about everyone.  The question is, will his aging body allow him do it?  Recently, Federer has checked out in matches following his five set tussles.  The last one  was against Gael Monfils in the 2014 edition of the U.S Open.  In the next match, he barely put up any resistance as he lost to none other than Marin Cilic.  On Friday, Federer faces another stiff test in Milos Raonic.  Somehow I doubt he’ll go out without a fight this time.  He has talked passionately about this tournament, since the beginning of the year and was willing to sacrifice the French Open to give himself the best possible chance to play in it.  I suspect that at this stage, he’s got one goal on his mind.  Winning it all.

We’ll be watching.

Stopping The Juggernaut

Over the last twelve months, a lot has been written about Novak Djokovic, and for good reason.  He’s been the undisputed best player in the world, for the better part of two years.  This fact is punctuated not just by his number one ranking, but by what he has done in the past twelve months.  To put it mildly, it has been downright silly.  Since losing the 2015 French Open final to Stanilas Wawrinka, Djokovic had gone on a tear of colossal proportions.  He swept Wimbledon, the US Open, the Australian Open and Roland Garros in that order.  That run took him to an entirely new stratosphere in tennis.  Suddenly, he was not just within touching distance of Nadal and Sampras – each man has fourteen grand slam titles to his name – but he’d done something neither of them or for that matter any of his contemporary champions, could do.  He’d won four grand slams in a row.  The prize at the end was a career completing French Open title.  Novak Djokovic was on top of the world and everyone knew it.

Coming into this year’s Wimbledon, a lot of articles, debates and videos touching on the topic of Djokovic’s invincibility, were posted online.  The prevalent question became “Who could beat Djokovic?”  Who could stop the juggernaut?  The usual suspects were put forward as candidates.  Some said Murray, others said Federer.  I for one thought the title should be handed to him.  I said as much in my last article – Remembering S&V at Wimbledon.  Any show of hands if you looked at the draw and thought, “Yeah… Querrey will take him out.”  I know I didn’t.  I never saw it coming and I don’t think Djokovic did either.  It’s not like Querrey was having a fantastic season, coming into this match.  The hard hitting American had been the second of two hard hitting giants emerging from the U.S in the last decade.  Yet it had always been John Isner, who seemed to land on the good side of history, more often than not.  Querrey had become the proverbial journey man, much like Robin Soderling, before his big break through in 2009.  And so it was that Querrey entered this match as the titanic underdog.  I wager, the only person who believed the American could win this match, was probably Querrey himself.

It was evident from the first game that this belief wasn’t some hidden gem discovered by the underdog, over the course of the match.  That script belonged to many other upsets.  Djokovic was chasing a special kind of history at this tournament.  If there was going to be an upset, it had to be equally special.  Querrey’s belief was there from the word ‘play’.  The first game was fiercely contested and though Djokovic was up to the task, I felt a light tickle of foreboding.  By the time the third game rolled around, it was clear Querrey was here to play.  Whatever lull the giant had been in all season, it was evident he had awakened from it.  Querrey hugged the baseline in this match, serving from Sequoia-like heights, and swinging from the hips.  He certainly cut an ominous figure and Djokovic sensed it.  More so, the threat of Querrey visibly unnerved the Serbian champion.  That is not a common sight, these days.  Since Boris Becker’s arrival, Djokovic has been the picture of steely resolve.  His resilience has becoming something of legend.  Today, none of that mattered to Sam Querrey.  He took a fiercely contested first set in the tie break, buoyed by a barrage of aces and searing forehands.

By the time the American bagged the second set – handing Djokovic a rather insulting bread stick in the process – the murmurs around the stadium could be heard, as people contemplated the improbable, if not impossible.  The defending champion of all four grand slams, and two time defending Champion at Wimbledon, was in danger of being unceremoniously dumped out of the tournament in the third round.  What was still unspeakable, was the looming danger of it happening in straight sets.  Querrey had been good all match.  Way too good.  The sheer potency of his game had unraveled Djokovic.  The Serbian relapsed.  He began to spray balls long and mutter to himself.  His footwork got unprofessionally lazy and he on more than one occasion dumped an ill advised attempt at a drop shot into the net.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the net, Sam Querrey bristled with confidence and leaned into his shots with the raw power we’ve come to know big man tennis for.  Rapid fire serves were quickly followed with atomic forehands and Djokovic was caught in a state of perpetual scampering.  Yet few expected the champion to fizzle out without a fight.  Men like Querrey were not known for their ability to sustain the zoned state Champions are recognized and respected for.  The fight, came in the third set.  Djokovic locked down his game and slowed the flow of errors.  Yet down the finish line of the set, he faltered and almost let Querrey back in.

He ultimately won the third set, and the fourth was as hotly contested as the first.  It marched on to the inevitable tie breaker.  In retrospect, I believe Djokovic’s biggest mistake, was letting it get that far.  I’ll rephrase.  I believe Djokovic’s biggest mistake was not finding a way to stop it from getting that far.  The way Querrey was serving, Djokovic – best returner or not – had no say in whether or not he could break serve.  Querrey was not in a giving mood.  Despite a mini lapse in the tie-break, it was the American who buckled down and took the match, 7 – 5 in the breaker.

And so it was that for the fourth year in a row, the all England club was treated to another delicious upset of a member of the fabled “big four”.  It was also the second time in that four year span that the defending Champion, had failed to reach the second week at Wimbledon.  Federer had been sent packing in the second round of Wimbledon 2013, by Sergiy Stakhovsky.  Nadal has famously been the perennial victim at Wimbledon.  However, none of them was entering Wimbledon on a four grand slam winning streak.  So what gives?  I highly doubt that this is the start of a Djokovic decline and I wouldn’t be disrespectful to Querrey by saying this was a flash in the pan loss brought on by a bad day at the office.  Querrey won this match and in so doing, reminded us of why we watch the game.  No result is ever a given.  Even juggernauts, can be stopped.

Djokovic will probably shrug off this loss and regroup for the Olympic games, but the implications of the loss are clear.  The quest for a calendar grand slam is gone for at least another year.  His loss also increases the chances of his two closest rivals, Federer and Murray.  Should they stay true to their seedings, they will meet in the final, come next Sunday.  However, being the consummate professionals that they are, I’m sure they’ll take it one match at a time.  Querrey’s lesson still lingers after all.