Yesterday I clicked the button to start drafting up a new blog post. My random mind had already chosen a title that I thought was rather cliche. The King vs The Prince. I started typing away about how Dominic Thiem’s final match up with Rafael Nadal could be a potential passing of the baton. The usual tennis writer’s spew when it comes to generational contests. Somewhere along the line, I deleted that draft and as such, it never made its way on the internet.
Hold on, Kelechi. I thought. This is Rafa we’re talking about. It is much too soon.
After today’s final, I think I made the safer bet and the correct one. It was much too soon. For all the praise that Dominic Thiem gets for his clay court prowess, Nadal is and always has been a caliber of dirt devil all to his own. There’s a reason why he was going for his TENTH championship in Barcelona, barely a week after capturing his TENTH in Monte Carlo. Yes I had to type “tenth” in bold. The more I thought about it, the more ridiculous it sounded and yet, it is true.
Those reasons were on full display again today. Rafael Nadal has been stuck in a wilderness of his own since winning his last grand slam at – surprise – Roland Garros in 2014. A confidence drop here, some injuries there, a lack of form that way, and suddenly tennis’s fiercest competitor was almost becoming tour fodder. That and the grand slam where he was regarded as nigh invisible, was turning into a place of much grief. He’d been bested by Djokovic in 2015 and again by his body (his wrist) in 2016. During that period, Dominic Thiem was beginning to make a name for himself as the dirt devil heir apparent. Of course it was easy to be lulled into writing something along those lines.
Yet here was Nadal, covering the court like a gazelle, ritualistic tics in hand to boot. Here was Nadal, spiking dangerous high hopping topspin loaded forehands to his challenger’s backhand and setting up the open court. Here was Nadal, defending like a mad man on steroids and making gets that shriek pure will power and somehow feel like a calculated attempt to break a hapless opponent’s spirit. Here was the king of clay, vanquishing yet another challenger, just like old times.
Dominic Thiem for his part, did contribute to a rather entertaining first set. Whether it was a tactical choice or a disillusioned belief that he could grapple toe to toe with history’s greatest clay court player, Thiem traded topspin bombs with Nadal from the baseline. From the get go, it looked like a bad idea. Thiem was holding serve, but it was clear from a few narrow misses, that he lacked the consistency of his more accomplished opponent. Nadal’s ritualistic tics do not stop at arranging bottles just so, lining his socks and cleaning the baseline of dust before every return game. That maddening consistency more than seeps into his game. When he is in form, his ground strokes can take on the nature of a never ending metronome. On this surface, not even tennis players the likes of Federer and Djokovic can withstand that for more than two sets. Thiem, cracked at 4 all in the first set. The mental and physical concentration required to continually fend off topspin assaults that never seem to miss, was too much for him to give and he was broken for the game, the set and essentially the match.
In the second set, a broken Thiem would win just one game and soon those narrow misses became increasingly wider until the Austrian, gassed out, was spraying balls way off the court. It was a familiar sight and one had to wonder how Thiem thought he could go up against this clay court predator at his own game, and survive. This is a man who bites his trophies. With his teeth literally sunk deep into the match, the games rolled on to their inevitable end and Nadal had his second tenth title, in as many weeks.
As for Thiem, there’s still a lot of clay court matches to be played, leading up to the French Open. A loss to Nadal is nothing to be ashamed about, but if he is looking to make a statement at the French, he might be wise to remember that Nadal is chasing another tenth there.
Any bets the Spaniard won’t get it? At this point, it is much too soon to christen anybody else a favorite.
Andy Roddick stepped up to the ad court and prepared to serve. He was facing a break point in the eight game of the third set, Wimbledon Final 2004. Advantage, Federer. Roddick tossed the ball up, the fingers of his left hand splayed out, while his knees bent down so low, it appeared he was tucked into a vertical fetal position. Pop! Snap! Roddick uncurled and exploded upwards, slapping the ball down the T, towards Federer’s forehand. It was the classic Roddick service motion, in all its glory. Today, that serve and the rest of Roddick’s game, had been as good as it ever was. He was moving well, anticipating well, serving phenomenally well and his forehand had been devastating. Crushingly so.
So far, it had appeared the match was on Roddick’s racket and his alone. He’d overpowered Federer 6- 4 in a first set that was much more one sided than the scoreline indicated, and had narrowly missed completing a brilliant comeback in the second set from 0 – 4 down. He eventually lost the set 5 – 7, due to a poor lapse in the thirteenth game. Federer’s yell after smacking a forehand pass down the line only served to underscore how lucky he was. It could easily have been two sets to none. However things had taken on a different turn in this eight game. Roddick was facing a familiar pressure he had not faced all day. His serves – bullets moving in excess of 130MPH – had suddenly started coming back. This one, down the T to Federer’s forehand, did as well. The ball was perfectly placed in the forecourt in that dreaded territory called no man’s land. Roddick had no choice but to venture forward. He did what every smart tennis player would do. He took the short ball and sent it deep to Federer’s backhand – his weaker side. Federer, who had been scurrying back to the middle with those cat like footsteps, took one graceful lunge step to his left and sent a pristine drive down the line. Roddick, the gritty fighter that he was – that he would become – lunged to his right and stabbed the volley cross court. Federer was already there to cover the angle. There was no need. Roddick had missed. Game Federer. The swiss would go on to win the match 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(3), 6 – 4. Roddick would not win another match against Federer for a period of four years, stretching eight matches.
Federer had his graceful game, predicated on finesse, strategy and subtlety. Roddick had his power game, built around one of the deadliest serve – forehand combinations the tennis world had ever seen. They were the number one and two players in the world.
You might wonder why with all this one sided dominance, this should be considered a rivalry. It is for a number of historically significant ripple effects the match ups between these two and really this Wimbledon final, produced. Coming into this match, both Roger Federer and Andy Roddick were entering the kick off phase of their respective championship careers. They had just traded ranking places with Roddick finishing 2003 as World no 1, and Federer replacing him atop tennis’s apex with his second grand slam title at the 2004 Australian Open. They also had contrasting styles that made for interesting match ups. Federer had his graceful game, predicated on finesse, strategy and subtlety. Roddick had his power game, built around one of the deadliest serve – forehand combinations the tennis world had ever seen. They were the number one and two players in the world.
Coming into this Wimbledon final, Roddick trailed in the head to head, 1 – 4. However, he had recently bested Federer in three sets, in the ATP masters tournament in Canada. While Federer had gotten the better of him in their next contest in Houston, the tennis world knew Roddick was beginning to come into his own as a potential Federer arch nemesis. Roddick knew it too and so did Federer. At 4 – 3 in that third set, with Roddick serving to go up 5 – 3, he faltered and Federer broke. Why? At this time, Roger Federer was the only player on the planet who could get into a rhythm, returning Roddick’s serve. There was so much heat on the Roddick delivery, that players struggled to get a racket on it, talk less of returning it. Federer was not just any player. With his natural hand-eye coordination and good reflexes, the Swiss was able to get returns back in play that Roddick just wasn’t use to seeing come back. This was familiar pressure because Roddick had faced it in the Wimbledon Semifinals a year earlier, against the same opponent. Once that return came back in play, the point was essentially reset.
For all of Roddick’s power and forehand abilities from the baseline, Federer has always been a nullifying factor. It was the classic case of “anything you can do, I can do better.” Roddick had a terrific serve fueled by power and made even more deadly by direction. Federer had a serve that threw you off balance with spins, placement, disguise and accuracy. He was almost always ahead of Roddick in the ace count, during their match ups. Roddick’s forehand was big, daring, powerful and an overwhelming force to be reckoned with. Federer’s was a well timed trigger that he could vary. It was his slicing rapier to Roddick’s bludgeoning hammer. As for their court movements and coverage, there aren’t many players who could cover the court like Roger Federer could and still can at 35. Once the serve came back, Roddick was always up against it. Yet this match is significant because for about two sets and a half, Roddick’s power game held the upper hand. That Roddick lost this final, had to be crushing. However, it was what he did after this final that would define the remainder of their rivalry.
For all of Roddick’s power and forehand abilities from the baseline, Federer has always been a nullifying factor. It was the classic case of “anything you can do, I can do better.”
Roddick, began to tinker. Who could blame him? He could beat the rest of the field except for one player. Federer would soon face a similar problem when a certain Spaniard emerged on the scene. The fundamental difference is while Federer stubbornly stuck to his slam winning game, trusting his ability to beat Rafael Nadal without major changes to his play, Roddick felt he needed to improve by adding more dimension to his game, particularly his rallying. The serve fundamentally remained the same, but the ground strokes slowly lost their pace and destructive power. Roddick retrofitted his forehand to allow for more spin and re-engineered his slice backhand to accommodate frequent – if not ill advised – forays to the net. The idea was to give Federer different looks. To essentially outFederer, Federer. It had mixed results with the rest of the tour and it certainly proved counterproductive against Andy Roddick’s rival. Their 2005 Wimbledon final was a grass court masterclass. The 2006 US Open final, a lesson in weathering an opening storm and outlasting your opponent. The 2007 Australian Open semifinal, a hard court decimation. Roddick had discarded the very game that could trouble Federer and occasionally beat him. Now he was hardly winning sets. When he did rediscover that power game a la the 2007 US Open quarterfinal, he could not mentally hunker down on the big points. Yes Federer played phenomenal, but Roddick was too mentally weathered down by previous defeats to psychologically back up his terrific play on the day.
Again, what makes this a rivalry then? Federer best put it when he hinted after his 2007 Australian Open semifinal deconstruction of Roddick that he did get up a little extra for that match, as he felt Roddick coming for him. The Nebraska born baseline whacker had almost upset Federer in Shanghai, the year before. That’s exactly how their careers and rivalry played out. This wasn’t a sea-saw battle a la Nadal vs Djokovic or Sampras vs Agassi. This wasn’t a surface/style rivalry and a late career surge a la Federer vs Nadal. This was a chasing rivalry with Federer being the chased and Roddick being the perpetual chaser. Many others did try to become Federer’s nemesis but most of them fell by the way side or simply gave up. A lot of them were defeated before they stepped foot on the court. Federer had to be weary of Roddick because the American never gave up, no matter how many times Federer knocked him down. The Swiss knew that within Roddick lay a dormant game that could be unleashed at anytime. With a serve like that, anything was possible on any given day. As such, Federer had to be on his A game even if Roddick wasn’t. Anything less and it was a coin toss. That weariness was proven right in the 2008 Miami quarterfinal when Roddick stunned Federer in three sets. It almost happened again in one of the most unsung Wimbledon 5 set final thrillers – the 2009 classic. On that day, with history on the line, Roddick rediscovered his 2004 form and pushed Federer to five sets, (16 – 14) in the fifth. It was a close call but again Federer was reminded that if he took his foot off the gas, Roddick was still waiting.
Federer had to be weary of Roddick because the American never gave up, no matter how many times Federer knocked him down. The Swiss knew that within Roddick lay a dormant game that could be unleashed at anytime. With a serve like that, anything was possible on any given day.
In a sense, it is befitting that the American won their last ever professional match, in the fourth round of the Miami 2012 clash. I remember being shocked at how flat the American hit his forehand that day. It was circa 2004 all over again. One could only wonder what the results could have been if Roddick had left his game the way it was. There are no regrets in this. Roddick was a gritty competitor who was never afraid to try something different.
At the end of it all, he gave this rivalry his very best and pushed a man regarded as the greatest to step on a tennis court, to lofty heights. He was the stern test when Federer had to defend his Wimbledon title for the first time and prove his newly minted number one ranking. He was the juggernaut in the way of Grand Slam #15, when Federer stared at tennis immortality, just within reach. Through the Nadals, Djokovics and Murrays of this world, there was Andy Roddick. The unsung rival.
One of the beauties of reaching the pinnacle of a chosen profession, is the liberation it gives one to try out different things in both their personal and professional space. I honestly can’t tell you how that feels (maybe you can tell me), but I imagine it to be quite like that feeling you get once you’ve nailed that new job position or finished that oh so crucial project… only a thousand times more awesome.
Whatever that space is, and however it feels, that’s exactly where Roger Federer is right now. At this stage of his life and career, he’s got nothing left to prove. Oh and that Greatest Of All Time debate? I think Federer’s made his peace with it. Unless some unknown talent somewhere in the world rises up the ranks and rips through 20+ Grand Slams over the course of his career, Federer’s legacy as a tennis player is safe and he will always be in the discussion whenever it does come up among tennis pundits and fans alike.
With his tennis legacy intact and with a liberated free flowing style that is sure to amplify that legacy perfected, it appears Switzerland’s greatest sporting icon is embarking on a mission to cement his legacy as a person. While it is true that Roger Federer is not new to charity – his foundation has been running nearly as long as his career has – his senior citizen status in tennis, has given him more time to focus on this passion of helping people. To buttress this point, Match for Africa 4 is set to take place tomorrow, while Federer’s colleagues are busy grinding each other to red powdery dust across clay courts the world over.
While most tennis tournaments would have loved to see him grace their tournaments and fill their stadium seats, what Federer is embarking on has a much greater impact on both the human and sporting levels. To be frank, I’m not surprised at all. I always saw Federer as a meld of so many greats of the past. He’s got the fitness of Lendl, the grace and guile of Edberg, the lightning fast attack of Sampras and with regards to this topic, the charitable heart of Agassi. In that regard, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see those two hook up more often after Federer hangs up his racket.
Like him or not, Federer has always been a source of inspiration to many around the world. I do wonder if we’ll see more tennis players publicly embarking on a journey of charity – a journey of giving back, even before they retire. That’ll be a lovely trend.
Rog, if by some random twist of the universe you get to read this, Match for Africa 5 Suggestion: Federer vs Sampras.
There is nothing more damaging to a professional athlete’s image, than being found guilty of ingesting a banned substance. In some cases, such an act can be a career ending move. It has been in the past. In Tennis, players who have been found irrevocably guilty of doping, have rarely made successful comebacks to tour. Mariano Puerta and Wayne Odesnik, come to mind.
However, players and fan alike, are more forgiving when it is proven that the player did not mean to cheat and rather was the victim of an unfortunate string of events, leading to more unfortunate circumstances. Look no further than Richard Gasquet or Marin Cilic as the prime examples of this case. Marin Cilic put together a fine run to become the US open champion, after his comeback from a very dangerous brush with tennis law.
So what’s different with Maria Sharapova? In theory, her case should be similar to that of Gasquet and Cilic. In reality though, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Speculate all you may, but Maria Sharapova was found guilty of negligence and carelessness, that led to the ingestion of a substance, barely a few days after it made the banned list. She was subsequently banned from playing professional tennis for fifteen months, and is back. Yet the reception has been antagonistic at best. The question is why?
My growing theory has to do with something that has plagued the Russian star throughout her career. Her popularity with the players and the fans. Her human connection. It has been severely lacking, for a star so big. Sharapova is popular… don’t get me wrong. She is very popular. However, she is hardly a personal favorite of many… both professional players and fans alike. Raised to be the consummate professional, she has distanced herself from locker-room fandom and any other interactions she considers a distraction. The result has been a hugely successful career with a lot of brooding resentment. The problem with that is when something like this happens. That resentment comes to the surface and influences how people have chosen to receive her comeback.
I understand the emotions with Sharapova and in some cases I understand the verbal diatribe she has received (expect for Eugene Bouchard’s which was in my opinion, extreme), but facts are facts. Sharapova was banned for her carelessness and she has served her time. She is also a five time grand slam champion and the WTA could do with the consistent star power she brings to the table right about now. If she gets a wildcard, it is because the tournament sees her as deserving of it.
Besides, everyone deserves a second chance don’t they? Judges, Jury, Executioners?
Race in Tennis is not discussed as often as it is in other sports global sports like Soccer, track and field or even… American Football. It just isn’t. There’s apparently no room for such trivial topics in “the gentleman’s game”. Players are at worst, cordial with each other and at best they are bffs who can’t stop taking pictures of every activity they practically do together – ahem Serena and Caroline. Ethnicity, race, nationality? All those divides seem to have been long conquered in Tennis’s professional world.
However, what if some of this… camaraderie was only an act? Call me pessimistic, but when I discussed the subject of race in tennis with a friend a while back, I remember expressing my disbelief that something so insidious and tough – racism has survived over 400 years of modern history – could be rooted out so easily. Racism is the social virus, man has struggled to get rid off. It evolves, adapts, and even regresses for a while but just when we relax, it rears its ugly head again.
This is exactly what happened last week, when Romania’s Fed Cup coach, Ilie Nastase made some out of place comments about the skin color of Serena William’s unborn baby. Not only were his comments and subsequent “if I say” comments hurtful, disrespectful, insensitive and dare I say dehumanizing, they were regressive. They shelved off a bit of the unifying power of sport – of Tennis. I am one of those people who believes Serena Williams has taken a lot of unwarranted antagonism particularly from so-called Tennis lovers. Reading a typical racist or chauvinistic comment from a ‘fan’ about Serena Williams, is rather repulsive within itself. To read it from a prominent ex-player is quite disturbing. This isn’t what it means to be ‘human’. Moreover, one of the sport’s all-time greats, deserves better than that.
Ilie Nastase’s comments might have ripped a tear in the fabric of reality most of us would like to believe. Racism is still here, underneath the surface, waiting to bubble up at the slightest opportunity. The viral count might be down, but it isn’t zero and if nothing is done about it, there will be a relapse. Which is why it warmed my heart to see the backlash the Romanian Fed Cup coach got and still is getting. It was a joy to see Serena stand up for herself, her baby and her fellow female players, like Johanna Konta. It was especially rewarding to read about Simona Halep’s honest and defiant stance against her own coach, calling it like it was. That is the kind of reaction needed to fight this ugly disease in our beloved sport. I’m looking forward to more players – especially the prominent ones – lending a voice to tell the Ilie Nastase’s of this world that racism has no place in tennis.
The Romanian might be a star bad boy, and maybe a bad man, but in this sport, good gentlemen rule. Let’s keep it that way.