Swiss Timing vs Father Time: Federer at 35

Looking back at Roger Federer’s 17 grand slam victories in this week, where he celebrated his 35th year of existence, the 2005 US Open final is certainly one of the most memorable. Playing at his absolute apex, the Swiss faced off against one of the most decorated superstars in modern tennis – eight-time major champion Andre Agassi. With six titles to his name already, the 24-year-old Federer was a considerable favourite against Agassi, who – 19 years after his first appearance at Flushing Meadows – had clawed his way through the draw to reach the last final of his storied career. At a disadvantage for if not skill, then certainly mileage, Agassi was able to shock the crowd through the first three sets, stealing the second (and very nearly taking the third) with a mix of sublime counter-punching and dogged defence from the baseline. It was incredible to watch, as for only a few hours Agassi was Agassi again, and despite his age you truly felt he could pull the improbable off. Then the fourth set happened, and the American came crashing back to Earth as his body gave out and Federer steamrolled him. Even though he would play for one more year, it marked the last time Agassi was truly at his best. A perfect coda to his career, when that match took place, Agassi was 35.

And so as Federer now celebrates the same milestone, I wonder if he’s thinking about that match, and the man who starred across from him. Just as Agassi was, now Federer is the veteran presence, and just like Agassi was in ’05, finds himself staring down the barrel of retirement, while simultaneously clinging to the hope for one final slam.

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It’s been four years since he last won, at Wimbledon, but what kept him going – and tennis fans hoping – was that he almost certainly had those four years to get number 18, after professing his goal of competing at the Rio Olympics right after London 2012. With the recurrence of the knee injury that sidelined him after Melbourne, that’s now officially dead in the water, so how much longer can we hope to keep him for? After all, his real fight isn’t to regain that glory of old, but to hang onto what he has left – namely his perch in the top four.

If his latest Wimbledon sojourn showed us anything of Federer, it’s that he can still be just as captivating and competitive, yet equally frustrating as the consistency of his game continues to fray. Particularly against Cilic and Raonic, his game was less instant-offence and more easy bake oven – never out-hitting but doing juuust enough out-manoeuvring to keep his head above water until finally in the fifth set against the latter, he lost it completely. It was an exhilarating two weeks for Federer fans, but just as Agassi realised in 2006, that run may very well have been the Swiss’ last hurrah.

Up till this point, Federer’s entire career has been an anomaly. No man has won as many slams, nor dominated the rankings, nor displayed the artistry that he has, and only the great Jimmy Connors can match him for longevity – albeit not at quite the same level of success. If anyone can come back at 35 and win another major title it’s Federer, but my head says it’s a bridge too far. In the end it shouldn’t matter, he’s already the greatest, everything past #15 was a bonus, including a post-30 journey that gave us his undoubtedly best Wimbledon title, and a run at the top that has seen him not only continue to better his contemporaries – Roddick, Hewitt, Nalbandian, Ferrero, Gonzalez – but decisively outlive them. Unfortunately, as his body starts to fail him, this year’s run at Wimbledon might end up being his ’05 US Open, and that’s a reality tennis fans will have to come to terms with. As of right now, Federer intends to return for 2017, all we can do is enjoy whatever he has left, whatever that turns out to be.

ATP World Tour Finals Preview: Is Nole gonna have to choke a bitch?

Yep, it’s that time of year again – the world’s eight best male tennis players are set to gather in London to compete for the vaunted title of “who looks most awkward in a suit?” (Spoiler alert: it’s David Ferrer), but after that’s been decided, we move onto the ATP Tour’s centrepiece event – the World Tour Finals.

As much as the ATP Tour would like to believe otherwise, the WTF has often struggled to develop any sort of real importance in the context of the tour itself. Situated at the end of arguably the most gruelling season in any major professional sport, players often turn up suffering from varying levels of fatigue – an issue compounded by the ITF scheduling the Davis Cup finals (a much rarer opportunity for most) the week after, each year forcing at least one top player to take it easy in London.

Unfortunately, 2015’s edition seems unlikely to break that trend. This year it’s Andy Murray’s turn to take it easy, before he faces Belgium on Clay next week. It’s a particular shame given he carried some nice form into the week, reaching the Paris final where he lost to Novak Djokovic. Speaking of which, the other intrigue-sapping factor is that Djokovic has already wrapped-up the year-end no. 1, having well-and-truly dominated this season from start to finish, with the only reprieve being his shortfall against Stan Wawrinka in the French Open final. What’s more, is that despite reaching all four slam finals, and a further eight of the nine masters finales he looks as fresh as ever, meaning as the lights come on at the 02, it seems everyone else is playing for second.

Perhaps the highest compliment can be paid to Djokovic’s 2015 season is that it’s almost a carbon-copy of peak-Roger Federer. His tennis in the last week of October at the Paris Masters was just as superb as it was in Melbourne back in January, with a resurgent Andy Murray looking more helpless than Pat Rafter trying to reel in Nick Kyrgios. What particularly stood out about that victory was just how supreme his return-of-serve was – with Murray having an average serving day, easy points were hard to come by, as Djokovic was on top of everything, even on ultra-fast indoor. As such, given that the WTF is played on the exact same surface, figuring out if anyone can actually dethrone Djokovic is a question of who can back-up some serious firepower with an exceptional serving day. Unsurprisingly, it’s a short list.

Stan Wawinka and Roger Federer. That’s it. The two Swiss are Djokovic’s biggest rivals on tour at the moment, and have proven in the past to have the shotmaking to take it to the Serb on any surface. Both come in with a modicum of form – Federer more so with his recent title in Basel – and they’ll need to be playing at their absolute best to have a chance. Merely “good” won’t be enough given the level Djokovic is currently playing at.

So what separates them from the rest? It’s either one of two things: 1. Murray (who would be on the above list otherwise) has the aforementioned Davis Cup final, and isn’t even practicing on the right surface, and 2. The rest don’t have the all-round firepower to do any more than take a set from the Serb. You might think someone like Nishikori or Berdych could pull the upset, but the surface is too fast for the former to out-grind him, and the latter doesn’t have enough consistency from point-to-point. Ferrer and – as sad as it is to say – Nadal, simply can’t ramp up the aggression to best Djokovic, who at this point, is a better grinder than either anyway.

Not exactly the prettiest picture is it? In fact right about now you’re probably saying: “well if Djokovic is gonna win, is it even worth watching?” My response is firstly, stop talking to your screen, you’re creeping people out, and secondly, of course! These are the eight best players in the world we’re talking about! There’s an old adage in boxing that ‘styles make fights’, and that can be true for tennis as well – watching Nishikori grind it out with Djokovic is sure to be a lot of fun, or Wawrinka play ‘paint the lines’ against Nadal. If for no other reason, it’s worth watching to see what made these guys special-enough to get there in the first place.

With a near-7000 point lead in the ATP rankings, men’s tennis is very much Novak Djokovic’s world right now. It would be silly to expect that to change in the next seven days. But who knows? Stranger things have happened. After all, we did see John McEnroe, Tim Henman and Pat Cash reach the 2014 final.

Extra-time: A look at Federer-Nadal in its later vintage

Tennis, more than most sports, can quickly pass even the best of players by. One minute a player seems poised to dominate for the foreseeable future, the next he’s found feigning interest in women 20 years his senior on reality TV. Part of what makes Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal so remarkable is that they’ve been essentially at the top of the game for over a decade. They may not quite be Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but they’re pretty close, and it’s why their meeting on Sunday in Basel – marking the twelfth-freaking-straight year they’ve faced each other, is worth a closer examination.

In case you missed it, here’s the cliffnotes for the match: Firstly, Federer should’ve won this in straight sets. Going into the match he had form, surface and location working in his favour, and the way he played in the first set – attacking relentlessly, hitting through his crosscourt backhand – he seemed set for a relatively straightforward afternoon. The reason it went to three is because Nadal stuck to his guns, waited for Federer’s backhand to deteriorate, and capitalised when he got tight. Federer never really got his mojo all the way back in the third, but Rafa lost his, giving him the title. All-in-all it’s safe to say that of their 34 meetings, this match won’t crack the top ten.

At its best, Federer-Nadal is two men trading moments of brilliance for games on end. Each man will go on runs where they look so untouchable you might be forgiven for discounting just who is on the other side of the net – for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t matter. At even rarer times, they reach that level at the same time, and you’re left sitting in amazement as they constantly redefine what untouchable tennis is. In Basel, while we were treated to those flashes of brilliance, the match was all too often punctuated by moments just as profound in displaying their frailties – untimely double faults, routine forehands missed, subdued aggression – giving you a constant reminder that this is not the Federer-Nadal of yore.

By no means did it lack for entertainment – this is the greatest rivalry in tennis history, after all – but it’s hard not to be wistful for the sort of tennis these two played at their peak. Going into the match (and certainly afterwards), many a fan might’ve wondered why these two don’t play as often anymore – unfortunately, the answer is in the inconsistent tennis we saw on Sunday.

Gone are the days where either could waltz to a final – or even a semi – as both simply have too many average days. And whereas in their primes an “average” day was still superior to just about anyone else’s good one, that’s simply not the case anymore. Playing as they did in Basel would set them up for disappointment against many of the sport’s upper echelon – guys like Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, and of course, Novak Djokovic. Does it mean they can’t beat those guys? Of course not, but at any given major, they’ll have to go through at least two of them, and that’s a far more difficult proposition than it used to be.

As a final aside, from a semi-poetic/cosmic point-of-view, it’s fascinating that the two find themselves at such level pegging in the first-place. Nadal is still the right side of 30, and was firmly in the ascendancy last time they met in January 2014. He shouldn’t have dropped off as fast as he did, but the unfortunate truth is that Nadal’s ultra-physical style of play was always going to deny him the prolonged twilight of Federer. Then again, perhaps it’s only right that the two men who took tennis into the stratosphere, embark on their final chapters together. The Basel final was a chance to reflect as much as it was to enjoy the tennis played – here’s hoping we get a few more opportunities to prioritise the latter.

Life at the Top: Previewing the Big Four’s Second Quarter

I’ve never been a big fan of the ‘Big Four’ narrative in men’s tennis. From its earliest rumblings in late 2008, it was based on the premise that Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray had ascended to a level where they could play with the same consistency and quality that Federer and Nadal had embodied since 2005. Such a proclamation just seemed premature when you looked at the ’08 Wimbledon or ’09 AO finals, and saw Rafa and Roger take the game into the stratosphere.bigfour

Things started to change in 2010. Whether it was injury or difficulty adapting to an aging body, Federer wasn’t his usual self, and Murray and Djokovic both made slam finals. Still, it wasn’t until 2012 that for me, the Big Four was truly something to be believed. Murray broke through for his first major at Flushing Meadows, supplimenting Djokovic’s superb 3-major season the year before. Where before we merely hoped each man was capable of winning a slam (and going through the others to do it), now the certainty of their performances made it seemed impossible for anyone else to do likewise.

And yet here we are in April 2014, and it appears their reign is already over. For all their past accomplishments, the Big Four have failed to maintain even a modicum of their footing – Djokovic currently has no slams to his name, Murray is ranked 8th (despite a Wimbledon title), while Federer isn’t even the highest-ranked player from his own country. Their shortcomings have left Rafa Nadal essentially on an island by himself, but as we found in Melbourne and Miami, even he’s not without concerns.

For Nadal, Djokovic and Federer, the longest campaign of their season is about to get underway in Monaco, while Murray will join the fray in Madrid. So now’s as good a time as any take a look at what happened from January-through-March, and see if we can figure out where the Big Four are at, and where they’re headed.

Form

First the obvious – Novak Djokovic is hot shit right now. An Indian Wells-Miami double that saw him beat every other member of the Big Four at some point over those three weeks is mighty impressive. He’s once again hitting his backhand and serve with confidence, which was missing in Australia, and he still only lost to eventual champion Stan Wawrinka in an epic five-setter. The transition from hard court to clay means he’ll have to make some adjustments to the way he’s hitting the ball, but that should do little to lessen his confidence when he rides into Monaco the reigning champion.

For Federer, I think it’s fair to say he’s looking about as good as a 32-year-old can get right now. The reality is that at his age, he had to choose whether to push through in Miami and pay for it later in the season, or take it down a gear after great successes in Dubai and Indian Wells and take whatever the Miami draw gave him. This is by no means a knock against Kei Nishikori, who played a dogged final two sets to beat him there, but the reality is he was never going all the way in that tournament, and the first person of significance to play to their capabilities would beat him. He’s back in the top four, his job now is maintaining that through Wimbledon.

It’s weird that Nadal wouldn’t be closer to the top here because he’s the one who had the most success in Australia (reaching the final) and just finished runner-up in Miami. Where the knocks come from is how bad he’s looked in those two finals. He was simply being pushed around the court, and regularly found himself playing meek, ultra-defensive tennis. Frankly he hasn’t played like a number one in quite some time. However, this is Rafael Nadal we’re talking about, so he can almost sleepwalk to the final in several clay court tournaments to get his reps up before Paris.

Then there’s Murray, whose start to the season has been downright turrible. Coming off a back injury that kept him out of the post-US Open swing last year, he’s been less of a heavy hitter and more of a punching bag, losing convincingly to Federer in Melbourne, Djokovic in Miami and professional facial hair-curator Fabio Fognini in Davis Cup play. As if that wasn’t enough, Ivan Lendl – one of the few coaches on the tour who actually makes a difference – has left him for greener pastures (i.e. the golf course). All round, things aren’t looking too great for Andy.

Health

For Federer and Djokovic, things are as good as they could be. One is 32 and has obvious limitations on the amount of high-level tennis he can play, the other remains unimpeded, being at 26 in his physical prime. The real concerns are Murray and Nadal. Both have question marks hovering over them that may not just linger for the forseeable future, but the rest of their careers. Murray, with his back problems simply hasn’t been the same player since Wimbledon last year. And perhaps he knows this, which played a part in his split with Ivan Lendl in March – there would be nothing more robotic and uncompromising (and thus, Lendl-like) than him simply saying ‘you can’t win, I have no use for you’, if that is indeed the case.

Nadal’s case is just… Nadal. Since 2009 it seems he has firmly embarked himself upon a cycle of great success followed by abrupt physical decline. For as well as Stan Wawrinka played in Melbourne, this was certainly the case there. By the second set Rafa was essentially pushing his serves over the net, only to regroup a tad and take the third, but was helpless once Wawrinka overcame his nerves. Turning 28 before May is done, it may be fair to ask if the next injury to derail his career will also be his last.

Challengers

For as solid as David Ferrer has been the past five-or-so years, I don’t think anyone ever really considered him a serious contender at the majors, and for those same five-or-so years, he was as close as we got – that was until Stan Wawrinka broke through in Australia. At 28, he’s probably not going to be threatening for too many more runs to the final, but it does serve as an indicator that maybe we could see a few other names etched on the winners’ trophy. So does anyone in particular come to mind?

The most likely candidate is Tomas Berdych, who has consistently been making the second week of slams for several years now. He had a fine run to the final in Dubai, losing in three sets to Federer, and he certainly has the tools to take it to anyone on court. However, he often lacks the fitness – mental and physical – required to grind out best-of-five sets matches against the top players. Still, he’s the most likely candidate.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is possibly the most mystifying thing to come out of France since the battle of Dien Bien-Phu. He’s the epitome of Frenchiness, and for that reason I can’t see him ever winning a major at his advanced age (turns 29 in two days, if you can believe it). I can see him getting to a final if the draw falls his way, but unless he’s facing the equally-French Gael Monfils across the net, he’s got no chance.

I’m just gonna lump all the “next generation” (very sarcastic airquotes) guys together here. Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori, etc all have a feasible chance of breaking through, although as I’ve said before, it would more likely be a one-off than an indicator of something greater, considering their ages. I hope that’s not the case, as it’s probable such a slew of first time winners is really just mediocrity disguised as parity (something that deserves an article of its own). If you’re looking for a young guy with the potential to make some serious noise, keep an eye out for Czech Jiri Vesely, who pushed Murray to three sets in California, and could announce himself in a big way against any of the big four.

Outlook

First Federer, who at this point is really a novel outsider to win the French. Expect him to make at least one final as he’ll no doubt make a serious push, he’s obviously intent on making noise if he’s playing Monte Carlo for the first time in three years, but just enjoy whatever he gives us, Wimbledon is the ultimate goal here.

Murray only has two jobs here, neither of which is to win clay court titles. The first is to stay healthy, which will likely cut into his performances, and the second is to find a coach. Hopefully the latter is the reason he’s not in Monte Carlo, because he should be camped out on Andre Agassi’s doorstep until the all-timer says yes. Now that’s a partnership I’d like to see.

The reality is, for all the instability we’ve seen at the top, there’s still only two contenders for the French Open crown: Nadal and Djokovic. One has the resume, the other has the form. I’m a bit concerned Nadal won’t be able to stay healthy throughout – and if so, he may very well pay for it again at Wimbledon – but, I’m not expecting any drastic drop-off either. Still, if you asked me to pick right now, I’m leaning towards Djokovic taking the French when it’s all said and done. He should have won last year. He’s playing the best. And maybe Boris will have some tips about conquering Paris that actually relate to tennis and not picking up models.

The yearly sojourn from Monte Carlo to Paris in the Big Four era has traditionally been a time for them to assert their dominance. 2014’s edition begins with more questions than we’ve had in a very long time. Let’s just hope we find some answers.