Roger Federer played great tennis for a week and a half at Melbourne Park, the venue of the Australian Open, which bills itself as the Grand Slam of Asia and the Pacific. Australia, of course, is a continent in its own right, but it is closely interested in Asian and Pacific affairs. Federer was a feared and loved power here a few years ago — feared by his adversaries, loved by the fans, who appreciate his grace and classical form. He won four championships here, most recently in 2010. The fans still love the beauty of his game and the demeanor of the champion that he carries with him even when he loses.
Given the poor level — by his standards, no one else’s — of his game last year, which knocked him all the way down to number seven in the ATP rankings, it was a victory in itself to make it to the semis.
The feeling spread that maybe this time he would overcome Rafael Nadal, despite the man of Majorca’s eight wins to his two in their grand slam meets. Finesse and speed over passionate power, that was the question. Federer is an attacking player, he tries to end points quickly by, for example, putting a shot into a corner and then moving to the net to volley the return to the other side. Nadal, like his current great rival Novak Djokovic (they are ranked one and two, though the Serb had the No. 1 seed here as defending champion), bases his game on defense from the baseline, waiting as long as he needs to send a cannonball (a term that used to apply to serves but seems appropriate for today’s high-energy ground strokes) where you ain’t. The question in Nole-Rafa matches is who will grow just a bit weary first and open an opportunity. The Roger-Rafa question, for ten years now, has always been the oldest one in sports.
The answer for now: defense beats offense.
Through the match against Tsonga and then the quarter, against Andy Murray, Federer was his “old” self, the player who held the No. 1 rank longer than any other player in history, governing the play and the pace and the placements. He was the same in the first set against Nadal, who needed four sets to overcame a high-powered Grigor Dimitrov — called “baby Federer” when he first emerged two or three years ago for a style that bore some resemblance to the master’s — to reach the semis. But the same was not good enough.
They were about even until the tiebreak, and Federer’s aggressive plays at the net worked well, barring the way to Nadal’s furious passes. He was sending his elegant one-handed backhands long, a sign things were not all even — Federer’s backhand is usually the first to fail when he loses his ability to dictate the point. By the middle of the tiebreak, and except for some magnificent moments early in the second set, it was mainly downhill, 7-6, 6-3, 6-3.
Federer even let himself show some exasperation at Rafa’s noisy enthusiasm, an irritation old school types do not blame him for but which he usually keeps under wraps. He actually played better in most respects except the crucial one, which is getting the shot you need for the important point. He sent those into the net too often (50 unforced errors, a dubious stat, but meaningful to the extent it refers to balls you get to in time for a clean shot and yet botch, and this was twice as many as normal for him), hit some of his legendary forehands long and wild, and while his serve was excellent it was not quite the killer it was in the earlier matches. By the third set, he was repeatedly netting his elegant volleys, and that was when he was able to reach Nadal’s masterful passing shots.
Stanislas Wawrinka edged Tomas Berdych in a tight four-setter — they had almost exactly the same stats and went to a tiebreak three times, though the Czech gave the second one away by double-faulting twice in a row. Nadal had never lost against the “other” Swiss, the man from St. Catherine, in Switzerland’s western canton of the Vaud. (His father comes from the regions where Poland, Germany, and Czechoslovakia intersect.) But after all, neither had Novak Djokovic, whom Wawrinka beat in the quarters in five gritty and elegant sets. Wawrinka’s fantastic grit — his friend Federer calls him “the stanimal” — masks the soul and style of an elegant purist. Wawrinka’s backhand, one-handed like Federer’s, is perhaps the best today, a weapon as fearsome as the otherwise completely different forehands of Nadal or Juan-Martin del Potro. His serve, moreover, was working better, much better, than Nadal’s, when they met on Sunday after a great deal of hype and hoopla.
Meanwhile, a tiny dynamo from Slovakia — the part of Czechoslovakia that decided to go its own way — had heroically challenged China’s most famous and good-humored athlete, Li Na, for the women’s championship. Dominika Cibulkova, resilient and determined and real like the little onion that her name denotes, put on a great show, and this was after taking down such stars as Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska, but the experienced lady from Wuhan (playing in her third final here) had the edge in court smarts. Despite some close calls, she moved the little Bratislavian from corner to corner and, after taking the first set in a tiebreak, blanked her in the second.
The Nadal-Wawrinka showdown really was not supposed to be a showdown — it was supposed to be like Hillary Clinton, to make a bad simile, a coronation. The stats, the precedents, the pressure, the sportswriters. All the esteemed commentators, including the top correspondents of ESPN and Tennis magazine, to take only two U.S. outlets, predicted Djokovic and Serena Williams to take the trophies, and in listing various likely runner-ups and long shots, not a one of them mentioned Stan Wawrinka, Dominika Cibulkova, or Li Na. As TAS was saying the other day about predictions in sports, but anyway.
Anyway, Stan basically wiped the floor with Rafa, beat him clear and clean in the first set tie break, took the second decisively after Nadal returned from a medical timeout, completely lost his confidence and his game in the third, without missing a beat, took the last one as decisively as any one can against Rafa Nadal, 7-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.
Weird? Not really: Wawrinka is the kind of player who is always almost-there and is bound to get there if he does not quit along the way. This is what his match against Djokovic meant. It is also one meaning of the words tattooed to his arm, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Resignation, courage, but not despair, persistence — the line is from Samuel Beckett, James Joyce’s collaborator who became one of the great dramatic poets of the 20th century, but who must have known something about standing in another great man’s shadow. “Worstward Ho”, from which the quote is taken, also has this:
The dim. The dim. The void. Gone too? Back too? No. Say no. Never gone. Never back. Till yes. Till say yes. Gone too. Back too. The dim. The void. Now the one. Now the other. Now both. Sudden gone. Sudden back. Unchanged? Sudden back unchanged? Yes. Say yes. Each time unchanged. Somehow unchanged. Till no. Till say no. Sudden back changed. Somehow changed. Each time somehow changed.
Nadal showed good sportsmanship and courage, stayed in the match, and acknowledged at the end of it that Stan fully deserved the win. Which certainly he did. Being 100 percent and giving 100 percent are two different things; nobody, certainly not on the last day of two week tournament in which some matches go for five hours and the temperature can reach 110 degrees, is 100 percent. Nadal was not; it was painfully clear, even on TV broadcasts, that after coming back from a 7-minute medical timeout he was without the form that allowed him to cruise to the final, crushing his great rival Roger Federer in straight sets a few days earlier. Without his customary form, nor his speed, nor his power, Nadal can beat just about anyone. But on Sunday he could not beat Wawrinka. To ask whether he could have beat him had Rafa not hurt his back is idle. Wawrinka’s convincing, if close, win over Djokovic, and the level of play and the mental discipline that he sustained against Nadal made him responsible. Nadal acknowledged this, said it was his day; as Federer said earlier of his loss to Nadal, “He played better.”