Roger Federer could not help letting forth just a hint of smugness as he told Andrew Murray that it was okay to cry a little after losing the final match of the Australian Open, oh-three. He has been there, after all, soaked with tears when Rafael Nadal won here last year. This time he owned the tournament from start to finish. In the final, it was not even close, even if Murray reached set point two or three times in the third and held on for a long tie-breaker. Still, the level of play showed that it was not a blow out. Murray gave the Swiss superman a much tougher match than anyone else in the tournament, notably Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who surprisingly played like a doormat in the semi-final, after raising expectations that he would do much better when he won a dramatic match, with brilliant rallies, against the Serb Novak Djokovic, the ’08 winner.
Djokovic, Davidenko, Tsongas, Roddick, Isner, Del Potro, Nadal: there was supposed to be a fine gentlemen’s lineup going into the first major tournament of the 2010 season, and the mighty Federer, following an excellent season during which, despite losses in the Australian and U.S. Opens, he showed he was still the man to beat, was by consensus tops but beatable. Beatable by Murray, precisely — especially when Nadal and Del Potro, Federer-slayers at the ’09 Australian and U.S. opens, respectively, retired with injuries.
Last year, Roger Federer won the championships at Roland-Garros and Wimbledon, the back-to-back classics that gave him the most wins in the Open era, which dates from 1968. With these wins, he became, statistically speaking, the greatest player of the Open era. Some would say of all time, but that would be a matter of judgment, because in terms of stats, it is impossible to compare the kinds of numbers that players like Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, or, now, Roger Federer, pile up to the career of, most tellingly, Pancho Gonzales, who turned pro almost immediately and went on to dominate everybody he played well into his 40s and even 50s, but without victories in the great, famous, glorious, attention-getting, and numbers-keeping national invitational tournaments in tennis’ four oldest homelands.
In logical terms, statistics do not lie. Tennis is one on one and the court is always the same, though admittedly it can be windy or hot or something else and of course the surfaces vary. But everyone is on the same courts. In baseball you have the rest of the team and all kinds of ballparks. A pitcher’s ERA and win/loss records cannot mean the same thing as wins in tennis tournaments. Sixteen grand slams is more than 14 grand slams (Federer and Sampras) and that, my friends, is that. And yet, no, it is not that. What about the competition? Not unlike the long cycles of climate change, of which the Al Gores of this world seem to be unaware, there are cycles of champions in sports, and it may well be we are in a valley-period for tennis players, as we have been for outfielders, first and second basemen for at least five or six years now.
Federer is a uniquely gifted player, however, and the best evidence of this lies in the way he dispatched Tsonga and Murray in successive three-set matches. The Frenchman and the Scot both had fine tournaments, which did not lead to predictions either man would beat Federer, but did make for analyses that either could beat him. Coulda ain’t enough, as we say in the Bronx, but I have to admit almost anyone would have been justified in expecting at least one of those matches to go five sets and both of them to easily go to four.
In his win against the young Croat champion Marin Cilic, Murray showed the grit and drive that have made him the Great British Hope for the past two years, as well as a new level of technical mastery that suggested he might be ready to win his first major. Cilic, who defeated Andy Roddick in five sets, demonstrated plenty of grit himself, but Murray, after letting the young Croat champion take the first set, outplayed him with a deft combination of returns-down-the-line and brilliant net play.
Djokovic, who defeated Tsonga in 2008 for the Australian championship, met him in the quarter-final, and this time it seemed as if Tsonga’s sheer stamina and speed, which overcame the Serb in the fifth set (6-1), might give Federer the kind of slip that Rafa Nadal gave him in last year’s final. Stamina and speed, however, are Federer’s middle names, so much so that you scarcely notice them. Except on the rare recent occasions when for whatever reason he is unnerved, as he clearly was during the ’09 U.S. Open final against the dashing Del Potro, Federer gives the supremely confident and masterful impression — like Pete Sampras and John McEnroe — of not really trying. That is because he is so completely on top of the game, analyzing his opponent like a computer and moving with feet like a ballet dancer on a body that rarely seems to be straining, that you literally do not expect him to miss. He makes superbly timed uses of his first-serve aces, sends his opponent off-balance with deadly cross courts, and controls the rhythm of play.
Andy Murray is only 22, and it is obvious that he is improving not year by year but tournament by tournament. When he finally catches Federer it will be of some comfort to British tennis fans, who are kind of like Chicago Cubs fans. However, they have some nerve, when you think about it, to lament the fact that they have not had a champion since Fred Perry. Perry, the greatest player of the mid-1930s until the American Don Budge took his place, was a superb competitor and a ladies man who had liaisons (and marriages) with several of the world’s most fabulous women, such as Marlene Dietrich. He remains one of the handful-and-one men to have won all the major championships. But because he was not a public school boy, the officials of British tennis were rude to him and all but told him to get lost. Which he did, becoming first a pro, then an American citizen (he served in the Army Air Force during World War II), then one of the most successful sports-to-clothes men — like Rene Lacoste, the legendary French champion — in the history of capitalist enterprise.
There’ll always be an England and all that, and class snobbery may even have had its uses (what is certain is that Pakistan was a lot quieter when Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen were in charge of that dreadful place), but claiming to miss Fred Perry requires a certain kind of English chutzpah, and keep in mind that Murray is a Scot.
However, tennis is a fine game. While it is interesting to see that there are now some sharp little Chinese girls out there giving it the old college try on the ladies’ side, the showdown was predictable, with the ferociously competitive, superb athlete Serena Williams once again taking on comers — notably screeching Russians and other Slavs, such as Belorus girl champion Victoria Azarenka, who almost beat Serena in the quarters. The final against Justine Henin, returning to tennis after an 18-month layoff during which she did some charity work in Congo (Belgians feel some responsibility for their broken-down ex-colony), produced a fine three-setter. In the doubles’ game, American siblings ruled, with the Bryan brothers winning the gentlemen’s tournament and the Williams sisters the ladies’. There was a mixed doubles as well, but I am sorry to admit I did not follow, and can only report that the altogether attractive team of Leander Paes and Cara Black won, as they often do. I wanted to find out how Roger Federer’s charity “hit for Haiti” did. They raised six hundred thousand, reportedly, though plans for disbursing it were not available.