When a man is down two sets to one and he is on serve and behind 15-40, you find out what he is made of — in tennis, at any rate. In Roger Federer’s case, his hapless rival in that particular situation said it best: “[S]uddenly he start to mix everything,” said the French ace Gael Monfils after the match. He meant, he did what he needed to do to save the game, save the set, save the match.
Federer himself put it a little differently, mentioning afterward that he told himself to just go ahead and play the last point, since last point is what by all evidence it was. But his unstated meaning was: just let it be and play.
Just give it your best and enjoy it. Is this not a good formula? It is a civilized formula. It is the way we should approach life. It is profoundly serious without being hyper or pretentious or obnoxious. It is not a show off person’s way of thinking. Be natural. Nothing requires more education than to do something that is difficult with natural grace. This is how Roger Federer plays tennis and is the reason why he is so widely and rightly admired. He is the Joe DiMaggio of tennis, with perhaps a somewhat sunnier disposition, notwithstanding he is a reserved and formal man, from Switzerland.
He put in a good strong serve and Monfils caught it with a solid backhand and — it sailed long by a few inches. One match point saved. Federer owns one of the sport’s great serves, so that was not unusual, if in the circumstances it was nerve-wracking. Big cheer at Arthur Ashe Stadium: Monfils is popular here, but no one wants to see Federer lose.
Federer played the next one as a classic serve and volley, fitting for a champ who has been working with one of the great S&V men of all time, Stefan Edberg, since the end of a disappointing 2013 season. Breathing safely at least for a moment at deuce, Federer took charge and never let go, winning the set 7-5 and crushing Monfils in the fifth, 6-2.
“You know,” Monfils concluded, “that’s why he’s the greatest player, because he can do everything.”
It is true that Federer is the most complete tennis champion of his generation, and his dominance is due in large part to his huge court intelligence, his ability to change tactics to throw an opponent off balance and regain the initiative if he does not have it from the beginning or loses it. He tried, in fact, two sharply different tactics in the match against Monfils, chipping low shots in the first set to blunt the big Frenchman’s powerful groundstrokes, and, when that did not work, wearing him down on long baseline rallies. That did not work either, so he began making more net approaches, with happy results in the third set but not in the fourth. That was when, as Monfils explained, he just let it all come out at once and played his incomparable game.
The question can be raised, of course, why not do this sort of thing from the start of the match? The answer is deceptively simple, but was already apparent to the great theoretician of tennis (and best player of the 1920s), Bill Tilden. In tennis there are three factors, you, your opponent, and the tennis ball. You have to impose your game, which of course is what your opponent is trying to do as well, and the ball has its own ideas, though they come entirely from factors outside itself. You cannot, in these conditions, “dictate the point” at will any more than a batter can automatically swing the way he wants at any pitch.
Elementary. But never obvious. It was interesting to keep this in mind during this Open while watching quite a bit of doubles and juniors, more than I usually do. The doubles were of interest because several excellent U.S. men’s teams were in contention, a consolation for the lousy performance of our men in singles, not one of whom made it into the second week. But the doubles competition brought out quite a lot of American talent, with Rajeev Ram and Scott Lipsky, in particular, maintaining a steady display of superb coordination worthy of the best.
They met the best in the semis, however, losing to Mike and Bob Bryan in the semis in three taut sets in Arthur Ashe stadium. In mixed doubles, Donald Young, who lost to Monfils early in the singles draw, teamed up with teenage hope Taylor Townsend to advance to the semis, where they lost to a U.S.-Mexican duo.
The juniors were of interest too because there has been no end of moaning about the dismal state of American tennis. Predictions about juniors are usually useless — you cannot tell how a boy of 16, or even 18, is going to evolve as an athlete, or even whether he is going to want to make a career of sports. You cannot tell that of a girl, either. Still, if you see the juniors playing well, it at least means there must be some good tennis education going on somewhere, or else where would they be learning this stuff?
The issue of tennis education seems to have had something to do with the sacking of Patrick McEnroe as director of player development at the USTA. McEnroe did not seem to mind, and happily won the champions doubles draw alongside his brother. Why should he be blamed for a dearth of American champions? Is it his fault that tennis is not a big sport in high school and college?
In fact, if you consider that no sport can thrive unless it is widely popular, the USTA could be doing player development a disservice by trying to take the lead in this realm, as it is doing with the building a new 100-court facility in Florida. This might have the effect of further alienating kids from the sport. Kids want to play a sport that will win them varsity letters, make them popular and get the prettiest girls. If you take them out of their schools and send them to Florida, are you not reinforcing the notion that it is a game for misfits and loners? It is not entirely clear why the USTA, which own the Open, should be in the business of forming the next generation of top players. The American way is to let local communities educate their kids. If we want to produce tennis champs, many observers believe, the USTA should promote the sport locally rather than take this job on itself.
As it happens, our strongest shot this year was a 16-year old named Francis Tiafoe who trains at a USTA-supported facility at College Park, Maryland, where he grew up. This is fine, no doubt, but his brother attends De Matha High School in nearby Hyattsville, which is legendary for producing scholar-athletes. Why not just give the money to De Matha to hire a couple extra coaches and get more kids interested in the tennis team?
This is a question I will have to put to Diane Ravitch. Tiafoe, meanwhile, showed he already has a variety of shots that are terribly effective. He made it to the semis, beating the number one juniors seed, a Russian boy only a few months older than he, Andrey Rublev, in a tense match where he very nearly blew a 6-1, 5-2 lead. Rublev came back in the second and seemed to have got young Tiafoe completely unnerved in the third, but the American showed strong discipline under pressure and held on through some breaks and counter-breaks until finally serving out the last game.
If Tiafoe and Stefan Kozlov and Jared Donaldson and Noah Rubin, as well as Tiafoe’s doubles partner in the main draw, Michael Mmoh (they lost to Ram-Lipsky in the second round), are in any sense representative of teen tennis as we play it today, we are not in desperate shape, although of course it is difficult to tell how much depth there is behind them.
In the end, Tiafoe outlasted his pals, but lost in the semis to a French 18-year old named Quentin Halys, who somehow managed to get the win while double faulting 15 times. You probably have to be a teenager to double that many times and still win — or maybe you have to be a teenager to be handed that many free points and still lose.
Halys looked set to win the title, but Australian phenom Omar Jasika, trailing 2-6, 4-5, made a sensational comeback to win in three sets. He also won the boys doubles with his Japanese partner, Naoki Nakagawa.
Well, the Japanese. Big sport in Japan, tennis, I bet. Whatever. It is a fact, though, that Kei Nishikori beat Novak Djokovic in four sets in the first semis, whereupon Marin Cilic, a Croatian from Bosnia-Herzegovina — but never mind. Mike and Bob Bryan defeated the Latin team of Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez and while the Spanish team (they are Catalan, but that is a sensitive issue these days so it is better to leave it in parentheses) certainly played a great tournament, frankly the match the mighty Bryan’s played against Lipsky-Ram was more thrilling. Anyway, the Bryan’s won, fifth time here. Serena Williams did not have a hard time defeating her close friend Caroline Wozniacki in the women’s singles, which I admit is not nice of me to say, given the under-reporting of women’s tennis at TAS during this tournament. However, it is Miss Williams’ third in a row here, sixth in all, and 12 others spread across the French and Australian Opens and the Championships at Wimbledon.
The men’s final is Monday. So I mean, you can look it up. I am delighted. Let the better player win. Whoever wins, it will be his first. It is the end of an era, the first time since 2005 that there has been a Grand Slam final in which at least one of the competitors has not been Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic, or Andy Murray.
Anyway it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.