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Federer and Djokovic

This year, there will be four different grand slam winners in tennis. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, this would happen all the time. Well the sport in those days was dominated by specialists.

Paris’ red clay belonged to topspin-laden sluggers like Gustavo Kuerten and Carlos Moya and Gaston Gaudio and Juan Carlos Ferrero and Albert Costa.

Huge servers like Goran Ivanisevic had a puncher’s chance on the Wimbledon grass.

Fit players who could withstand the heat tended to win the Australian Open — four of Andre Agassi’s eight Grand Slam victories were there.

And the U.S. Open was the emotional Slam, with the raucous crowd and the late night matches — it was the sort of place where an aging Pete Sampras could find the magic one more time.

So in those five or six years when there really wasn’t a dominant king of tennis, the men’s game was divided among princes and dukes. Each year from 2000-2003, the four slams were won by four different players.

You couldn’t help but wonder if the surfaces were SO different that tennis would never have a player dominate on all of them again.

Then Roger Federer came along. There has been a lot of talk lately about the way the different surfaces have come closer together — they took some of the fire out of Wimbledon’s grass, some of the mud out of the French Open clay — and a lot more talk about how the new equipment blunts many of the differences between courts. These things might be true, but there was also an all-court brilliance with Federer (his balance, his power, his speed, his touch) that made him superior no matter what the surface. Federer could win on ice.

The next four years, Federer won at least two slams every year.

He showed what was possible. Rafael Nadal seemed a pure clay-court specialist like his Spanish countrymen Moya and Costa and Carlos Ferrera, But, inspired I suspect by his hunger to beat Federer, he learned how to conquer the grass, then the hardcourts. In 2008, he beat Federer at Wimbledon.

In 2009, Federer won two Slams. In 2010, Nadal won three. In 2011, Novak Djokovic — hungry to break through the Federer-Nadal stronghold — built an invulnerable game based on fitness and return of serve and transforming himself match by match. He had one of the great year in tennis history and won three Slams. 

Look at this run of finalists from 2011 through 2013:

2011 Australian: Djokovic beat Andy Murray.
2011 French: Nadal beat Federer.
2011 Wimbledon: Djokovic beat Nadal.
2011 U.S. Open: Djokovic beat Nadal.
2012 Australian: Djokovic beat Nadal.
2012 French: Nadal beat Djokovic.
2012 Wimbledon: Federer beat Murray.
2012 U.S. Open: Murray beat Djokovic.
2013 Australian: Djokovic beat Murray.
2013 French: Nadal beat David Ferrer.
2013 Wimbledon: Murray beat Djokovic.
2013 U.S. Open: Nadal beat Djokovic.

Twenty-four finalists in three years, and the only player to break the stronghold of the big four was the extroardinary David Ferrer, who has for a decade now has played his heart out with the fleeting hope that he could somehow, some way, overcome the relative smallness of his game and win simply by trying harder. Nadal dispatched Ferrer in three dismissive sets at the French, showing what happens when mere mortals try to play in the garden of the gods.

And you couldn’t help but wonder if tennis would be permanently dominated by a select few players with overpowering games.

This year has been very different. Yes, Nadal won the French, and Djokovic played Federer in a stirring Wimbledon final. But things have changed for big four. Some of those changes are obvious. Nadal’s injuries continue to plague him. Andy Murray lost ground after back surgery and a coacing change.

Some things, though, are not as obvious. Saturday, at the U.S. Open semifinals, Djokovic and Federer both lost to players ranked well below them. What was even more compelling is that Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic outplayed Djokovic and Fed in important ways. 

Much of Djokovic’s brilliance has been tied to his ability to dig in on the big points and win those. When Djokovic engages, he seems to never miss a shot. Well, Saturday, Nishikori beat him regularly on the big points.

Much of Federer’s brilliance has been his glorious combination of power and grace — Cilic simply blew him off the court Saturday.

The announcers — at least the announcers on the U.S. Open channel since I no longer get CBS thanks to some war between DirecTV and Raycom, which owns the CBS affiliate in Charlotte — kept talking about how shocking it was. But I would argue that the most shocking part was how utterly NOT shocking it was, if that makes any sense. 

Nishikori and Cilic obviously played at a very high level, obviously, but neither one played out of his mind. Nishikori hit the ball cleanly, with power, and he made few bad decisions, especially on those big points that are supposed to be Djokovic’s realm. Cilic served with force, beat Federer consistently on the backhand and pummeled Fed’s second serve. You do those things in tennis, you will win. There were no miracles here. These were no once-in-a-lifetime Chris Moneymaker wins the World Series of Poker things. Nishikori was better than Djokovic when it mattered. Cilic was way better than Federer.

My constant (and, admittedly, annoying) mantra in professional sports is this: The years never lose. It is true in every single sport — the players get older way faster than anyone wants to believe. 

Sure, every now and again the great ones can hold off the years, the way Federer did against Gael Monfils this week or on his run to the Wimbledon final, but such triumphs are fleeting. Federer won his last grand slam when he was 30. Ivan Lendl won his last at 29, Jimmy Connors at 30. Sampras and Rod Laver won their last a few days after turning 31. Andre Agassi managed to win one at 32. Then, John McEnroe’s last was at 26, Bjorn Borg gave up tennis at 25, Lleyton Hewitt peaked at 21.

This is the stratosphere of pro sports — you only get so much time at the peak, and the air is thin, and you can only breathe for so long. Djokovic is only 27 and you would expect him to be at the top for a while longer, but three times in the Grand Slams this year he was outslugged by Stan Wawrinka, Nadal and 24-year-old Nishikori. The world catches up.

And Federer? This tournament felt like it could be magical for him. Nadal couldn’t play, Djokovic and Murray were on the other side of the bracket, he came in playing brilliantly well. But he needed to use all the sleight of hand and dry ice and trap doors in his magic kit just to get by Monfils. Then, no tricks worked against 25-year-old Cilic. 

I’m reminded of one of my favorite scenes in sports movies — the scene in The Hustler where Fast Eddie Felson plays pool against Minnesota Fats the second time. The first time, Fast Eddie dominated Fats for 24 hours or more, and it was clear he was the better player. But he got drunk, and he got cocky, and Fats knew how to take out drunk and cocky challengers. Fats went to the bathroom, washed up, refocused his mind, came out ready for another 24 hours of pool. And Fast Eddie was beaten.

But the second time they played, Fast Eddie was changed. He had been through a lot of pain and no longer could be distracted. He played brilliantly and relentlessly, game after game, until finally Fats put down his cue and said: “I quit Eddie. I can’t beat you.” 

The Cilic-Federer match had that feel. Federer had never lost to Cilic before — Saturday posed the question: Can he ever beat Cilic again. 

Can Federer win another grand slam? It’s possible, of course, especially at Wimbledon. But I don’t think he will. It isn’t just two or three players who can beat him now. There are a few. And there are more on the way. There are always more on the way.

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8 Responses to Federer and Djokovic

  1. spencersteel says:

    Yesterday’s matches reminded me of Safin-Sampras and Hewitt-Sampras at the 2000 and 2001 US Open finals where we got the blowout we expected, just from a different opponent. Djokovic is younger, Federer older than Pete was in those matches, but nearly all of them play their best tennis at 23-25. Nishikori is 24. Cilic is 25. Djokovic’s best season was at 24. Roger’s (take your pick) came at 22-25. Rafa’s came at 24. Age has gotten Federer. Injury has gotten Murray and Nadal, but in 2015 they’ll be 28 and 29 respectively. Djokovic will be 28. Tomorrow’s finalists will be 26 and 25 next season, and Grigor Dimitrov will be 24. The stranglehold of the Big Four over the majors had to end sometime. It ended yesterday, with a bang. The changing of the guard in tennis reminds me of Hemingway’s line about how a guy went bankrupt. “Two ways”, he said. “Gradually, then suddenly”.

  2. doncoffin64 says:

    ” It isn’t just two or three players who can beat him now. There are a few. And there are more on the way. There are always more on the way.”

    True in every competitive human endeavor.

  3. Dan says:

    I felt Cilic had a great chance against Federer. Was shocked about Nishikor’s win, however. Cilic played Federer really well in Toronto a few weeks prior, and he’s had a fantastic year. Previous records aren’t that important when one player is now past his prime and another is entering their prime.

    Maybe it’s more tennis than other sports, but it feels that there are so many general fans of the sport who watch the grand slams, but don’t bother watching the rest of the year or know many of the players outside the top 10. Federer losing shouldn’t be such a shocker. A month prior, Tsonga completely over powered him as well, where Federer couldn’t get a read on his serve, and didn’t get a break point all match.

    Roger’s 33. His game has some flaws that great players can attack. Just because there wasn’t Nadal or Djokovic in his way, doesn’t mean it was a given. Actually, Novak, while beating Federer many times, was never a player that had the ability to dominate Roger like a Cilic did.

    There’s a lot of great tennis from Roger to come. It may not result in grand slams, but he’s without question a top 5 player in the world right now, and should be top 10 for a while longer.

    I’d be more concerned about Novak right now. He should be in his prime, but it has been an up and down year for him. Not sure how much longer he’s going to stay with Becker.

  4. MisterMJ says:

    Fed played with heavy legs. Every volley was a half-volley. He missed plenty of forehands when he tried to scoot around his backhand. His serve lacked zing and he couldn’t buy a first serve on the ad side. He didn’t play horrible – but his movement was compromised and Cilic simply overwhelmed him (big serve, big ground-strokes, aggressive return game on Fed’s second serve). Somewhat reminded me of Fed’s losses to Berdych, when the Czech would just bludgeon him. But all credit to Cilic. It’s one thing to squeak by a player not quite 100% … but Cilic never let up and never lost focus – in the most important match of his career.

    Nole was puzzling. He seemed well on course when he dominated the second set and had multiple break chances early in the 3rd set. At that time, Kei was looking mopey and just needed an excuse to go away. But all the championship qualities that Nole possesses never surfaced. Usually, he RELISHES wearing opponents down and then bullying them around the court. Perhaps he was tired. Perhaps it was just a bad day at the office. But the third set tiebreaker was as poor a series of points as I’ve ever seen Djokovic play (even the “bad” Nole of several years back). He could barely keep the rallies going and he handed Kei (who himself was playing nervous tennis) the 2 sets to 1 advantage.

    Again, Nishikori and Cilic are well-deserved finalists and a breath of fresh air (inevitable) – along with Raonic and Dmitrov. Nole will be fine. He got married, he stole the Wimbledon title from Fed (honestly), and he’s somewhat in limbo … but I’m sure the desire and motivation is still there. Becker’s influence is overrated and I doubt the relationship continues past this year (was Boris responsible for Nole choking in the fourth set in the Wimbledon finals and then Fed tightening up in the fifth?).

    Fed will be fine – just keep expectations reasonable for a 33-yo legend who’s had a miraculous season considering how poorly he played in 2013. He’s prone to sloppiness, passivity/tension, and always seems to have ONE BAD game per set (didn’t hurt him against Groth, definitely hurt him against Monfils and Cilic). He will contend on the right surface and be in the thick of things during the second week at majors … but he’ll also continue to give away matches (I wish they would keep stats for return points at 30-30/deuce or 15-30 – he can be brutal in these situations). But c’mon … this is the gravy stage of his career.

    • Ed says:

      I honestly felt like Cilic would have beaten anyone in the world, Nadal included, with the way he played in that match. I think he would have had a good chance to beat anyone in the history of tennis.

      He was DEMOLISHING the ball on serve, on forehand, and on backhand, and he was making very few errors. There’s really no way to play against that.

      That’s not an excuse for Federer, mind you — he’s old, and he’s going to continue to lose matches that he would not have lost in his prime. He SHOULD have lost to Monfils the round before. It’s simply a comment on how incredible Cilic played; he was otherworldly.

  5. Ian says:

    I think Fed has one more in him – either this years Australian or next years Wimbledon. Yes, he’s older but it’s not like he’s a bad player anymore. He’s still clearly one of the top 10 players playing right now and that gives him a punchers chance. While age is a problem, he’s aging a lot better than most. Since the year he turned 30, he’s still made 3 finals (winning one), 5 quarter finals and 8 semi finals.

    • hawkbrand says:

      Fed is done winning slams. At his age, the best of 5 is too much for him to win 7 in a row against the up and coming guys on the tour. He will still win a few of the smaller tournies, and perhaps get another 1000 Masters title or two. But I believe the 2012 Wimbledon was the last chance to see the GOAT win a grand slam….assuming Nadal can’t keep healthy over the next 3 to 4 years and surpass Federer’s achievements and become the GOAT.

      • Ian says:

        I think Nadal’s door is actually closing pretty fast. He’ll probably win another French, maybe two, but people are letting all those clay court wins obscure the fact that he hasn’t been that “great” for a while. Over the last four years, excluding the French, Federer has been much different better even though he is clearly past his prime (age 30-33 vs 25-28). He’s made 8 semi finals (to Nadal’s 5) although Nadal has made 5 finals to Fed’s 3 (both winning one). Certainly, ignoring the French Open tilts this but Nadal hasn’t been that successful outside of it. Fed, on the other hand, has been to the final of every Slam at least five times.

        Anyhow, Fed can still win another slam. He still won top tournaments this year and moved up from #6 to #3. He was 12-4 against top 10 opponents this year. He nearly beat Djokovic in 5 sets at Wimbledon just two months ago. I think people tend to bury Federer a bit b/c he doesn’t seem to have the “fire” that Nadal has. They mistake his quiet nature as a negative thing in an athlete. (Although I’m not saying you did that).

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