The Stories We Tell

Olympic Games, Day Seven

(1) Federer d. del Potro, 3/6 7/6 19/17

My long Friday night was already repurposing itself into a never-ending Saturday morning when Roger Federer commenced the rambling sequence of holds that would ensure his ultimate victory over Juan Martin del Potro. Momentarily overcome by the commonplace melancholy of the witching hour, I reflected that while Melbourne isn’t exactly on the opposite side of the world from Wimbledon’s Centre Court, it isn’t far off. The world felt very far away, and a trifle surreal.

On my television a seemingly infinite parade of Australians were almost but not quite winning gold medals across a range of disciplines. Meanwhile on my computer the two men scurrying over the grass were from nations that had yet to win any medals at all. This was worth keeping in mind as the talking heads on the telly grew unhinged by the realisation that we have now fallen behind New Zealand on the medal tally. My Bravo stream relayed the important news that Walmart sells steaks so succulent that even the actors in their ads will eat them. From near and far, I was being bombarded by unreality. I wondered aloud where I might find a Walmart steak at this hour, and in this country. Simultaneously, Federer won and del Potro lost. Switzerland would have a medal, and Argentina might. Federer kissed the flag on his shirt. There’s such a thing as a sense of perspective, but at two o’clock in the morning it can be tempting to abandon it. And Murray hadn’t even appeared yet.

Appearing serene and solemn even in his consuming disappointment, the idea was seductive that del Potro’s gallant defeat might be the making of him, or, more accurately, the remaking. ‘Delpo is back!’ rang the phantom cry, even as he ambled despondently to the net, bandana swiped askew. That the loss came to Federer was unsurprising. He has been inflicting these on the Argentine all year, and hardly anyone had failed to predict a reoccurrence, myself included. What was surprising, and perhaps redemptive, was its manner. At a shade under four and a half hours it is by some accounts the longest best-of-three match in history, and for a change the loss wasn’t inflicted by Federer so much as it was inexorably and gradually handed over. This was probably the match of the year so far. For once we can say there was no shame in losing, and entirely mean it.

But if there was no shame, nor was there much joy. It is probably little more than a curious statistic that del Potro had only ever defeated Federer while the latter was ranked No.1, and that the last nine defeats occurred when the Swiss ranked at No.2 or lower. (The last time Federer defeated del Potro as a No.1 was in Basel in 2007, when the latter was still a teenager, and the former remained somewhere nearer the apogee of his career’s immense arc.†) It is the kind of random pattern that seems decidedly less random if it continues. For a long time today it seemed like it would continue, as del Potro survived an early break point and set about harrying and serving the top seed around and off Centre Court. He was flogging the ball about as hard as he ever does, which is to say terrifically hard, and yet committing almost no errors. It was a terrifying display, which only really faltered in the second set tiebreaker, and even then only temporarily.

For me the mightiest part of del Potro’s performance today was the authority with which he commenced the third set, thereby establishing the tone he would sustain throughout its heaving and ridiculous entirety. He had lost the second set despite being the superior player for most of it. This has too often inspired del Potro to a precipitous mental collapse, as disappointment at the missed opportunity dissolved the decision-making parts of his brain to a bitter mush. Losing the tiebreak was del Potro’s cue to lose the match, but he didn’t, for a while, and when he eventually did it wasn’t because of that. He fought on, for hours, and it is the quality of this fight and the intensity of his desire and application, even as his footwork grew ponderous and his opponent’s serve indecipherable, that ultimately elevated this match into greatness. It is these qualities that led us to wonder, even as his tears welled and spilled, whether del Potro was indeed back. Time will tell, once the raw sense that losing feels worse than winning fades, if this is the story to tell, whether this unmaking will really see him remade. Perhaps that’s just a nice story, and the tears tell the real tale.

(3) Murray d. (2) Djokovic 7/5 7/5

The story for Novak Djokovic, inescapable for now, is that he is a hostage to last year’s success. In 2011 he almost won everything, at least until the US Open was done with. The idea that he’d win everything again this year was patently ludicrous, but only if we relied upon the past as a guide to what is possible. However, when someone goes on an unprecedented run such as his, precedent feels irrelevant, as the records tumble week by week. By the French Open we had already progressed from wondering how Djokovic could keep on winning to wondering how he might possibly lose. He seemed somehow to exist outside of history.

As this year got under way we asked, with only a sideways glance at rationality, whether Djokovic repeating his success felt so oddly possible because it was absurd. He had made the absurd his business. He promptly made it his home by winning the most absurd of Australian Open finals. Nevertheless, in an effort to temper the more fanciful flights of expectation, he announced modest goals for his season. He didn’t believe he’d win everything again; he just wanted to win the few things he’d missed the first time round, such as the French Open, which he’d missed out on because of Federer, and Olympic gold, which had proved terribly difficult to win in a non-Olympic year. These were his goals for 2012.

By losing to Andy Murray in the second of the Olympic semifinals today, Djokovic has ensured he will win neither a gold medal nor a French Open this year. By the standards of last year, these results amount to a catastrophic failure, which merely proves that judging him by last year’s standards is cruel and unfair. As Federer noted in his years of dominance, success on that scale grows into a kind of monster with a life of its own, whose only faculty is hunger, since to demonstrate you can do something once is taken as evidence that you should be able to keep on doing it indefinitely, and should want to. The outrageous becomes quotidian, and therefore expected. But the story of Djokovic is the salutary message that even the greatest of us remain human, and that everyone is only mighty for a time. The message isn’t for Djokovic, since he already knows it. He knows, from hour to hour and week to week, precisely how mortal he feels. The message is for the rest of us, who hoped or feared that he would continue winning forever. He might have, but it was absurd to expect it, even from the man who’d made absurdity his business.

I am courting the obvious by saying that Djokovic still wins plenty, and that he wasn’t terribly far from winning today against an inspired Andy Murray. Much like del Potro had been earlier, Djokovic was arguably the better player through the second set, and could therefore feel similarly aggrieved when he lost it. Indeed, his second set yielded even more moments in which to idly indulge in games of what-might-have-been. (The missed breakpoint at 5/5 will surely haunt his fans for some time.) Sadly, unlike del Potro, Djokovic had also lost the first set, and was therefore not permitted to continue, even if he’d wanted to. But it’s doubtful whether he did want to. That last error-laced game looked suspiciously like capitulation, especially the final suicidal serve-volley. Can we begrudge him that?

Like del Potro, Djokovic was defeated by an exceptional player in an exceptional Olympic semifinal. For the Argentine, it gave us cause to wonder at the good things this might betoken in his future. For the Serb, it gave us an excuse to lament the past. These are the stories we tell. Being stories, they are, of course, wrong.

Djokovic and del Potro will play for the bronze medal on Sunday.

†They also played in Madrid in 2008, but this was back when it was played indoors in the autumn – unlike now, when it is played outdoors in a shitstorm – and therefore after Federer had lost his top ranking to Rafael Nadal.

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