Waxing Eulogistic

Australian Open, Semifinal

(3) Murray d. (2) Federer, 6/4 6/7 6/3 6/7 6/2

Thirteen hours have passed since a superb Andy Murray won the second men’s semifinal at the Australian Open, which it turns out is more than enough time for those so inclined to wax eulogistic on the declining career of the vanquished Roger Federer. Depending on one’s proclivities, these pieces cover the emotional range from gleeful to threnodic, and utilise a broad range of media: there are verse epics, literate blogs, illiterate journalism, interpretive dance, limericks, mime, sound sculptures, tapestries and at least two light operas. Sir Elton John has rearranged Candle in the Wind, yet again. Source: Michael Dodge/Getty Images AsiaPacWhatever their mood, and whatever their format, these works are united in their belief that the king, finally and incontrovertibly, is dead. By my count, this is the one hundred and sixteenth time this has occurred.

Charting and announcing Federer’s demise is something of a cottage industry within tennis journalism (which itself occupies a decidedly minor niche within the wider world of letters). Apparently there’s bonus renown for those who proclaim the exact moment. To those who follow tennis, it’s all bit dull. Those who don’t follow the sport are probably just confused, or, worse, misled.

In my experience, those whose interest in tennis remains shapeless vague are as surprised by Federer’s losses as they are by the news that he is no longer ranked No.1. In the minds of those who believe there are only four tournaments played each year, Federer’s ongoing supremacy is an almost immutable law. (I hold nothing against such people; indeed many of those related to me by blood fall into this category.) The Australian Open tends to galvanise the local population into delusions of expertise, and I’ve had to weather any number of knowing predictions from those unaware that this tournament does not constitute a quarter of the sport’s totality. The predictions, predictably, were that Federer would wipe the floor with this dour Scottish upstart. (I quickly gave up on trying to explain that Murray is a really excellent tennis player, and a rather nice guy away from the court. It was a waste of breath.)

Those of us who watch a lot of tennis of course know better. We know that Murray has posed special problems for the Swiss almost since the beginning. In 2006, as a teenager, the Scot was the only person besides Rafael Nadal to defeat Federer in his greatest season. By 2009, Murray had driven the head-to-head to 6-2 in his favour. Coming into last night’s tussle, this had narrowed to 10-9 for Murray. Those who watch a lot of tennis had undoubtedly seen plenty of those matches, although I’d hazard that this provided little assistance in predicting who would win. Recent results hardly favoured one man over the other. Federer had won their last match in straight sets, at the tour finals. Murray had done the same in Shanghai. They’d split finals at Wimbledon during the English summer. Perhaps most tellingly, Murray had never beaten Federer at a Major. Yet the betting market favoured Murray.

Initially, the match looked like reprising the Shanghai semifinal from last October. Murray’s defence was impeccable, and Federer could find few free points. At one point in the first set Murray had returned 23 of 24 serves. When Murray claimed the first set 6/4, there was a sense that the whole thing wouldn’t take too long. The scribes, composers, weavers and sculptors prepared their various implements. When Federer snuck out the second set in a tiebreak, as Murray’s forehand momentarily collapsed, the frame of reference abruptly shifted. Suddenly we were heading for last year’s Wimbledon final, in which Federer had stolen the break late in the second set, then gambolled away with the title.

But then Murray broke to open the third set, and rode it to the end, his serve untouchable. Nothing like this had ever happened in their previous nineteen matches (particularly since most of them were best-of-three), and so I felt obliged to widen the frame of reference. There was a touch of the 2009 Australian Open final about it, in which Federer and Nadal had traded tight and desperate sets for hours. It seemed to fit especially well when Federer broke early in the fourth. Frustratingly, this convenient interpretation ran into issues when Murray broke straight back, then soon broke again, and stepped up to serve for the match. Pens, chisels and looms were poised. Then, somehow, Federer broke back, forcing another tiebreak. Although the path to get there was different, the appropriate comparison was to the 2008 Wimbledon final, in which Federer narrowly averted defeat to force a fifth set. Channel 7’s patented decibel meter informed us that fully 120 decibels were in attendance, although they provided no advice on what should be done with such information, nor a frame of reference to show us what it meant. (I presume that’s a lot of decibels? But was it enough, or too many?)

Federer and Murray had never played a five sets against each other, while Federer, who’d gone the distance with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals, had never before contested consecutive five set matches. They were thus in new territory, although when Murray broke decisively at 2/2, the landscape once more felt familiar. It was again the 2009 Australian Open, in which Nadal had darted away with the fifth set as Federer unaccountably faded down the back straight. As Murray broke again to seal victory on his second match point, the score was even correct: 6/2. Indeed, even the final shot – a Federer forehand driven a foot over the baseline – was the same, although that was also the shot that concluded the 2011 French Open final. Wearily, I reflected that watching a lot of tennis matches can sometimes feel like a burden rather than a help. There’s a great deal to be said for going in fresh. To those who know little, it was just a tennis match. I’m not sure who enjoyed it more.

Murray’s celebration was muted, and the handshake was respectful. There had been moments of confrontation between the two men throughout the match, although as Murray later implied, only in tennis would such interactions even merit a mention. (Both players, at various moments, even used the word ‘fuck’. However, extensive research shows that many other men – and even women – use this word in other situations all the time.) On the other hand, the minor outbursts slotted nicely into the general discourse of Federer’s decline: he has grown ragged and ornery in his dotage. Suddenly the reference wasn’t to tennis at all, but to King Lear. It often is when kings die. But perhaps Macbeth is a better fit.

There is, as it happens, an alternative interpretation, although even to utter it is to invite disapproval, or at any rate befuddlement: it was actually just a tennis match, and it signified little, if not nothing. It was a great tennis match, although the perfunctory way the fifth set unfolded precludes its elevation to a classic. Last year Federer lost in the semifinals in four sets, before going on to have his best season in years. This year he lost in five sets.

Meanwhile Murray won in five sets, defeating Federer for the first time at Grand Slam level, and displaying commendable fortitude to ignore the upwelling of regret that must have accompanied his failure to close out the match in four. Those two tiebreaks notwithstanding, I thought Murray was magnificent, and deserved this stirring win. There was no shame in losing to him, and Federer afterwards didn’t seem particularly crushed, reiterating several times that he’d been beaten fair square, and remarking on how excited he was for the upcoming season. He certainly didn’t sound in decline, although the argument could be made that if he was, he’d be the last to know, or that even if he did know, he wouldn’t let on.

Indeed, such arguments have been made. Perhaps the end is nigh. It will have to come at some point, and even tales told by idiots must come true eventually, when they foretell the death of kings.

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