Those Lethal Cocktails

US Open, Fourth Round

A brief survey of the men’s quarterfinalists for this year’s US Open is revealing. For starters all eight men are Europeans, of whom three, naturally, are Spanish. Unsurprisingly, one of them is Swiss. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images North AmericaThree of these men are over thirty, while the youngest is twenty-six. Unbelievably, none of these elderly European gents is Roger Federer.

The match of the day, easily, was the terrific dust-up between Lleyton Hewitt and Mikhail Youzhny, which stretched to five sinuous sets, the last of which was eventually won by the Russian. Hewitt led by two sets to one, and by 4/1 in the fourth set. Hewitt’s mental fortitude was duly praised, or, as it happened, over-praised. Contrary to popular opinion, he was never an accomplished frontrunner, and even during his eighty weeks atop the rankings would often permit leads disastrously to slip. There might be other players as habituated as Hewitt to producing epics, but he remains unmatched in his determination to erect monuments to them even as they unfold.

From that perilous position, Youzhny clawed back, and won the next six games, in the process taking the fourth set and moving ahead by a break early in the fifth. From there it was Hewitt’s turn, winning five of the next six, moving to 5/2. Winning a sixth game would have snared him the match, but it wasn’t to be. Youzhny surged again, broke, held, broke, and served out the match, which is an exceedingly rapid way of describing a process that was fraught, frequently brilliant, and occasionally approached genius. A quarterfinal would have been a fitting result for Hewitt, who’d played so mightily to defeat Juan Martin del Potro a few rounds ago. Alas.

It is equally as fitting a result for Youzhny, if not to say a surprising one. I confess, watching on as he struggled to overcome Matthew Ebden in five sets in Melbourne in January, I’d believed that Youzhny’s best days were fast receding behind him. Ebden was actually pushing him around. One should have more faith, though that’s an easy thing to misplace when an aggressive player loses confidence. Tentative where once he’d been reckless, he now appeared indecisive and error-prone, and it was easy to assume he’d never regain his speed and certainty. I am pleased to be wrong, but surely not as pleased as he was today, saluting the crowd. It would’ve been nice to hear what he had to say, but Eurosport cut away to Barbara Schett, who was bringing her weaponised vivacity to bear on Victoria Azarenka. ‘You haven’t just been busy on the court, but off the court as well! I hear you’ve been involved in a photo-shoot for a campaign to help ex-smokers! Can you tell us a little bit about that?!’ ‘Well I’ve never smoked myself so I can’t really relate. But I do find them very inspirational.’

Sadly we couldn’t sip the dregs of this lethal cocktail of goodwill indefinitely. There was live tennis to be had, though live is perhaps a misleading term, if not an ironic one in the case of the sadly lifeless Marcel Granollers. One presumes he hadn’t held out much hope against Novak Djokovic, though he probably hoped for more than he got, or at any rate hoped that his inevitable beating might be less savage. He won only three games, all of which came in the first set, although this should not lead one to believe he was any closer to winning that set than the others. He failed to win a single point on Djokovic’s first six service games. Then he failed to win a game on his own serve for the rest of the match. Chris Bowers on Eurosport suggested that had it been a boxing match the referee would have stopped the bout. But it was a tennis match, and so Djokovic was permitted to go on pummelling Granollers for our entertainment, until the Spaniard lay unmoving on the side of the court and even his groans had ceased.

Afterwards, Djokovic granted Brad Gilbert a brief contractually-obligated interview, thus augmenting his total time on court by about a third. The world number one was typically classy, smoothly stepping around his opponent’s body, though if asked he’d no doubt subscribe to Andre Agassi’s view that one should not deny any opponent so rich a learning-experience. When quizzed about his magisterial serving stats, Djokovic took due care to praise John Isner, to scattered applause from the sparse American crowd. Realistically the assembled onlookers might have filled a less extravagant facility, but even sizeable gatherings can be lost within Arthur Ashe stadium. Presumably many of those absent had stepped out to relieve themselves or seek sustenance after the previous match, and hadn’t made it back in time. Tournament officials had by now scraped Granollers’ remains off the court, and Djokovic respectfully followed the procession up the tunnel. ‘He’s good, isn’t he?’ asked one Eurosport commentator. ‘Djokovic or Brad Gilbert? Djokovic, yes,’ responded the other.

We were returned to Schett. ‘He was just better in every compartment!’ she declared breathlessly. Apparently denied a studio of their own, she and Wilander were once more anchoring the Eurosport coverage from somewhere on the grounds. Djokovic soon joined them, looking as relaxed as a man who’d just won a tennis match very easily. He summoned a sensible response when queried about Federer’s loss, and the persistent demands for the great man to retire, although he might have pointed out that the persistent demands largely consist of the media asking questions like that. He didn’t think Federer should retire. He did point out that time catches up to us all, and that younger players are always appearing the tour, stronger and faster than ever. Presumably by younger players he was speaking of his own ‘generation’, and not the next one, who don’t much look like threatening anyone.

He was mostly right, although it should equally be pointed out that Federer did not lose to a younger player, but to Tommy Robredo, a veteran to whom he’d never lost. In some ways this was the most telling aspect of yesterday’s upset, not least because it continues a trend that has underscored Federer’s long decline. Defining when such things begin is mostly idle folly, and would serve no special purpose even if consensus were possible. But one cannot help but think back to late 2009, when there was still a large pool of very good players who had either never beaten Federer, or at any rate hadn’t beaten him for a very long time. Prominent among this group were Nikolay Davydenko, Robin Soderling, Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, Mikhail Youzhny, David Ferrer and Tommy Robredo. Ferrer and Youzhny are still winless, but the rest of them have since defeated Federer at least once, in every case inspiring onlookers to recycle Vitas Gerulaitas’ old quip about no one beating him seventeen times in a row. The significance is that these players are all around Federer’s age. Failure to sustain his domination of them cannot be ascribed to advanced years, to being overrun by the race.

On the other hand, Federer going undefeated against these guys for so long is probably more amazing than any eventual loss proved to be, a fact we tend to overlook. Winning streaks work the strange trick of making it seem as though constant victory is the natural way of things, of normalising what is in fact exceptional. It is a paradox of sport that although the longest streaks are the most difficult to compile, they work to make any eventual loss seem aberrant. Even sprinting along a tightrope can look easy after a while, such that one forgets it only grows harder. Sooner or later there will be a misstep.

These are broadly satisfactory musings, perhaps, but they don’t tell us much about any specific encounter. They don’t quite explain how Federer actually managed to lose to Robredo yesterday. The answer, I suspect, is that everyone has bad days, and sometimes they occur on a big stadium against a guy you’ve never lost to. Federer had a very bad day, bad in almost every direction at once. His movement was sluggish, his decisions were poor, his returning patchy, his serve lacked bite and his outfit didn’t match. It was altogether a worse performance than the one that saw him lose to an inspired Sergiy Stakhovsky in Wimbledon. He was unfortunate that he had this bad day against a player as solid as Robredo, though the truth is that because the bad days are now coming more often, they’re more likely to come when it matters. Part of it is age, but I maintain that he’s mostly just short on form.

Robredo was admittedly outstanding, but Federer was still correct in declaring that he had largely beaten himself. Robredo pulled off any number of stunning passing shots, but they wouldn’t have been possible at all if Federer hadn’t so consistently failed to put balls away into the open court, or essay approaches with greater venom. Time and again Robredo simply stood his ground. By the third set even he stopped looking surprised when Federer hit the ball straight back to him. Often these came on crucial points, such as several of the many break points on Robredo’s serve. Federer produced handfuls of these after the first set, but could hang on to none of them, and that’s really the whole deal with break points. Similarly Robredo was dictating most of the rallies. It tells you everything about Federer’s lethargy that the Spaniard was permitted to do this from ten feet behind the baseline while maintaining a very high clearance over the net, and rarely going for the lines. On a reasonably quick hardcourt – Federer afterward said Louis Armstrong if anything played faster than Arthur Ashe – this should never happen.

But it did happen, and it seems to be happening with gathering regularity. As with Youzhny earlier in the year, Federer looked like a temperamentally aggressive player very low on confidence, plagued with uncertainty. Even comparing them feels odd. I hold Youzhny in the highest esteem, but Federer’s career has instilled in us a belief that even when his form was off he remained in a separate class. Even when he played badly he still won, such that some casual punters are surprised to learn he ever played badly at all. Now when he plays badly, he looks like everyone else playing badly, which is to say lost.

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