A Lesson in Parental Fallibility

Australian Open, Quarterfinals

(8) Wawrinka d. (2) Djokovic, 2/6 6/4 6/2 3/6 9/7

It presumably surprised no one that Channel 7’s hype-department went into overdrive at the prospect of another blockbuster match between Novak Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka. As with all commercial television networks, Australia’s tennis broadcaster subscribes to the crude conceit that any memorable event must inevitably be repeated if even a few of its defining conditions are present. In this case the defining conditions were the players involved and the best-of-five format. These men played two five set classics last year, and according to Channel 7 this ensured their next effort was destined to be another. Being steadier and wiser, I wasted no opportunity to inform anyone near me – family members, buskers, stalkers – that there is more to professional tennis than the Majors, and that Djokovic easily dispatched Wawrinka twice at the end of last year, in Paris and London. Only an unredeemed ignoramus, I maintained, would expect another classic. Djokovic would win easily. My son, who has decided that he and Djokovic are going to become friends, was particularly thrilled by this news. As it transpired, the match was a classic. Mark Kolbe/Getty Images AsiaPacChannel 7 was right, and I was wrong. That may not be the hardest sentence I’ve ever had to write – ‘Mr Becker, I regret to inform you that your brain condition is inoperable.’ – but it’s certainly on the shortlist.

At least for the first set, it looked as though I’d be proved right. Djokovic was looking exactly like the guy who hadn’t lost a match of any kind since the US Open final in September, who was currently enjoying the second longest Grand Slam semifinal streak in the Open Era. Wawrinka meanwhile looked like he couldn’t quite work out where his baseline was, or why it was important that he position himself closer to it. He figured it out in the second set however, though it still came as a surprise to everyone in the stadium when he finally broke Djokovic, and served it out.

Crowd sympathy within Rod Laver Arena had slightly favoured Djokovic as the players sauntered on to court, though it could have been that the Serbian fans were more punctual. By the time Wawrinka broke in the third set, twice, there was no doubt which man the crowd preferred. Djokovic was too content to rally with the Swiss, especially crosscourt on the backhand, and rediscovered that this shot doesn’t break down the way other single-handers can. Nonetheless, Djokovic took the fourth comfortably, and broke at the start of the fifth. A reprise of their US Open appeared more likely than their extravagant 12/10 effort from Melbourne last year.

Then, for reasons ungraspable by rational minds, Djokovic compiled a service game of cosmic awfulness, sturdily mounted on four forehand errors, and was broken back. Both men settled into a long sequence of holds, interrupted briefly by a rain delay. Djokovic went back to holding comfortably. Wawrinka did it harder, but, somehow, legs and mind constricted, he did it. Blithely ignoring the concept of momentum, he finally broke Djokovic with the Serb serving to stay in the match for the fourth time, at 7/8. Djokovic’s brain-wave to serve-volley on match point down has already blossomed into legend. To volley was, to put it mildly, a rash choice, and it was rashly played. He swung at it, pushed it wide, and the three-time defending champion was out. He left the court to a wave of warm regard, which heated to radiant affection once Wawrinka’s took his chance to speak. He pronounced himself ‘very, very, very, very happy.’ He’d proved me wrong, but in the moment I found it hard to begrudge him his joy. My son was less impressed when I told him the result, but learned a vital first lesson in parental fallibility. It had to happen some time. I won’t complain if he gains something of Djokovic’s perfect grace in defeat, but I do dream he’ll somehow acquire a backhand like Wawrinka’s.

(1) Nadal d. (22) Dimitrov, 3/6 7/6 7/6 6/2

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