Luck of the Draw: US Open 2012

It is amidst considerable fanfare and with a sense of ungovernable arousal that I announce the release of the newly updated and proudly unabridged second edition of Bracketology, the Reading of Draws , and Why Men Have to Sleep Around. Bracketology is widely acknowledged to be the definitive text in the thrilling field of draw analysis. Published by The Next Point Enterprises, which has previously brought you such treasures as the Roger Rasheed 2012 Desk Calendar and the Marcos Baghdatis Guide to Racquet Care, Bracketology has been released to coincide with the US Open. It is certain to be treasured by evolutionary psychologists and unrepentant adulterers alike.

This second edition was necessitated by the rankings shift that occurred after Wimbledon. Now that Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic occupy the top two spots, the thrill has rather gone out of discovering whether they’ve been drawn to meet in the semifinals – hitherto the primary Stage of any draw perusal – since this configuration is now technically impossible. We find ourselves in strange new territory. Federer and Djokovic have never been seeded one and two at a Major, so if they meet it’ll be in the final (or maybe awkwardly at a nice restaurant, where they’ll nod hello but then have to sit at nearby tables pretending the other one isn’t there, until one of them leaves and so will have to say goodbye so it doesn’t seem too weird). Despite obligatory assurances that they’re looking no further ahead than their next match, I’ve no doubt Federer and Djokovic are still eyeing each other off from across the draw – calculatingly, warily, and then maybe sleepily. It’s just that there are now 126 other guys in the way. Maintaining line of sight is problematic.

Of these other guys, two in particular stand out. The persistent absence of world No.3 Rafael Nadal has seen Andy Murray and David Ferrer percolate up into the third and fourth seedings. Whose half each settled in was of utmost importance. Before the draw was released the real fun to be had was watching pundits endeavour to delicately suggest that Ferrer was a significantly more attractive opponent for either of the top two than Murray, without unduly insulting the Spaniard. The phrase ‘with all due respect’ saw a lot of work. Taylor Dent didn’t even bother with that courtesy at today’s draw ceremony, eliciting his share of disapproval. I guess Ferrer had to find out some time that Murray is a more accomplished hardcourter than him. Anyway, the draw is now out, and Murray is in Federer’s half, while Ferrer is in Djokovic’s. Djokovic’s fans are surely pleased. Federer’s fans surely aren’t. Let’s be honest. With all due respect.

Some fans were noisily convinced that Murray would inevitably block their hero’s path to glory, and were vaguely disappointed when this didn’t happen. They were consequently denied the opportunity to wallow in the mundane a posteriori smugness that compels one to declare ‘Never in doubt!’ when random outcomes are achieved. To do so is apparently regarded as some kind of duty, one that has now fallen to the opposing camp, who’ve given their mordancy full voice. Remember, Stage One of draw analysis is all about righteous indignation. By no means am I suggesting that all fans are this way, or even most of them, but by god some of them are, and they’re invariably the loudest ones. To those Federer fans who are worried about the semifinals, it’s worth remembering that Federer defeated Djokovic and Murray back to back in winning the 2008 US Open. Indeed, he also did it last month at Wimbledon.

It’s also worth remembering that any such meeting is weeks away. Before then come all the matches that every player is avowedly determined not to look further than. Federer certainly wouldn’t dare to gaze beyond Donald Young, whose one-match winning streak was cruelly cut short in Winston-Salem this week, though that one win had the deleterious effect of pushing Vince Spadea’s record losing streak beyond reach. Beyond that, Federer has a slightly tougher path to the semifinals than Djokovic, but marginally easier than Murray. Ferrer has the toughest path of all, which has in turn necessitated the artful intimation that he is unlikely to get that far.

It is Ferrer’s quarter of the draw that holds the more profound interest for unaligned onlookers, and the greatest opportunities for those men trapped within it. Besides Ferrer – who I delicately submit may well reach the semifinals – the names that stand forth are Janko Tipsarevic and John Isner. Tipsarevic was tremendous for a few sets against Djokovic in the quarterfinals here last year, as was Isner against Murray at the same stage.  Tommy Haas is also in here – how grand would a semifinal run be – and he’ll open against Ernests Gulbis, which could be either the greatest or worst first round encounter of all time. Gulbis features heavily in the cautionary chapter of Bracketology entitled ‘Getting One’s Hopes Up’.

However, I’m going to venture out on a very diseased, aging and shaky limb, and declare with absolute certainty that the quarterfinalists in this section will be Mikhail Youzhny and Philipp Kohlschreiber. In the second round Kohlschreiber will face the winner of Grigor Dimitrov and Benoit Paire, which will also be a first-round to tell your children about, if only as a salutary warning. I also note the presence of Tobias Kamke and Cedrik-Marcel Stebe in this section. I’m going to go right ahead and call it the German quarter.

Speaking of intriguing first round encounters, other stand-outs include Bernard Tomic and Carlos Berlocq; a potential tennis match heavily indebted to M.C. Escher, and from which no spectator will emerge entirely sane. Expect Nikolay Davydenko’s first round dust-up with Qualifier to be close. I don’t know who the qualifier will be yet, but I have every faith that the Russian will find a way to make it hard for himself. Philipp Petzschner somehow avoided the German quarter and will face Nicolas Mahut. I think that’ll be good. The reasons why I think this are, I suspect, buried very deep indeed.

I also have a strange feeling David Goffin will pose special problems for Tomas Berdych. The Belgian has great hands, nimble feet, very delicate cheekbones and a pretty bad haircut; precisely the combination to trouble the Czech on an off-day, which is the only kind of day he knows lately. It’d be like seeing a woodland elf take down the Terminator, which I believe was the climactic battle in a discarded early draft of The Hobbit. Finally, Juan Martin del Potro and his collection of troubled wrists take on David Nalbandian, which looks tough on paper, until we realise that the piece of paper is spattered with linesman’s blood, and that the elder Argentine hasn’t won a single match since the blood haze descended at Queens. The new edition of Bracketology also has a chapter on Nalbandian. For a certain type of psychologist – all of them – the man is a goldmine.

The full draw can be found here.


Filed under Grand Slams

A Kind Of Partnership

Cincinnati Masters, Final

(1) Federer d. (2) Djokovic, 6/0 7/6

Prior to today’s Cincinnati Masters final, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic had played 82 sets in 27 matches, but in none of those sets had either man failed to win a single game. There’d never been a bagel. Twenty minutes after play commenced today, Federer inflicted the first of their rivalry. An hour after that, the world No.1 saved a lone set point with an easy overhead, and sealed his fifth Cincinnati title with a pair of winners, his 27th and 28th for the match. This is his third Masters victory of the year, and his 21st overall, which places him equal with Rafael Nadal once more. It is the third time Federer has claimed a title without dropping serve, and the seventh tournament that he has won at least five times. As ever when he wins, records are broken, even if, increasingly, the broken records were already his own. As ever when he wins, there’s fun to be had merely in recounting the numbers. I know I’ve said this before. I suspect I’ll say it again.

It’s always tricky to work out just how well a given player is playing when his opponent isn’t playing well at all – the reverse is also true – and especially so when the top players face each other. Federer’s fans will insist he was majestic. Djokovic’s fans will believe their man was execrable. The two positions aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but the truth generally resides somewhere in between. I may be inviting stern remonstrations by saying so, but I don’t think it is really possible for any of the top four to bagel each other if both men are at (or near) their best. Ivan Ljubicic remarked perceptively that whatever else, these guys are at the top because they’re supreme defenders, and, on his day, Djokovic’s defence is arguably the most creative and impenetrable of all.

Defensively and offensively, Djokovic lingered some considerable distance from his best in today’s first set (50% first serves, four double faults, and winning 10% on second serve), while Federer approached his (thirteen winners to just four unforced errors, and 100% success behind his second serve). Producing a 6/0 set thus required them both to work in a kind of partnership. With that common goal in mind, achieving it didn’t take long. These guys are pros, after all. Gratifyingly, Federer more or less agreed with me. Quizzed about the opening set on court afterwards he remarked that ‘Novak obviously didn’t play that well. He did donate me some double faults and some easy forehand errors and maybe some backhand errors he normally doesn’t do.’ By contrast, the world No.1 was untouchable on serve, unpassable at the net, and dominant in rallies long and short.

As yet another forehand found the corner, and the players strutted and strolled to their respective chairs, social media exploded in bagel-related puns. There aren’t many of these, all told, and once you’ve heard a few you’ve heard them all. And so we heard them all, again and again. Tropologically, they did not did not exceed the following parameters:

  • ‘The Federer bakery is open today!’ (synecdoche);
  • ‘Djokovic is surely savouring this treat!’ (irony);
  • ‘Federer must be hungry to serve up such tasty baked goods!’ (idiocy, and betraying a basic misunderstanding of what hunger is).

Bud Collins, who coined the term ‘bagel’, has much to answer for.

The Serbian held serve to open the second set, however, and the feeling, suddenly, was that battle was belatedly joined. If not the best point, then the funnest point of the match came in the next game, when Djokovic steamed in behind a fine approach but failed to put away four successive volleys before he was finally passed. ‘Oh, that’s brilliant!’ erupted Robbie Koenig in the commentary box, ‘That’s circa 1985 at its very best. Djokovic patrolling the net like a Rottweiler!’ Federer went on to hold.

In fact, Federer held every game in the second set, just as he’d held every game in the first set, and in his first four matches. Indeed, only Alex Bogomolov Jr and Stan Wawrinka even contrived break points against him – three between them – though neither proved up to the task of taking one. It’s worth pointing out that Djokovic hadn’t been broken before the final, either, and he set about demonstrating why as the second set tore forward into the tiebreak. Suddenly they were both playing well. Djokovic demonstrated the depth of his engagement via a series of frustrated bellows, culminating in an anguished cry of ‘Da li je moguće?!’ ‘Is that possible?!’

Djokovic has always seemed particularly vulnerable towards the close of tight sets, and as far as I can tell he loses 7/5 more often than he should. I confess I have no sound statistical evidence to back this up, but as recently as the Olympics, he lost three such sets in his last two matches. Three years ago in the Cincinnati final he fell to Federer 6/1 7/5. It’s possible that this resonant score line was echoing around in the Serbian’s mind as he served at 5/5. Possible, but frankly unlikely, although it would explain the purposeful aplomb with which he held serve to 15 that game, with a pair of crosscourt forehand winners, and a backhand up the line to roughly the same spot, which Federer not only could watch, but did.

Momentum slouched about drunkenly in the tiebreak, first cadging money off Djokovic, then trying it on with Federer’s wife, before throwing up behind the couch. Djokovic set momentum straight with a stern dressing-down, and then saved a match point with the coiled aggression he typically reserves for such moments. He then blew his own set point with a quite ill-advised topspin lob, which his opponent dispatched gratefully. Two points and a pair of Federer forehand winners later, and it was done. The Swiss, true to his word, did not leap into his player’s box.

It is Federer’s fifth Cincinnati Masters title. Consequently, he now owns a number of those daft urns, meaning he’s finally equipped to inter the remains of all the tiny sailors should his eldritch Dubai flotilla meet a gruesome end. Does it even need to be said that he has become the first man to win Cincinnati five times? This was also his 76th career title, which moves him to one behind John McEnroe, who is third on the all-time list. I’m going to venture out on a very shaky limb, and suggest that Federer will exceed McEnroe’s count before he eventually retires. As solid as my conviction is, I must confess that I haven’t always believed in the strength of it. This is what I wrote after the Stockholm final in 2010:

For the record, it was Federer’s 64th Tour level title, meaning that he is now tied with Pete Sampras at 4th on the all-time list, behind Connors (109), Lendl (94), and McEnroe (77). The question has been bandied about: Will he pass McEnroe? The answer is no, probably not. For him to get another 14 titles, he would have to start playing more of these little 250 events, at precisely the age when that’s the last thing he should be doing. Not gonna happen.

I stand corrected. Presuming to know what Federer would do based on his age was my first error. Believing that only minor titles would enable him to pass McEnroe was my second. My third was using the word ‘bandied’, and the phrase ‘Not gonna happen’. Only the last mistake is unforgivable, since Federer has for some time been demonstrating that every avowed expert was wrong about the allegedly purpling twilight of his career. He is the world No.1, and will be top seed at next week’s US Open, where Djokovic is the defending champion. Indeed, with today’s victory over Djokovic Federer has extended his lead such that he will remain No.1 even if he decides to give New York a miss. Not gonna happen.


Filed under ATP Tour

Words To Live By

Cincinnati Masters, Quarterfinal

(1) Federer d. (10) Fish, 6/3 7/6

Roger Federer tonight defeated Mardy Fish in two highly entertaining sets of tennis at the Lindner Family Tennis Center, lest you retain any vestigial doubt as to the sport at which they competing, or the venue where it occurred. (I don’t know who the Lindners are, or why they’d need an entire tennis centre all to themselves, but I am grateful that they permit the ATP and WTA to stage concurrent tennis tournaments there each August.) Federer and Fish contested the final here two years ago. That match was longer, but this one was better.

This was aggressive, fast court tennis near its finest, for all the talk through the early part of the week was that Cincinnati’s surface, hitherto among tour’s quickest, had been slowed disastrously. The species of fan who endlessly laments this development in professional tennis wasted no time adding Cincinnati to the long list of tournaments that have allegedly bowed to the merciless directives of the governing body, which won’t rest until every final lasts six hours, and every player’s knees are reduced to  uncushioned husks. But then Federer remarked that the conditions were still quick, and bouncy. Presumably he’s in on it, too, as head of the Player’s Council. From where I was sitting – directly behind the court and across the Pacific Ocean – it seemed fast enough. Unquestionably it wasn’t the fastest court I’ve ever seen, but it was fast enough to encourage attacking tennis like tonight’s. I guess I’m in on it, as well.

Federer was peerless through the first set, in which he broke emphatically at the very beginning and imperiously at the very end. The first break came in the opening game amidst a hail of winners. The second was achieved with a backhand return up the line that Fish hardly moved for, then only paused for in order to register it kissing the line, before spinning and stalking to his chair, whereupon he abused the umpire for a while. I gather this is a technique the USTA instructs its players in from a formative age, and which will one day enable Ryan Harrison to surpass those of his fellows needlessly burdened by reticence. Mohamed Lahyani had indeed made an incorrect overrule earlier in the set, on a point that was in no way pivotal, and Fish wasn’t going to rest until Mo had admitted his error publicly. It seemed important at the time.

It’s possible that Fish’s aggravation really owed to his having dropped serve again, from 30-0 up, although he had only himself to blame, having needlessly ‘exposed himself’ with a crosscourt forehand to the waiting Federer. ‘It’s not good to expose yourself on a tennis court,’ remarked Doug Adler in the booth. ‘Or anywhere, really,’ replied Nick Lester. Words to live by.

For whatever reason, the American lifted perceptibly as the second set got under way, his first serve much improved, his footwork energised, his backhand unreadable. Lahyani overruled again, but correctly, on a ball that was at least half a foot in. Fish was having none of it, though, and challenged with the kind of perfunctory petulance Federer usually reserves for Hawkeye. Astoundingly, it was in. The tennis was superb from both men, however: many points covering the entire court, serves thundering down, passing shots flashing by, and winners coming in a steady torrent. It was hard to see how it could get much better.

Then Kiss Cam was unleashed at the next change of ends, proving that the only thing more engaging than high quality night-time tennis is cajoling American couples to smooch for the amusement of their peers. Federer later admitted that he sometimes finds the antics on Kiss Cam – they’re people, and they’re kissing – amusing enough that it almost breaks his concentration, although you wouldn’t know it from his calmly reserved on-court demeanour. I sometimes wonder at the control he exerts in order to subsume his natural tendency towards goofy laughter.

Fish, his own serve now humming along nicely, began to inflict some dents on Federer’s games. Several times Fish moved to 0-30, although I cannot recall that he ever made it further than that. Federer generally produced four excellent points to seal these games, although in one case his framed backhand pass inspired sufficient indecision in Fish that the American let it go, and was more dismayed than thrilled when it plonked in. Fish saved a match point in the twelfth game with a sharp serve up the T, just as he’d done on a set point in the first set. Then it was the tiebreak, and it was as taut and skilful as the rest of the set, except for a Fish backhand winner that missed the court by inches, and a backhand pass that clipped the tape and would have bounded wide had Federer not slammed it away for a winner.

Adler had by now grown a touch unhinged by the world No.1’s numinous elegance, and commenced an overlong and not-especially original comparison of Federer to a ballet dancer. Robbie Koenig had relieved the affable Lester after the first set, but even his quaint determination to remark on the actual match proved powerless to impede his co-commentator’s momentum, even when Federer was producing further miracles of torque and pace before their very eyes. ‘Fish didn’t think that was going over!’ exclaimed Koenig. Adler was not to be distracted: ‘No, of course not. He’s like Baryshnikov. Floating.’ Federer took the match on his third match point, with another typically balletic trip to the net behind the kind of scything crosscourt forehand that Vaslav Nijinsky was once renowned for. He and Fish exchanged warm sentiments at the net, although the merciful absence of Kiss Cam saved this from becoming truly awkward.

Fish reached the semifinals here last year, and will therefore shed some points by losing a round earlier. Indeed, he will fall outside the top twenty, and Andy Roddick will take over as the second ranked American (behind John Isner). It wasn’t so long ago that it felt odd when Fish surpassed Roddick to become the top-ranked American. Now it feels vaguely unreal that he’s fallen back below him. Apparently we’ve come a long way, but I cannot say in which direction. Federer will play Stanislas Wawrinka in the semifinals, who beat Milos Raonic in another excellent match earlier in the day. (Wawrinka, as ever, celebrated victory by nearly overloading Twitter with photos of himself, although he hasn’t grown so proud that he doesn’t take due care to retweet anyone’s else pictures of him as well.) If Federer wins that match, and reaches the final, he is guaranteed to retain the No.1 ranking even if Novak Djokovic wins the title. Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro will contest the other semifinal, which I suspect will be excellent.


Filed under ATP Tour

Not Unlike Gazpacho

Cincinnati Masters, Days One to Four

The big news this week at the Mason (Ohio) Masters was that Brian Baker won his first match on North American hardcourts, from only his fifth attempt. He defeated Philipp Kohlschreiber. According to some reports, this victory ‘avenged’ Baker’s earlier loss to the German at Wimbledon, since a thirst for vengeance is assuredly the ideal thing for an elite athlete to cultivate as they approach any given match. He then lost his next match, to Bernard Tomic. I imagine he’ll have to extract revenge for that one at a later date. Hopefully he has a little notebook, so that he can keep track of all these vendettas. Given his recent dip in form, he’s been racking up a few.

I’m not convinced Baker is that kind of guy. The early chapters of his storied comeback, which unfolded on Continental clay and English grass, were permeated by a sense of wonderment that any player could, from nowhere, win so many fine matches against so many fine players. The latter chapters, currently taking place on North America’s hardcourts, are mostly characterised by bafflement that he can now barely beat anyone at all. He made it all look so easy, but it turns out professional tennis is actually pretty hard. One doubts whether Baker himself was ever likely to forget this, even as he pushed to the Nice final, or the Wimbledon fourth round, and as patriotic feature articles emerged daily from major news sites.

I’d guess a handy sense of perspective was instilled into his gradually reknitting sinews, muscles and bones even as he lay recuperating from his 253rd consecutive bout of surgery. He seems a firmly-grounded and off-handedly modest sort, so it is hard to see that he’ll ever get ahead of himself. It is his newly accrued fans that need to be reined in, since some have surged very far ahead of themselves indeed. The merest stumble would see them crushed beneath his onrushing bandwagon, even if it is growing lighter and more rickety by the day. Such a vehicle can still break your back if you’re caught under it, especially Baker’s, which is powered by revenge, and is therefore a kind of post-apocalyptic Mad Max-type affair. Much like Lukáš Rosol, who audaciously upset Rafael Nadal in what might well turn out to be the Spaniard’s last match for the season, Baker has discovered that the devoted following one attracts upon achieving a breakthrough win can evaporate almost as quickly if you don’t sustain your form indefinitely. Most bandwagons start to steer a trifle wonkily by this point, as the suspension becomes irreparably shot from having so many people constantly jumping on and off. This, incidentally, is why you should never buy a bandwagon second-hand.

No one needs to tell Tommy Haas this. He has devoted the worst part of a decade illustrating just how hard tennis can be, especially on the shoulders and the soul. Few players’ bandwagons have experienced more breakdowns and collisions. Haas’ once mighty, purring Daimler engine has sputtered and coughed through recent years, and it was hard to see how it could keep going much longer. That’s how it goes. Machines break down. But now, suddenly, it’s as though the second law of thermodynamics has been temporarily suspended, or even reversed. He’s back, and looking rather strikingly like a top ten player, which at the current rate of ascent he soon will be. For the second week in a row Haas defeated David Nalbandian – another veteran whose bandwagon as seen better days – although this week’s instalment was superior. Haas again saved match points. It merits mention that Nalbandian has not won a match since the Queens final, which as I remember was utterly without incident. Anyway, Haas today lost to Juan Martin del Potro, which was a shame in at least one respect, since (I think) it would have propelled the German back into the top twenty. Instead it was nice for del Potro, who has shrewdly chosen to remain in good form following the Olympics. Lucky fellow that he is, he’ll now get to demonstrate this against Viktor Troicki.

Later on Roger Federer overcame Alex Bogomolov Jr in precisely one hour, which proved sightly too soon for the stirring comeback the Russian had planned. This wasn’t his fault. As they changed over for the final time at 5/2, Bogomolov was heard demanding of the umpire how long the second set had thus far lasted.  The umpire must have been sorely tempted to reply ‘not long,’ but showed commendable restraint, especially given Bogomolov’s challenging tone. It turned out the Russian was actually inquiring after the racquet he’d sent off for restringing after the first set. It hadn’t come back. Two things became clear. Firstly, this was somehow the umpire’s fault. Secondly, without his freshly restrung racquet, there would be no comeback. Federer was through, and it’s entirely possible he didn’t realise how lucky he’d been.

Federer will play Tomic in the third round. The young Australian has already beaten Ryan Harrison and Baker, and so should be amply prepared, come what may. He’ll be keen on revenge for the Australian Open. Meanwhile Novak Djokovic has earned the right to face Nikolay Davydenko in what would have been a gripping third round encounter in late 2009. Davydenko used to beat everyone back then, but has since given that away, in order that he might fully explore other outcomes, namely losing a lot. Lots of people are settling debts.

Stan Wawrinka temporarily left off tweeting photos of himself in order to thrash David Ferrer. Wawrinka’s rousing pride at this accomplishment was clearly evident in the next round of photos, which all featured him. Others have largely ignored Wawrinka’s role in the outcome, and have instead taken it as an invitation to agonise over what this will mean for the US Open, since Ferrer will be seeded fourth there, owing to Nadal’s withdrawal. What it will mean is that Federer and Djokovic, as top seeds, will be drawn to meet either Ferrer or Andy Murray in the semifinals. There appears to be broad consensus that, all else being equal, one would prefer to face the Spaniard than the Scot. What is mostly forgotten is that there’s no guarantee anyone will face anyone. In other words, it’s really not worth worrying about. The main thing is that Ferrer gets another shot at Wawrinka, and a chance at revenge.

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Filed under ATP Tour

Warm, Generous, Beset and Dangerous

Toronto Masters 1000, Final

(1) Djokovic d. (14) Gasquet, 6/3 6/2

Novak Djokovic tonight defeated Richard Gasquet in the final of the Toronto Masters 1000. He did so in two very straight sets, and barely tarried beyond an hour, thereby mounting a persuasive argument both for and against best-of-five set Masters finals. On the one hand, the Canadian crowd has endured a lot this week, and frankly deserved a little more entertainment. On the other hand, just how entertained were they? Did anyone really need to see another set of that? From 3/3 in the first set Djokovic won nine games to Gasquet’s two, and there was no good reason to believe the defending champion couldn’t sustain this level of domination indefinitely. Undoubtedly Djokovic’s ardent admirers could have watched all night, although for two of the littlest fans, swaddled in Serbian bunting and ensconced rapturously in the front row, the real highlight came after the match, when their hero strolled over and gifted them a pair of his racquets, a typically warm and generous gesture.

Even as the week progressed, and Djokovic’s triumph grew even less unlikely, some sought to downplay his achievement in Toronto, crowing endlessly about the absence of Nadal and Federer, and Murray’s early withdrawal. In rebuttal I suppose one can only point out that Djokovic won Montreal last year when the other three turned up to play, but lost early. These things happen, and fans of other players would do well to remember that some of their hero’s victories were about as taxing as a daytrip to the seaside, and not, as they may righteously believe, a slog along Omaha Beach. Nadal and Federer have amassed 41 Masters titles between them, and some of those were gathered with seemingly little effort. When you’re good enough, that can happen. The idea that some victories should have asterisks attached to them is a bad one that has lately crept into the sport, and ought to creep out again. A win is a win.

In any case, by defending his Canadian Masters title, Djokovic moves ahead of Pete Sampras into outright fourth on the all-time Masters Series leader board, behind only Rafael Nadal (21), Roger Federer (20) and Andre Agassi (17). This also means that Toronto becomes the 15th consecutive Masters event to be claimed by Djokovic, Federer, Nadal or Andy Murray, or the 18th of the last 19. It is at least a partial rebuttal to those who dismiss the concept of a Big Four out of hand, an opinion that relies heavily upon the idea that the Majors are all that matters in tennis, thereby disqualifying Murray from membership among the elite. The Scot’s compelling gold medal performance at the London Olympics further complicates the matter. Then again, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have between them claimed the last eleven Majors.

Along with the World Tour Finals, the nine Masters 1000 events and the four Majors comprise the most important mandatory events in the tennis season, although naturally all are not of equal import, and some are less mandatory than others. Nevertheless, taken in their entirely these events permit us to assess just how dominant the top four players are at the premiere level. The short answer is that they’re very dominant, which as a contention hardly merits statistical buttressing. It is apparent to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the sport. But is the rest of the field making inroads?

If all four of the top players were to reach the semifinals of all 14 mandatory events over a given 52 week period, they would accrue a collective total of 42,740 ranking points. This figure therefore defines the maximum number of points available, if no other player had reached the semifinals. Over the last 52 weeks the top four have in fact accrued 33,760 points, which comes to 78.99% of their total possible points from these events. Even though this level of dominance is without precedent, it also reveals the astonishing possibility that other players can in fact reach the later rounds. They just can’t win them. The following graph illustrates how this compares historically (going back to 1990): Since the end of last season the rest of the field has made up some ground, but not much. In 2011 there were no first-time Major finalists for the first time since 1964, and no first time Major semifinalists for the first time in the Open Era. With only the US Open to come, we’re on track to repeat that in 2012. So far this year one player has reached his maiden Masters final (John Isner in Indian Wells), although none have reached their first semifinal. However, there are three more Masters events to play this season, and these figures may change before the year is out. Someone entirely new might win a Masters 1000 event. But based on this evidence, it is hardly likely. Even when someone else gets close, they’re never all that close.

Sometimes they aren’t close at all. As tennis contests go, today’s final languished well-shy of compelling. Again, critics have been quick to blame Toronto’s reduced field. But it’s interesting to note that an unsatisfying finale is entirely in keeping with recent practice at this level. In the last 12 months, only one Masters final has been close, or even closer than one-sided. That was the excellent match between Federer and Tomas Berdych in Madrid, on the allegedly unplayable cobalt powder of the Caja Magica. No other Masters final has even stretched to a deciding set, which is a problem given their designation as the ATP’s premiere events. Exactly what are they showcasing?

Gasquet should feel no shame in being beaten so thoroughly, although one hopes he feels at least a little chagrined at submitting to it so readily. His trusted strategy of malingering in the spare acreage beyond the baseline and inviting opponents forward via a complex series of miss-hit forehands was never going to trouble Djokovic, and so the Frenchman deserves no credit at all for sticking with it. His only chance at winning was to attack, without relent, and probably without much restraint. I realise this isn’t his natural mode when facing a top player, but given that his natural mode naturally ensures he loses these matches fairly quickly, he never really have the option of playing naturally and winning. There’s no use to be gained from making peace with your lot: you adapt or you lose.

Although he has admitted elsewhere that he grows too passive under pressure, I’m not convinced he truly believes it. At one point late in today’s match Djokovic followed a deep firm approach into the net. Gasquet, stranded somewhere remote and wide of the Toronto sign, essayed a flashy backhand pass. It looked gorgeous, and plonked uselessly into the net. Afterwards he remonstrated with himself over the technique, even though the technique wasn’t the problem. The problem was that he was attempting to make a desperate pass on the full stretch from three or four meters beyond the baseline. Djokovic is a capable volleyer rather than an accomplished one, but even he must have felt disappointed at only winning eleven of twelve trips to the net.

Ultimately, I’m not convinced that the result would have been different regardless of what Gasquet tried. Djokovic has looked like a rejuvenated player on the North American hardcourts this week, perhaps ironically given his ongoing tussles with jet-lag, exhaustion, Olympic disappointment, needling spectators, 34-year-old Germans, Canadian weather and unspecified ‘personal problems’. (Personal problems really are the ‘producer credit’ of the ailment cosmos. Who among us lacks for personal problems? What we really lack is sufficient notoriety whereby barely-remembered figures from our youth are willing to come forward and expound upon these problems on our behalf.) Anyway, despite being beset on all sides, or perhaps because of it, Djokovic is once again looking dangerous, moving beautifully and defending impenetrably. He had more points to defend than anyone coming into the US Summer, and by retaining the Canadian Masters title with seemingly little effort, he has given himself the best of all chances.


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Three Minute Songs About Girls

Toronto, Semifinal

(14) Gasquet d. (8) Isner, 7/6 6/3

By defeating John Isner in straight sets in today’s Toronto semifinal, Richard Gasquet has reached his first Masters 1000 final in six years. As ever, a long gap affords us a long view, and an opportunity to reflect on how much has changed over that time, and to marvel at how little hasn’t. The last time Gasquet made it to a Masters final Roger Federer was the world No.1. Think about that.

I will leave to others the broad question of whether the world is a better or worse place than it was six years ago. This being the internet, I imagine a hastily wrought opinion on the matter won’t be hard to come by, although the opinion itself will depend on the particular rock you overturn. The Athenian shopkeeper labouring under austerity measures undoubtedly believes that our best days are behind us, but then so does the knuckle-dragging militiaman camped out in the forests of Oregon, incensed at his president’s determination to provide healthcare to those who presume to need it. Investment bankers must look back fondly at those heady days when their seven figure bonuses weren’t scrutinised before being handed over anyway. On the other hand, Justin Bieber’s innumerable fans may well insist that life has never been better: their idol maintained a relatively subterranean profile in 2006, and generating useful content across his various fan-sites had been a daunting task before he revolutionised music by singing three minute songs about girls.

In August 2006 Gasquet was only twenty-years-old, and still on the make. He had gambolled into public consciousness the year before when, as an eighteen-year-old, he beat Federer in Monte Carlo, before going down fighting to Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. He followed that up by making the Hamburg final the following month, where he lost to Federer. Although he was young, it’s important to remember that back then eighteen wasn’t considered quite so embryonic as it is these days, when we’re obliged to regard 23-year-olds as up-and-coming, even as they struggle to survive qualifying. Indeed, by the time Gasquet reached the final of the Canadian Open in 2006, and again lost to Federer, the prevailing sentiment was that his pre-ordained ascent to the top of the sport was taking rather a while. A year later he made it to the semifinals of Wimbledon, and finished 2007 ranked No.7. This was taken to be another very gradual step in the right direction. We realised the sky was the limit, but could he please get a move on?

Justin Bieber had well and truly arrived by March 2009, and the world we’d known and cherished had vanished. People with no credit rating and no assets beyond a pickup truck were suddenly finding it hard obtain mortgages, while those who’d gotten in earlier discovered their mortgages to be ‘sub-prime’, and that their houses now belonged to the bank. Gasquet, likely driven wild by Bieber’s lascivious exhortations, kissed a woman on the lips in a Miami nightclub, and was later interested to learn that her lips had been spiked with cocaine. His subsequent ban didn’t help his career, but really he’d been on the slide for some time already. He’d exited the top ten almost a year before that, and hasn’t been back since. His career was already becoming sub-prime.

The five years since Wimbledon 2007 have mostly witnessed a gradually downward revision in our expectations for Gasquet. Now 26, he has finally shed the Baby Federer tag (although it’s probably fairer to say that it was forcibly taken from him and grandly bestowed upon Grigor Dimitrov, with predictably crippling results). It takes a special calibre of talent whereby you can still be dubbed talented after so long on the tour, just it requires that that talent has mostly gone unrealised. Realising your talents tends to make you accomplished, and Gasquet is hardly that. The question rages in France over who is the most talented out of Gasquet, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils, and whose perennial underperformance has therefore let the nation down the most. It’s probably a question of taste, but I don’t think I’m courting controversy by saying that Gasquet has achieved the least. The reasons why this is so have seen ample discussion, with the main culprits being his weirdly-gripped forehand, his wavering commitment, his fitness, his remote court-positioning, and his patchy application in big matches. It’s quite a lot to have working against you, even with all the talent in the world, and the world’s prettiest backhand. On balance, a ranking perpetually in the teens feels about right.

Gasquet spent the last two rain-marred days in Toronto overcoming these hitherto unmanageable issues, or at least proving that a sufficiently lethal backhand really can render them irrelevant for a time. In a touch over twenty-four hours he saw off three current or recent top tenners in Tomas Berdych, Mardy Fish and John Isner. By the end of his quarterfinal against a waning Fish he’d entered that ridiculous mode in which he cannot possibly miss the court, the mode that used to help make the Federer comparisons feel a little less laboured. He didn’t quite attain that level in today’s semifinal – Isner’s arrhythmically lurching game hardly allows it – although he was very good, and served superbly. He survived the match without facing a break point, although this was also a testament to Isner’s returning which, to put it mildly, needs work. For all that verse epics are composed in praise of Gasquet’s backhand, the true barometer of his form has always been the forehand. At his worst he appears incapable of regulating its depth, which dovetails perfectly with his hopelessly deep positioning to yield all initiative to his opponent. At its best, however, the forehand grows fearsome, and permits audacious winners to be struck from anywhere in the court, or, more commonly, from anywhere behind it.

It would be wilful to pretend Gasquet hasn’t benefited from a decidedly generous Toronto draw, one that never included Federer or Nadal, and from which Andy Murray excused himself early on. But this isn’t to say he hasn’t earned his spot in the final, since all the guys who were left wanted to win it as well, and it has been long years since Gasquet was prominent among them. In the final he will discover the bankably prominent Novak Djokovic, who is also the world No.2 and the defending champion. Gasquet can take some measure of comfort in this, despite a fairly hopeless record against the Serb, and despite in the dire predictions of the bookmakers. While in two previous attempts Gasquet has never won a Masters Series final, he has never lost at that stage to anyone besides Federer. The lesson seems clear. Gasquet just needs to believe. After all:

Everything starts from something,
But something would be nothing;
Nothing if your heart didn’t dream with me.
Where would I be, if you didn’t believe?

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Strange Things Happen

Toronto Masters, Day Five

As the Olympic Games pressed indefatigably onward – artistic gymnasts, it turns out, are both terrifying and apparently unstoppable – the prevailing sentiment directed towards this year’s edition of the Canadian Masters was one of profound pity. Through no fault of its own, Toronto’s starting list had thinned worryingly by the hour. Already lean when Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro commenced the fifth hour of their superb semifinal, its ribs were showing by the time Usain Bolt got busy with the Swedish handballers, and had to be hospitalised while the rhythmic gymnasts inflated their shiny balls, smeared on their make-up and carefully selected the least appropriate music available. No Federer, no Rafael Nadal, no David Ferrer. Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and del Potro were almost certain non-starters. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was doubtful. Once again the Olympics had ruined the US Summer Series.  For those who believe the Masters 1000 events should showcase the best the sport has to offer, it was all pretty sad.

In a sense, our concerns for poor Toronto were justified. Strange things tend to happen when neither Federer nor Nadal show up. From memory this hasn’t happened since 2006, when Nikolay Davydenko thrashed surprise finalist Dominic Hrbaty in Bercy, 6/1 6/2 6/2. I presume this blowout merely confirmed the ATP in its decision to do away with best-of-five championship deciders, a decision that had been necessitated some months earlier, when Nadal and Federer missed Hamburg, having nearly crippled each other in Rome’s final the week before. Tommy Robredo subsequently won in Germany. While this did not go against the strict letter of the rules, the governing body felt that it amply violated the spirit of them, and took steps to ensure it would never happen again. Best-of-five finals, which once provided a fitting and, dare I say, Olympian conclusion to the Masters Series events, were done for. The lesson seems clear: Federer and Nadal not turning up breaks the sport. It’s already broken the weather. Today was a washout.

Initially, however, Toronto felt uncannily like business as usual. The sun shone, the hardcourts were slow, and the crowds were sparse, although the locals made some effort for Milos Raonic, even when he didn’t play on the evocatively rechristened Milos Raonic Grandstand. Donald Young continues to pursue Vince Spadea’s record for consecutive tour losses, proving that no goal is unobtainable, if you only lack belief. Alex Dolgopolov persists in frustrating hopes that he might attain any measure of consistency. He won Washington last week, his biggest title to date, although it admittedly wasn’t the strongest field the tournament has ever produced, owing partly to London, and partly to the event itself, which isn’t what it once was. The Ukrainian then lost his first match in Toronto, to Radek Stepanek, who then beat an exhaustedly bronze-medallioned del Potro. The Argentine had exceeded expectations just by turning up, but then lived down to them by losing easily. Perhaps it’s not all business as usual. Tsonga showed up, too, but only for as long as it took to lose to Jeremy Chardy.

On the other hand Tommy Haas continues to provide hope for those of us in our mid-thirties that a career as a professional tennis player remains within reach. The self-consuming rage that defined the German’s early years has been honed and redirected into a heroic defiance of time itself. He reached the final in Washington last week, and has sustained this form in Toronto, beating David Nalbandian and Gilles Simon in his first couple of matches. The match against Nalbandian was particularly fine, as Haas blew four match points in the second set tiebreaker, only to recover in the third. In his prime he would have fallen catastrophically apart at this point, and taken to verbally scourging his coach (Red Ayme used to cop a fearsome and constant barrage).  But the new Haas, who is ironically the old Haas, didn’t indulge himself thus. He won instead. He is now ranked No.25, having risen 180 places since the beginning of the season, and will be seeded for the US Open. On current form he’ll be seeded measurably higher than No.25 (indeed, he has already moved up a spot based on this week’s efforts). He’ll next face Stepanek, who looks every minute of his thirty-four years, and then some. Indeed, it’s rather as though Haas has done a Dorian Gray-like deal with the devil, and Stepanek is his secret portrait in the attic.

Contrary to expectations, both Murray and Djokovic turned up, and both turned up to play, at least for a bit. Murray saw off Flavio Cipolla, thus earning the gratitude of the tournament organisers, a sentiment they expressed with a chocolate cake, which I take to be a Canadian tradition. Murray repaid this kindness by withdrawing from his next match against Raonic, which didn’t appear to faze the locals at all. The Scot cited a left knee injury. I can only assume it was his own left knee, given how persistently he grabbed at it throughout his opening match. It was almost reassuring. Much like the Sampras serve or Usain Bolt’s thunderbolt thing, Murray’s patented leg-clutch has become so immediately recognisable that its silhouette can be trademarked and used for branding purposes.

Djokovic meanwhile opened against Bernard Tomic, and beat him without any trouble whatsoever. Djokovic is the defending champion, and has a ton of points to defend in the next five weeks, with a ton being defined as 3,600. Defending them all will be an enormous task for the Serb, but necessary if he wants to remain within sight of the No.1 ranking, currently held by Federer. With Murray’s withdrawal Djokovic is now the outright favourite for the title, if he wasn’t already. It is entirely possible that his sternest test before the final will come against Haas. In the final he may face Tomas Berdych, who managed to win his opener despite dropping a seventh consecutive tiebreak (a record even Young might be proud of, if only more of Young’s sets ever reached six-all). Or he might not.

Indeed, given Federer and Nadal’s absence, something entirely different might happen. The Super Wildcard rule is a barely understood and rarely invoked provision in professional tennis – it allows a tournament to insert any player into any part of the draw entirely at whim, with or without that player’s consent. This decision can only be overturned by a majority vote within the UN Security Council, and China and Russia have traditionally proved recalcitrant in such matters. If Raonic loses his next match, expect the Toronto Masters organisers, driven over the edge by patriotic anguish, endless withdrawals and a relentless downpour, to invoke the Super Wildcard. Djokovic will therefore fall to Robredo in the semifinals, and Berdych will fall to Hrbaty. From there it’s anyone’s game.


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Twenty-Eight Days Later

Olympic Games, Gold Medal Match

(3) Murray d. (1) Federer, 6/2 6/1 6/4

As Andy Murray’s fifth and final ace punched vigorously into Centre Court’s temporarily hideous back hoarding, and the fact that he’d now won the Olympic gold medal commenced the slow process of sinking all the way in, he provided a preview of how he’ll react when he one day wins a Slam. It turns out Murray is not the type to collapse on his back, or dissolve into wet-cheeked rapture, as Juan Martin del Potro had a short time earlier, or as Roger Federer does all the time. He dropped his racquet, and dropped to his haunches, a study in disbelief, then jogged to the net, where the words exchanged with his defeated opponent finally inspired a small grin. As a comparison to winning a major, this is about all today’s victory could tell us. If only that was enough. It is an Olympic gold medal. Of course it’s enough.

Really, the question of whether Olympic gold might usefully be compared to a Grand Slam trophy was a pretty fatuous one to begin with, and hardly grew less so as knowing pundits persisted in repeating it as the event wore on. John McEnroe believes the Olympics should award the same points as a major. Others feel it should reward none. I think McEnroe is overstating it, but mostly I don’t care. The pointlessness of these musings reached its highest and lowest point when NBC put the question to Murray immediately following his majestic victory: ‘How does this compare to winning a Grand Slam?’ It wasn’t the very first question he was asked, but it was near enough to make at least one viewer squirm. Murray neatly sidestepped the issue by making the obvious point that he has no way of knowing how winning a major feels.

But he does know how winning a gold medal feels, and, even better, he knows how it feels to win one on Wimbledon’s Centre Court before thousands of hysterical compatriots, having thrashed the world No.1 who you’d painfully lost to just four weeks before. Indeed, he is now the world’s leading authority on this subject, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. He made it perfectly clear it felt fantastic. Asked later by Sue Barker where it rates in the scheme of his victories, Murray replied without hesitation that it was number one, the biggest win of his life. Some have already pencilled him in as favourite for the US Open. They just can’t help themselves.

Despite all Roger Federer’s talk of sticking around until the Rio Olympics in 2016, he will probably never quite know how winning a gold medal feels, although he must have imagined it any number of times, and Murray will probably permit him a fondle if he asks nicely. Olympic gold will no doubt always remain a gap in the sport’s fattest resume, and again it’s worth pointing out that this is a gap that even 17 majors cannot fill. Federer never craved an Olympic gold because it’s like a major. He craved one because it isn’t. It’s an Olympic gold medal, and, amazingly, he believes it’s possible for a high-profile global sport to have more than one type of accolade, and that they don’t have to be ranked against each other.

Murray’s performance today was particularly gratifying for long-time followers of the sport, and of Murray in particular. There’s a piquant satisfaction when a player starts playing the way you always believed he should, and almost immediately meets with success. You can almost delude yourself that you had something to do with it. Murray had been assertive in this semifinal against Novak Djokovic, and he sustained that today. Some have suggested that the key moment came in the third game of the second set, at 2/0 in Murray’s favour, when Federer had six break points, but ultimately converted none. I’m not sure that’s true. Murray was already up a break, and it is unlikely that being broken back at that moment would have retarded his considerable momentum more than temporarily. He’d already blasted open the floodgates about 45 minutes earlier, and halting the flood would have taken far more effort, enterprise and engineering skill than even Federer could give today. He didn’t break, and the flood continued to gush through.

The key moment really came in the opening game of the match, when Murray fell to 15-40 on serve. For the briefest of moments a different match seemed likely. But Federer, tense, played both break points gingerly, with a delicate and unnecessary caution. Murray had commenced nervously, but Federer was too nervous to see it, and upon holding the Scot’s nerves were steeled. From 2/2 in the first set he grew terribly calm and narrowly focussed, perfectly combining pace, depth and a bold determination to play for the lines. Federer wouldn’t hold serve again for an hour, and quite often he would be broken after holding game points. Even with early breaks in hand, Murray was relentless, and tireless.

Federer, it must be said, wasn’t tireless. The extent to which Friday’s savage semifinal with del Potro inhibited the world No.1’s performance has seen sufficient debate. It is hard to see how it could not have affected him, although when interviewed afterwards he was keen to suggest that his fatigue was more mental than physical, and that he’d mainly made too many bad decisions. That’s certainly how it seemed from where I was sitting. Federer was too slow in realising that Murray wasn’t going to start missing, too willing to cede control of baseline exchanges, and too careful when he needed to be reckless, especially on break points and game points. If he was tired, he needed to be more aggressive. But then again, one wonders if such reflections are a waste of time, since, above all, Federer was simply outplayed. He said that, too, with typical grace, and you could tell he really believed it. The last set looks superficially the closest, if we simply go by the score, but it wasn’t. Federer won one point on Murray’s serve, and that came in the final game. Indeed, although he had nine break points throughout the entire match, and converted none, they all came in only three different service games. Meanwhile Federer won just seven games, all on his own serve, and he was compelled to fight for most of those.

Afterwards Federer made precisely the right noises about his satisfaction at winning the silver, but I don’t think he was quite at the stage where such noises ring entirely true, even or especially to himself. But they will, in time. Del Potro had earlier proved amply and beautifully that there is no such thing as an Olympic medal to feel embarrassed by. Two days ago the Argentine repeatedly came within two points of playing off for a gold or silver, yet his elation at winning bronze over Djokovic today was so unfettered and genuine that it induced one’s heart to sing. Without question the best moments from these Games have been provided by those athletes utterly and delightedly overcome at achieving a minor placing. The worst moments have been provided by those who’ve failed to reign in their shame at missing gold. Australia’s continuing run of silver medals has provided me with ample opportunities to witness both. It also means I’m justified in extending an offer of honorary citizenship to Federer. He’ll fit right in. Then again, I doubt the Swiss will give him up without a struggle, since this silver is their second medal of the games. Meanwhile del Potro’s medal was Argentina’s first. These achievements mean a lot.

Murray’s achievement of course means even more, for all that his gold medal is part of a rapidly mounting tally for the host nation. If Federer’s stalled narrative was of the perfect summer achieving perfect fulfilment, Murray’s was of redemption for the disasters of the past. He came back and won Wimbledon just for weeks after losing it, against the same opponent. He could stand in the same spot where he’d fallen to lonely pieces twenty-eight days earlier, and this time smile with the whole of Britain, and know that he’d won. It may not be a major, but it never had to be. It is the biggest win of his life.


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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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Doing the Wrong Thing Badly

A Ramble on the Badminton

By now the story is a long day old that eight female badminton players, some of them among the foremost badminton players on the planet, have been disqualified from the London Olympics for not bothering to pretend they care. To the somehow debated issue of whether they were wrong to have tanked has been added the vexing question of whether their real crime was merely an unwillingness to cover it up.

Their crime, such as it is, is now notorious. In order to achieve optimal quarterfinals against weaker teams, several stronger teams tanked their final round robin matches. Furthermore, they did it in a manner that was obvious even to the thousands of people watching, hardly any of whom were actual badminton fans. The scenes were unquestionably comical. As an already restive crowd went collectively bananas, glassy-eyed athletes flaccidly bunted shuttlecocks into the net, which even I could see was marginally less entertaining than badminton conducted at full throttle. Some have suggested that the glassy-eyed athletes are not to blame, since they were clearly just following team directions. The true culprit, apparently, is the round robin format that not only facilitated this outcome, but somehow encouraged it. The fault for a weakness of character apparently lies with the circumstances that test it.

I am slightly bemused by this line of reasoning, by the contention that the athletes are blameless, even though tight shots of their faces revealed them to be almost idiotically guileless as it transpired. The indelible impression was that none of the eight believed they were doing anything wrong. Why wouldn’t you throw an unimportant match in order to elevate your chance of winning an important one later? Following that reasoning, if you are going to throw the match, why not do so quickly? Why waste time and energy? Surely it’s all about the medals? And anyway, they were just following team orders.

They’ve since changed songbooks, and are now singing appropriately contrite tunes. Reigning Olympic champion Yu Yang has allegedly quit the sport in shame, or in protest. But, at the time, as the admittedly threadbare veil of innocence was being peeled away to reveal the dull realpolitik hunched beneath, the faces of the eight girls couldn’t have looked more innocently indifferent had they been powerfully drugged, which in a way they were. Such considerations were not sufficient to mollify the crowd, which grew vociferously wrathful as each match spiralled into thudding absurdity, well beyond the normal degree of disgruntlement one might expect from a group of people who hadn’t been able to get tickets to anything better than the badminton. Even tickets to the badminton aren’t cheap, so it’s understandable that one might feel upset when they turn out to be worthless.

I don’t imagine anyone holds the IOC up as the nonpareil of virtue, but little is achieved when we blame them for inadvertently providing the context for temptation, rather than those who readily succumb to it. Virtue untested is no virtue at all – by extension the same holds true for sportsmanship – and as tests go this one was hardly severe. The fact that this particular test found the offending players entirely wanting does not infer that they were therefore operating within a moral crucible. None of these players was forced to choose which of their children would live or die. They just had to try or not.

The round robin format invariably throws up these moments, and athletes with even more at stake than a badminton medal generally make good choices, or at least go to some effort to disguise their bad choices. Tennis fans can think back to the last few matches in the round robin phase of last year’s World Tour Finals, which were conducted amidst a cloying miasma of cynicism. Many tennis fans had been sure that Janko Tipsarevic would tank his match against Djokovic, in order to ensure that his friend would progress safely to the semifinals. Instead Tipsarevic fought out a rare win over his higher-ranked compatriot, and ensured that Djokovic’s majestic season ended with a rare loss. The next match between David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych was similarly fraught. On the other hand, readers can no doubt come up with examples of matches that were tanked, and yet remained entertaining and good-spirited.

For beyond the moral problem of right and wrong lurks the practical one that the badminton players didn’t even bother to hide what they were doing. They could have at least tried to make it look convincing, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a sufficient effort in this respect would have helped them escape censure. Lack-of-best-effort rules are sadly necessary in most sports, even amateur ones, but most athletes only suffer sanctions when they make little to no effort at all. If nothing else, it was offensive from a strictly technical perspective, especially for a fan of tennis, a sport that boasts some acknowledged masters in this area. Here is Andre Agassi:

But losing a match on purpose isn’t easy. It’s almost harder than winning. You have to lose in such a way that the crowd can’t tell, and in a way that you can’t tell – because of course you’re not wholly conscious of losing on purpose. You’re not even half conscious. Your mind is tanking, but your body is fighting on . . . The deliberately bad decisions are made in a dark place, far below the surface.

By making their deliberately bad decisions consciously under Olympic floodlights, the disgraced badminton players foolishly dispelled any shadow of doubt that might have protected them. They disqualified themselves. One has to imagine that the Badminton World Federation would have grasped at any half-plausible excuse not to suspend them, since doing so hardly does the Games any favours. By putting on a decent show, at least the crowd might have been entertained. Fans will put up with a lot, but they won’t put up with the certainty of a fix, especially not one conducted so brazenly and disdainfully. Think back to May 2002, and the widespread outrage when Rubens Barrichello submitted to team orders to let Michael Schumacher cross first at Spielberg, in order that the German might secure the Drivers’ Championship. Everyone who was interested already knew that team orders were a reality, but no one enjoyed seeing that reality writ so large. It was scrawled with a toddler’s crayon for all to see when Schumacher graciously handed Barrichello the winner’s trophy on the podium, for which Ferrari was fined a million dollars, from memory its only penalty. The lesson was clear: do it, but don’t make it so obvious.

Doing the wrong thing is bad enough, but doing the wrong thing badly is worse. And in a marginal sport such as badminton, doing the wrong thing so badly that it tarnishes the brand of the Olympic Games is inexcusable. Disqualification was inevitable.

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