Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Wimbledon Men's Semifinals: Whose Piano is the Biggest?


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In this year's Wimbledon men's singles semifinals, there are the haves and the have nots.

And even as the idea that pressure is a privilege—that it is something to be embraced, and perhaps as nutritious as a protein shake or a couple of bananas before hitting the court—has been circulating ever since six-times Wimbledon singles champion Billie Jean King penned the phrase, there is also the notion that pressure is a piano on the back of a once quick-footed, agile, and confident player.

At the Wimbledon semifinals, the nobody is exempt from the pressure, but certainly there are members of the fab four who will suffer under the weight of their pianos more than the others.

With a group of talented players such as this, which of them deals with the pressure in the most positive way, or which is unaware of the pressure (or can deflect it), might be the player that holds the trophy on Sunday.

The mind games are already starting, and as poker-faced as the players are trying to be in the pressrooms and on the court, even their stoned-faced comments give us insight into their delicate mindsets at the moment.

Reporter to Andy Murray: "How would you describe the attention on you, the weight on your shoulders as you go for something that the country has waited so many years for?"

"Ummmmmmmm...I don't really know. There's obviously pressure there. If you think too much about it and you read the newspapers and you watch the stuff on TV that's said about you, I think it would become far too much, but if you kind of shield yourself from all and just get into your own little bubble and listen only to the people that are around you, then it's something that you can deal with."

It's nasty, basically asking someone to tell you how they feel about something whose existence they are trying to deny, but Murray handled the mild interrogation well. Still, his detailed response shows just how strange it must be to have to spend your days in a bubble in order to avoid the rambling rivers of public opinion that ceaselessly flow in your direction.

Like it or not, there's a piano in Murray's dressing room, and his challenge is to leave it there when he takes the court on Friday with a shot to reach the Wimbledon final.

But Murray's not the only one with pressure. As strange as it may seem, Roger Federer's got some too. Yes, he's got 16 Grand Slams to his name—he could have stopped in 2009 and he'd be considered one of the best if not the best of all time. But something keeps driving Federer to achieve, and his relentless pursuit of Grand Slam glory has led him here, to the place it all began for him, about to play a semifinal with a rival on his favorite surface in a draw that Rafael Nadal was bounced from a long time ago.

As time slowly but surely starts to catch up with Federer, you better believe he's aware of the fact that this might be his best chance to snag that seventh Wimbledon and seventeeth Grand Slam title he's had on his Xmas list since 2010. If he gets it, he'll join Pete Sampras in Wimbledon infamy, and he'd likely have cemented his legacy as the greatest tennis player who ever lived.

Federer, as is typical, shrugged off any concerns about having lost six of his last seven matches to Djokovic when chatting with the press. In fact, he went one step further to point out he's happy just to have reached the Wimbledon semis for the first time in three years.

"I haven't put too much thought into it yet," Federer said of playing Djokovic on grass for the first time. "I'm just happy, myself again, I'm a round further than I've been in the last couple of years, so it's been a good tournament so far for me."

Federer is playing it cool as a cucumber. He's happy to have done so well; He's happy to be healthy; The rest is gravy. It's not true of course, but if it relaxes him and helps him play as if he's got nothing to lose then his piano, a slightly smaller model than Murray's, might stay in the locker room as well.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, on the other hand, is a man without a piano. Say what you will about Tsonga's airheadedness at times, but the coachless, light-hearted Frenchman really doesn't concern himself too much with pressure. That will make him a very dangerous player for Murray to cope with on Friday, especially if his piano makes it out to Centre Court with him.

"I feel good," said Tsonga. "For me it's a chance to be here. I will go on court and I will try to take my chance and that' s it."

When asked what it would mean for France if he were to make the final of Wimbledon, Tsonga took a long pause, sighed, and laughed. "I really don't know," he said.

Translation: "I'm a kid in a playground. If I win, I win."

It's difficult to say, which player's method of deflecting the growing pressure of playing these high-stakes matches is best. The earnest, introspective Murray seems to have it licked, but when he steps on court he looks like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. The casual, almost dismissive Federer seems to know a thing or two about pressure, but his record in big-pressure situations is far from perfect these days. Tsonga's obliviousness is nice, too, but he plays oblivious tennis to match sometimes, and that can sabotage his best intentions.

As far as Djokovic goes, he's probably got the best aura of all four semifinalists right now. He's the defending champ, he's the world No. 1, and he's still running uphill in comparison to Nadal and Federer in terms of legacy.

There is something to be said for a man who is on a quest. Djokovic may not be the juggernaut he was at this time last year, but I think he's eager to prove that he is. He's so switched-on in terms of tennis, that his brain seems impervious to externalities such as other people's expectations for him. Federer was this way for many years, and Nadal too.

When you're hungry—as Djokovic clearly is—and you focus on chasing history, playing flawlessly, and proving to the world that you do belong in their class, the pressure does start to look like a privilege.

And the piano doesn't even make it to your locker room.

It stays in the press room, where it belongs.

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