Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why Switzerland's Loss Might Actually be Federer's Gain

After this weekend, it's clear that we should forget about Roger Federer adding a Davis Cup to his list of accomplishments. Crystal clear, in fact. And you know what? It's probably the best thing for Federer, given his age, lofty Grand Slam ambitions, and the youthful state of the competition that he'll have to overcome to achieve them.

While many were holding out hope that Switzerland might use a tidy little victory over the supposedly clay-phobic Americans this weekend as a springboard to a title run, the cold, hard truth is that the only thing a Davis Cup run would have done is distract Federer from his "real" goals this year.

And who can fault Federer if he's guilty of feeling and subsequently disguising his lack of interest in Davis Cup? Who can say if it's right or wrong? He showed up, he played hard, he lost -- let's move on now, to what really matters to Federer. The man has been keeping busy looking for ways to stem the tide of two of the most indomitable, physically daunting specimens to ever play the game. In short, Federer's got work to do, and Davis Cup would only hinder -- not help -- that process.

Put yourself in Roger's shoes. Would you really want four weekends full of five-set marathons tacked on to your already busy schedule, during an Olympic year, no less? Sure, if he was five years younger and Stan Wawrinka was a little more like David Ferrer and a little less like, well, Stan Wawrinka, maybe. But Roger is 30, he's got twins to watch over, and let's be frank: if he's obsessed with winning anything right now, it sure as heck isn't Davis Cup. Wimbledon, maybe. U.S. Open, sure. But not Davis Cup.

That's why I'm thinking that this weekend's loss was actually a blessing in disguise for Federer. For a while there it seemed like even he was getting caught up in taking one last shot at going the distance in Davis Cup. But now that Swiss hopes have sagged, Federer can get back to his bread and butter. Let's face it, the man, brilliant as he still remains, isn't so young anymore. Federer needs to divert every last ounce of energy in his tank toward his Grand Slam quest. He'll need to be as healthy as he possibly can be to weather the rough and tumble Roland Garros-Wimbledon-Olympic grind that is coming.

And even that likely won't be enough. He'll need some divine intervention too.

Playing Davis Cup in April and then again in July would have only clouded the picture for Federer. He's better off where he is right now.

Once he shakes off the disappointment of a deflating performance this weekend, Roger Federer too will realize that the last thing a 30-year-old who wants to win more Grand Slams and Olympic Gold medals needs to do is get caught chasing the wrong dream.

Davis Cup might have been our dream for Roger Federer. It might have been the story that we wanted to read, the pleasant surprise, the proof of his spirituality, love of country, unselfishness, etc... but I don't think it was ever his dream. If it was he would have played like it was. He wouldn't have fell asleep at the wheel during the second set on Friday against John Isner, something we'd never catch him doing at a Slam.

Either way, it's over now. We can blame anything we want to blame -- we can blame the clay, blame Stan Wawrinka's shoddy doubles game, blame the inevitable passage of time -- but it'll never change the real crux of this quandary. The fact remains: the last few chapters of Federer's legacy were never destined to be written at Davis Cup -- they are destined to be written at the Slams.

Now that Federer has less on his mind to worry about, he's got more to put into them.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Djokovic-Nadal: Was it Really That Good?

"A new definition of suffering," was the way that ESPN's Chris Fowler summed up the 5-hour and fifty-three-minute 2012 Australian Open final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal that was part horror flick, part torture chamber, and part epic.

Some anointed the final as the "greatest ever" just minutes after Djokovic ripped his shirt off and flexed his sinewy muscles for all the world to see. Others, like me, demurred. Oh, yeah, the tennis was brilliant for spells, and the tension and drama was enough to make your skin crawl (we tennis fans love that, don't we?), but the match was also sloppy at times (according to stats 38% of points ended in unforced errors, compared to 24% and 21% in their previous two Grand Slam finals), and as much as the robotic level of fitness elevated the collective opinion of what had transpired between Djokovic and Nadal, the sheer physicality of their battle also functioned as an anchor, pulling the level of tennis down with each passing hour.

The question that kept popping into my head as I watched the fourth and fifth sets transpire was: do we really want tennis to be like this?

To elaborate: Do we really want six-hour finals? Do we really want fitness to be a larger and larger part of the eventual outcome of Grand Slam events? Are the longest matches really the best matches? Are slower surfaces, co-poly strings, heavier balls, and ridiculously fit athletes dumbing down the sport?

If I sound negative, I don't mean to. I'm as invested in the modern era of tennis as the next guy -- and I'm as impressed with the tennis that Djokovic and Nadal played in the Australian Open final as the next wide-eyed enthusiast. Was I blown away? Sure. Hell yeah. But I also found myself longing for more diversity, more improvisation, more brevity.

I'll admit: I'm old-school and I worry about things. I dread the disappearance of the one-handed backhand, but the way that the modern topspinners can expose such players, it seems like the shot will eventually be nothing but a memory. I also dread the thought of full tennis matches where neither player hits an approach shot and comes to the net to knock off a volley winner. Solid net play still happens today, but less than ever before. You can't blame the players. Guys are just too good at passing nowadays.

But I digress. I'll stick to the script here and tell you how I really feel: I don't want to see Grand Slam finals where the outcome is decided by which player can endure the most suffering and keep his game together just enough to get him through. I don't want to see tennis become more like a triathlon or a Tour de France, and less like the succinct, artistic endeavor that it is supposed to be.

When our greatest match is also the most torturous, there's something wrong in my opinion. When elegance and precision is replaced by brute force, repetition and 40-second rests between points, we are headed in the wrong direction.

I'll not deny that Djokovic and Nadal's work of stunning and brutal combustion in the 2012 Australian Open final was one of the most remarkable Grand Slam finals I've ever seen. And yes, it has to be placed up there among the best in history, based on its pugilistic element and the suspense.

But to call this battle of attrition the best Grand Slam final of all-time would be, in my humble opinion, myopic.

Longest, yes. But best? I'm not so sure.