The Doctors Are In
A curious antiseptic coldness seemed to hang over the Federer-Djokovic match. Maybe it was because it started relatively early and no sun had broken through, or because of the cool emotional atmosphere between these two players. At any rate, with the roof closing out gray rain clouds, the quality of light was thin, unrobust, and the tensile figures in white facing each other across the court looked almost surgical. Both meant business and both meant to answer the other’s aggression with his own.
And they did. It was a strangely businesslike match – it moved briskly, with the first set going to Federer without too much struggle. This was unexpected, but no one counted out Novak, who often takes a while to ignite. And Fed is famous for letdowns. No one was surprised, therefore, when Djokovic got the second set – it felt like game on. At 3-3 in the third, I wrote on Twitter, “It feels like the match is just getting started.”
No one thought Fed would win. We’d watched Novak pound the much-decorated champion into dust too many times. We knew Roger would make a valiant effort, but Novak’s unearthly brilliance in 2011 had left deep scars.
It had left scars in Fed too, though, and at all his meetings with Nole, he’s out for vengeance. And he’s not kidding around. Throughout the match, Federer looked set, determined, joyless. It’s his game face, but it’s gotten grimmer. You can almost see his thought processes: This will get rough. Don’t get complacent, stay in the game, fight fire with fire. He knows about the loose, error-prone side of himself (dubbed Fred by his frazzling fans) and is ready to pounce on any sign of laxness in either himself of Nole.
I can’t say players aren’t always geared fiercely to win in a semifinal. Or that too great a concentration makes things joyless and flat. It can’t be true. But there was something flat about this match. The points were fast – crisp. After a while it became clear Nole just didn’t have his fire today. His eyes looked strained rather than focused; his body language was a tad wilted. But even so, you waited for that to drop off. He’s a player who can often look fatigued, pained, even bored, and then explode like a whoosh of an acetylene torch and mount a blistering comeback.
But today, he didn’t. He did have a burst of dominance in the third set, which got to 4-4, but Federer re-seized control and went on to win. At the net, the men shared a surprisingly warm greeting – maybe they have made friends after all this, and their enmity is just a media fantasy. But in Fed-Nole matches I always feel I’m watching the battling of two granite-hard athletic egos out there. While Rafa’s pride is also on the line against Djokovic, with him it feels like he fights frantically to win to maintain primacy, for his sense of supremacy, whereas with Roger it feels like he wants to beat Nole. Could be wrong, of course. As Andy Roddick says, we journalists need our stories.
Murray and the Bear
This match was the opposite. In Andy Murray, the burly Scot with the empire’s weight of expectations on his shoulders, and the incongruously beautiful face atop his battered, beleaguered, “I’m trying, aren’t I?” body, you have a hero with such a back story it’s impossible not to be emotionally involved. And Tsonga is an unpredictable delight, capable of ridiculous highs and lows, with a pneumatic body that he flings around eagerly, in ardent pursuit of the excellence he’s often electrifyingly capable of. (Journalists have been using a bear simile for him, to get at his burly, dancing quality.)
For a while, as he won the first two sets, it seemed Murray had found a level of composure that would guide him painlessly to a straight sets win. His British fans on Twitter cautiously announced they were pleased, but none would claim optimism. Even though to an American it felt like Murray was in control, the British fear of having joy snatched from under them is deeply ingrained. When Murray lost the third set and fell behind in the fourth, the despair was palpable. “Told you,” one tweet read with blunt pathos.
Eventually, I couldn’t stand to watch. Tsonga got into an untouchable zone. This is what happens in tennis and it’s excruciating. It’s absolutely horrible. You hide your head till you pull into port and someone says the storm is over. Eventually I returned and it was almost match point. And incredibly, Murray did not blow match point. And an incredulous, mind-blown audience threw their arms into the air as one. And then it was called out. And Murray, with a look of indescribable weariness, indicated he would challenge. The crowd buzzed confusedly. Tsonga looked quizzical. The serve was ruled good and then the win was real. But that little hitch in the win felt oddly apt. He won. Did he? Wait, maybe he didn’t. Don’t count your chickens, etc.
Afterwards, hustled into his obligatory press conference, Murray answered questions in an indifferent monotone, clearly miles away. That, too, is part of why we like him – he gives his all and then he doesn’t give anything. He plays everything on his own terms and it’s finally starting to work for him.