MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
PART ONE Winter
JANUARY 1, 2017: BRISBANE 1.0
Break point. Match point. Brisbane.
The first tournament of the year. The first day of the first month of 2017.
I had been waiting for this moment since last summer—my summer, in June; not this January Australian summer—back when my Achilles tendon tore in two and I was confined to life on a couch. I watched every single match of Wimbledon in 2016 prone and mostly alone, my family already in Barcelona when I broke myself. I was stranded but for the kindness of my neighbors and occasional visits from a few family members and friends. Unable to do much of anything else but tread through the day in a soupy haze of painkillers, I watched tennis all day, every day, to pass the time away. Singles, doubles, and then replays of the day’s singles and doubles, with nowhere to be and nowhere to go, drifting in and out of sleep. As the weeks went by, I discovered that I had changed in some way that I couldn’t quite describe. Following the ups and downs of players as they followed the sun from tournament to tournament, seeing them find their groove and lose it, sometimes from one venue to the next, sometimes from one match to the next, sometimes in the middle of a point, to watch someone lose something that no one among the thousands or millions watching could see but all can feel, as though the gravity’s been turned off around that player and that player alone. To watch her float into a negative zone, pulled by a phantom thread into a black cloud bank of bad results. Or, sometimes, the welcome reverse: a golden period where everything feels right, everything falls inside the court, once-impossible angles suddenly simple and seen, a reserved pocket of power found, that moment when the game becomes less about backswings and string tensions and follow-throughs and almost entirely about the feet, and eyes, they see everything early and take you there effortlessly; that moment when even the net seems on your side and bows ever so slightly as the ball you send its way passes over its thin white line. This book, in its essence, is about the things we can never quite describe but should try to because they’re fleeting. I couldn’t describe the tennis I was watching despite having all the time in the world to do so and oh so wanting to make sense of seeing Federer fall, a beatable Serena, Nadal all but vanish into thin air, a mojo-less Djokovic fall down a rabbit hole, and Murray finally make it to the top of the mountain. I made myself the promise that someday I would. Someday, when I could walk again and my mind wasn’t saddled with sedatives, I would focus on a year and, like the players, follow the sun from beginning to end.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the 2017 that happened was not the 2017 you expected. You and me both. Who could have imagined that we’d end up there? It was some strange admixture of the past and a future we weren’t quite prepared for. And that this holds true for the world apart from tennis and for tennis itself is part of the power and the glory and the problem of both. As my head cleared and my body healed, I found both worlds to be, as Wallace Stevens once put it, more truly and more strange.
* * *
Break point. Match point. Brisbane.
The first tournament of the year. The first day of the first month of 2017.
I want to open the moment like a gift. The heat of January, relentless summer, the steamy gauze of the midday haze. This is the only show in town. Despite the open-air roof overhead, the heat has made everything much more difficult. Both men look like they have just emerged from a river they had accidentally fallen into. Deciding set, down 2–5, the goal now is simply to survive. To see one more point and take it from there. Bounce, bounce, think but don’t think—play the percentages: find the backhand. But the serve wants to do its job too well, or the legs and mind are too tired at this point to inject any risk, and so it sets off on its launch path obedient to direction but rolling off the racket too politely. It spins safely over the net and into the service box, where the ball lands softly and, before bouncing back into the air, pauses for so long on the sweltering court that you could walk onto the court and slowly sign your name on the worn yellow felt. You were here. Finally, the ball rises and arrives to the waiting backhand return, which is dispatched back hastily and inquisitively, tit for tat to the backhand of his opponent, Elias Ymer. Let’s see how he likes it. A serve to the backhand? A return to the backhand. A test? An answer. A call and a response. But they knew that the jig was up. That final serve had told them so. And so, in search of a lifeline in the form of Jordan Thompson’s backhand, Ymer instead watches his own backhand sink him. His shot clips the net and doesn’t even feign possibly going in. It drops as though it’s run into a wall, tumbling to the court, and falls down through the O in WORLD of ATP WORLD TOUR painted across the net. The crowd cheers. Game. Set. Match. Thompson, 6–3, 6–3. In ninety minutes. The world goes on. Tennis goes on. There will be more of both. But not how anyone would have expected. It’s day one of 2017. And here I am, as it happens. Still in the final, lagging American hours of 2016, hurtling toward the future as the circuit begins.
The top four seeds at Brisbane were, in order, Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, and Dominic Thiem. By the end of the season, only one player on that list would even be active. But for now, in the first week of the new season, they enjoy their automatic byes into the next round, one of the more perfunctory perks of having a high ranking in smaller tournaments.
The fifth seed, in this respect, was out of luck. He would have to pick up his racket and play that extra early-round match along with the wild cards, qualifiers, and others. It was none other than Rafa Nadal. He hadn’t played since October 2016, when he was upset in an early round in Shanghai by Viktor Troicki, after which he announced he was taking time off to let his sore wrist recover. Going into this new season, uncertainty swirled around Nadal. He had turned thirty in June of last season and his results indicated he was in decline, as did his increasingly creaky body. Now the iconic long hair of his heyday had been replaced by a sensible, almost businesslike cut. He was less Samson now and more Mr. Samson. Brisbane was the first step into whatever new world this was, in which there were four top players at a venue and he wasn’t among them. This despite the fact that neither Djokovic nor Murray nor Federer were here. Nadal himself usually sidestepped Brisbane as well. What was he doing here? Since 2009, he had spent every year starting things up in Doha. He won there in 2014 and had been a finalist just last year in 2016. Doha was a fixture on his calendar: he even won the doubles title there a record four times. The 2017 prize money at Brisbane was $461,333; the 2017 prize money at Doha was $776,000. Perhaps Brisbane was to be the freshest of fresh starts for him. What would it have meant to him, superstitious like few others, to start this new uncertain journey in opulent Doha, where the last time he walked onto the hard court there he lost to Novak Djokovic in a nightmare of a match for him, 6–1, 6–2, and then proceeded to get knocked out in the first round of the Australian Open in heartbreaking fashion against his fellow countryman Fernando Verdasco? If 2017 was going to be a reset and a renewal, then the man who abhors change had to change. Some of the past had to be burned away. Roger was in Perth at the Hopman Cup. Let Novak and Andy slug it out in Doha. Rafa would have Brisbane with the also-rans and Stan.
He stepped out into the evening to warm applause dressed in a vivid burst of tangerine-and-white shorts. It was almost 10:30 at night. Unlike the worn-down and tenuous figure he cut throughout most of 2016, he seemed vigorous, deep in thought, dangerous to touch. He went through all of his routines. The ones he begins in the locker room with a last-second cold shower and close-quarter calisthenics, a few violent leaps straight into the air just before exiting the tunnel that leads to the court, his bag placed in its chair just so, the ID tag of his bag placed just so, his towels placed down just so, a few sips of refreshment just so, the bottles placed on the floor in front of his chair just so, just the way he likes it, no, just as it has to be, there is no other way, there’s only just so. He begins to feint a sprint or two, following his routine to millimetric precision until he has to acknowledge the chair umpire and the player on the other side of the net. Then he returns to the match already being played in his mind as he warms up, his massive arms and thighs leading his thick trunk back through the epic pattern of preparation that used to strike fear in other players. But now? One wonders. He hadn’t won much of anything off of clay in some time. And a younger generation of players were emerging who grew up playing with and against the type of extreme topspin Nadal had patented with his thick-framed, ultra-light Babolat racket and poly strings. Had what made him so difficult to play now also become routine? Still, there was something singular about Nadal. A lesser physical specimen would look like a walking Creamsicle in what he was wearing, but he had somehow managed to spend a lifetime making outfits no one should be able to look serious in seem full of intent. He strutted around center court like a starburst.
As much as Rafa feeds off routine, his first-round opponent, Ukraine’s Alexandr Dolgopolov, feeds off its absence. Neither quite old nor young now, he has for years been a connoisseur’s delight on the tour. His game is like the band you think no one has heard of, the one with too many or too few people in it, your guilty pleasure. There are the players for whom the racket is a cello. For Dolgopolov, it’s a bass; he is a practitioner of arts largely distant from the highest levels of the circuit; where others try to construct, he deconstructs; he is a disciple of the School of the Chaos Point. There’s a technical term for it: he has funky game.
Sometimes it looks like he’s given up on a point, unwilling to submit himself to the discipline of riding out the undulations and give-some-get-some nature of difficult rallies, the kind that test your patience as much as your footwork and groundstrokes—the alpha and omega of Nadal’s approach. But things are so often not what they seem. Dolgopolov suffers from Gilbert’s syndrome, a chronic condition that affects the liver’s ability to produce bilirubin, which is the natural by-product of the hemoglobin in our red blood cells when they are broken down by the body. While it’s non-lethal, it causes sudden and extreme exhaustion. Things that exacerbate it include constant travel and physical exertion: basically, being a tennis professional. When he was diagnosed with Gilbert’s he was already a promising youth player. He ignored the doctor’s advice to scrap any idea of playing at the level his promise suggested he was destined for. Instead, he cultivated a game over the years to correspond with his unpredictable reserves of energy. He tries to end a point as soon as the first glimpse of an opportunity presents itself: an early, unexpected drop shot from an unlikely position on the court; a low-percentage forehand down the line when a safe crosscourt shot is begging to be hit; a backhand slice seeking out an ambitious, eye-popping angle. When it works, it’s oohs and ahhs and cheers from the gallery. When it doesn’t, crickets. Sometimes it’s champagne stuff from him. Other times, when the muse has abandoned him, a Dolgopolov performance can be tough to swallow. Don’t let the big swings and bellowing grunts fool you: tennis is a sport of deception and surprise. The more disguise you can manage into your groundstrokes and your serve, the more chances you have of robbing your opponent of that vital fraction of a second. In the bigger picture, tennis remains the same.
He’s been ranked as high as thirteenth in the world on the back of a scintillating 2011 when he appeared to announce himself as the next great talent in tennis at age twenty-two. He entered Brisbane and the start of 2017 mired in a cloud of bad results and ranked sixty-second in the world, descending to a level he hadn’t seen his name near in close to seven years. He warms up a little more languidly than Nadal. Everyone does. The racket in his hand is clearly a Wilson Pro Staff, but it’s missing the familiar W stenciled on the strings. Bad results have left him a free agent: a player without a racket sponsor. Later in the year, a gambling watchdog unit will wonder about some of the statistical outliers in his matches (going a whole match without seeing a break point, for instance) and the even stranger betting lines that followed him around from tournament to tournament. His results will pick up on the heels of it as though he were chased into good form: a final in Båstad, Sweden, at the Swedish Open in July; a good run to the round of sixteen at the U.S. Open in August; a final in Shenzhen, China, at the Shenzhen Open in October; he’ll end the year ranked thirty-eighth. The child of a professional coach, he started playing the game at three years old, coached then as he is now by his father: you’ve heard the story before, you’ll hear it again.
He is in his late twenties, just under six feet tall, with an angular face and soft expressionless eyes that contradict his hollow cheeks. He sports a ponytail and a hair band to keep his hair out of his eyes. No goatee tonight, he is relatively clean-shaven, wearing a white crew top with thin sky-blue lines across the front, a thick sky-blue racing stripe along the sides and sleeves, and matching solid sky-blue sneakers and shorts. Tonight, he can’t get a first serve in and Nadal feasts on his compromised second serve, dispatching him in straight sets: 6–3, 6–3. True to his playing style, Dolgopolov started as fast as he possibly could. He broke Nadal’s serve early and had tallied eleven winners by the time Rafa registered his first. But Dolgopolov cooled off as quickly as he had started hot. The unforced errors swiftly began to pile up. Shots that at the start were dropping inside the court began to betray his racket. He finished the match with fifty-six errors, thirty-two of them unforced. At one point during the match, Dolgopolov, angry with the world, stormed off the court and returned having changed his shorts. It didn’t help. He was twisted up, his funky game flat. How much was it him, and how much was it the man on the other side of the net? For, while Nadal had never been a player to rack up a huge number of winners, his anemic numbers were, despite the final score, startling—a mere six winners total: two aces, two from the backhand side, one smash, one volley, and not a single one from the forehand. Yet, his serve showed more promise than it had in some time. It was almost as though he had inverted his strengths. Only time would tell.
Regardless, you wouldn’t say that it was vintage Nadal, for how he played or for the context. Now he was like the other twenty-four players obliged to play in the first round of this relatively small tournament—there were thirty-two spaces in comparison to the 128 for the majors (i.e., the Grand Slams), 250 points instead of the 2,000 at stake in the majors, 1,000 in the Masters. The top four got a day or two off as a gift for showing up. But the others were the players who had to grind from day one. We know now that Nadal hasn’t yet fallen into that category, but as Brisbane 2017 began, the world wondered what to make of the Bull in winter. And we were left without a clear answer, as two nights later Milos Raonic took a punch from Nadal before answering back by winning two straight sets with all the robust confidence one would expect from the higher-ranked player: 4–6, 6–3, 6–4. Murray and Djokovic, the number one and two, we’d grown accustomed, slowly, to seeing have Nadal’s number. But now Milos Raonic? The Clark Graebner we didn’t ask for but deserve? Is this where Nadal is now? Where are we?
Step back from the ocean-blue Plexicushion hard courts of the Queensland Tennis Centre, and you’ll discover yourself to be not in Brisbane but rather in Tennyson, a tiny suburb named after the English Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson—“Lawn Tennyson,” the “gentleman poet,” as Stephen Dedalus refers to him in Ulysses. Step even further back—from Australia on New Year’s Day, cross the Pacific, climb to the equator—and you will find yourself not in the summer of Down Under but in the northern hemisphere’s winter.
Playing before a home crowd, Thompson fights his way to the third round by beating perennial overachiever and former world number four David Ferrer of Spain before meeting his baker in Japan’s Kei Nishikori, who whipped him up a breadstick for each set, 6–1, 6–1 (a breadstick is one game won in a set, a bagel is zero games won: they are signs of dishonor). Ranked fifth in the world at the start of 2017 and a consolidated top-ten player for a couple of years, Nishikori was set for a run at the things he had yet to accomplish on the circuit: a ranking in the top three (he’d been as high as fourth) and a title in a major (he was a finalist in the 2014 U.S. Open). The 2016 U.S. Open was almost as kind to him: he lost in the semifinals after defeating Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. It would prove to be the last time Murray would lose a match in 2016. Short in stature and lightning-quick, gifted with a two-handed backhand that could absorb and redirect his opponent’s pace on the short hop, but somewhat held back—from the very highest heights of the game—by his capable but unreliable forehand, serve, and fitness, Nishikori was a smaller prototype of the mold that made Murray and Novak Djokovic, the top two players on the circuit. He had turned twenty-seven on the twenty-ninth of December. In the new logic of tennis, where teenagers fight for scraps on the lower Challenger circuit, he was entering his prime. In the semifinal of Brisbane he squared off against the player who beat him in the 2016 U.S. Open semifinal, Stan Wawrinka, who went on to win the tournament and notch his third major title in three years. Nishikori would get a measure of revenge on Wawrinka in November of that year by beating him in sixty-seven minutes in London at the ATP World Tour Finals. These types of minimum-resistance capitulations on non–Grand Slam stages had become par for the course for Wawrinka, who, by this time in his early thirties, had become a player who reserved his considerable gifts for the major tournaments and, as a rule, offered far less resistance anywhere else. At Brisbane, after losing the first set in a tiebreaker, Nishikori wins the final two sets by a whisker. Wawrinka pretends to be bothered, but his mind is really on Melbourne and the Australian Open. What’s important at this point for Nishikori, however, is the scoreline. He needs results; they’re proof that he can handle the few players on the circuit ahead of him and, rather crucially, that his body can handle the pounding of going deep into tournaments and not betray him as it did in 2016 in Wimbledon when he had to forfeit mid-match due to injury, and not for the first time. What to do when your Achilles’ heel is your body, all of it?
On the other side of the Brisbane draw was the number one seed: the Canadian Milos Raonic. He started the year with a career-high ranking of third in the world and had won Brisbane the year before, defeating Federer in the 2016 final. Later in that same year, Raonic played a key role at Wimbledon when in the semifinal he defeated Federer once again, half by the blunt force of his game and half by being smart enough not to get in the way of a clearly hobbled Roger getting in the way of himself. Raonic’s game is one part serve and one part ambition. The other parts are still works in progress, but he speaks with such certainty that sometimes it seems even he forgets that they are. “I am by no means done,” he told the press in the media room after his victory over Federer on Wimbledon’s famed Centre Court. He was done, though. Two days later, he delivered one of the more tepid performances of a Wimbledon finalist that you’ll ever see. Facing the local favorite, Murray, and finally in position to fulfill his promise, he wilted. But, like Nishikori, he regained steam at the World Tour Finals, where this time he pushed Murray, who was again playing before a home crowd, to the brink.
Despite not winning a single tournament in 2016, he spoke of himself as a top player on the tour, and the ranking of third going into 2017 seemed to satisfy his sense of himself and his tennis. On the third day in Brisbane, he faced the ninth-ranked Rafa Nadal.
If Raonic was ascendant, what, then, was Grigor Dimitrov? A player graced with such precocious, easy-on-the-eye gifts that he was given the nickname Baby Fed, he nevertheless showed up at Brisbane already a bit of an afterthought on the men’s circuit. Having reached the top ten in the summer of 2014, he almost immediately thereafter went on a mysterious descent of form that ended with him falling to fortieth in the rankings by July 2016. Of the three great promises in their mid-twenties, Dimitrov, unlike Raonic and Nishikori, didn’t hold form at the very-good-but level; he sank. Quietly, however, the late summer and a new coach brought better results. By Brisbane he was ranked seventeenth. He was talked about less than his peers, all of whom he had peaked ahead of. He’d had his time; now was theirs. Dimitrov’s first big challenge of 2017 was to reestablish a pecking order that had him somewhere, anywhere, in it. On the third day of Brisbane, he beat the player talked about now as he once was: the twenty-three-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem, ranked eighth in the world and the fourth seed of the tournament. Then he turned Raonic over in the semifinal, winning the first-set tiebreak 9–7 and then running away with the second set 6–2. The next day, he beat Nishikori in three sets. The first champion of the 2017 season was Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria. He’s widely considered one of the nicest guys on the circuit. Blessed with balletic movement and easy power, Dimitrov is the prototype of the stylish player. He has a long, powerful forehand and sweeping one-handed backhand. The strong traces of a tennis era gone by that you see in Roger Federer’s game are the residue of the tennis he loved as a kid. And the strong traces of Roger Federer’s game in Grigor Dimitrov’s game are the residue of his love of Roger as a kid. As Grigor was breaking through the top ranks of the main circuit, the similarities between the two players were so unmistakable that thanks to them Dimitrov ended up carrying a burden no young player should have: he was given that blessed curse of a nickname, Baby Fed. His results in recent years were such that the nickname’s days were numbered. He was no longer a baby and he wasn’t any closer to winning Grand Slams. But if the end of 2016 was promising, beginning 2017 with a title was the chance to consolidate his potential from week one of the new year. Like Nishikori and Raonic, Dimitrov wasn’t among the youngest generation on the circuit. But his story was still there to be written with his racket if he was up for it.
Was he Baby Fed again? Or had he evolved? Was he in sync with his past, or had he broken free headlong toward the future? Whatever it was to be, Brisbane was now part of the answer.
“This is what we wanted!” the commentator Simon Reed intoned into his microphone at the end of the fourteen-shot rally, his voice almost sounding bored with the statement, so crisp and certain it was. “The best two players on the planet really laying into each other!”
It’s the seventh day of 2017: a Saturday in January in Doha, Qatar. A short walk from the commercial buildings, shops, and restaurants adorning Doha’s city center is the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex, home of the Qatar ExxonMobil Open since the year of its founding in 1993. Over these twenty-five years, this 250 tournament has become a destination stop for the game’s best players. Brisbane may offer players the chance to get acclimated to Australia in preparation for the Australian Open, but Doha offers a different type of spectacle and luxury of a different degree. By summer of 2017, nine sovereign governments will have severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, including to go as far as to withdraw ambassadors and institute trade and travel bans. At this early part of the year, the White House is about to change hands. Both domestic and foreign policy for the future are completely up in the air. Brexit is or isn’t but definitely is happening. In France, the upcoming presidential race is under way and—like in the United States and in the United Kingdom—the fate of the very idea of what France is seems to be on the ticket. The world feels slippery, dense, supercharged with social and political change—and yet for a few hours here was tennis, literally a light in the sleepy darkness of my apartment. It’s moments like this, these odd hours with the game on, when its metronome and angles take the form of therapy—I listen to the world take a deep breath. Suddenly, in thinking about Doha again, it all feels so present. Not just the matches, but what they were supposed to mean. Qatar was supposed to be the herald of a new era. Qatar was supposed to change the world.
This was the circuit’s big heavyweight bout, round one of who knows how many during the year. This was the new normal going forward. After a decade of four tennis legends battling it out year after year for supremacy in their sport, enhancing each other, elevating each other’s standards and shifting positions in the hierarchy at the absolute summit of the circuit, now only two legends were left standing. And here they were. This was how the year was destined to really get started. This wasn’t to be missed.
This is what we wanted.
The two best players on the planet really laying into each other.
The 2017 final of the Qatar Open. Don’t forget it. And when you remember it, speak of it as what it was: a song of the new year to the melody of the year that had just passed—2017 in the key of 2016, back when we thought we were getting what we wanted, the two best players on the planet really laying into each other, back when there was Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic … and then there was everyone else.
Before we sing a song of Federer and Nadal, before Murray and Djokovic disappear, reappear, and then disappear again, remember that there was Doha 2017. It was supposed to be the big bang but ended up being the whimper.
It was supposed to be the story of 2017. How Murray finally, after so many torturous years of crying, growling, recriminating his team, and eviscerating himself, had risen to the number one ranking, and how then he would fare in defending it. And how the unconquerable Djokovic, now having finally won all four Grand Slam titles, would react to suddenly and rather unexpectedly being saddled with the number two ranking. No one was on the horizon to challenge them; they played three-hour, five-hour matches with hardly the need to sit. Insanely fit, flexible, and fundamentally defensive players by nature, they had become impossible to pass either on the court or in the rankings (except for occasional guest appearances on the circuit of Stan Wawrinka at his peak). Murray, who wears the underdog role like cashmere, found himself in the unprecedented position of top dog. And Djokovic, unplayable as recently as just last June, was inexplicably somehow now in the role of the chaser.
Three weeks from today, Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne will be the stage for another Roger and Rafa. We’ll call them the best two players on the planet again and then again, although we won’t mean it. Not then, not yet. Then, the vintage feel in the throat when you say it will give way to a simple, dull act of veracity you recognize from before. The Swiss and the Spaniard will have settled back into their perches in the rankings by then. But for now we’re here in Qatar. It’s the seventh day of 2017, a Saturday in January in Doha. It’s a moment that sits like a stunned and stunted rock in the midst of a surging stream. A classic that was to define the year. Was this not what we wanted? Great tennis, fun tennis, something to inject a little joy into the world’s grimness. A classic that ended up having absolutely nothing to do with reality. There they were: the two best players on the planet not named Roger or Rafael or Serena. Slowly, we all had come to grips with this. We became fluent in it. This was what we wanted. The two best players on the planet really laying into each other. You say it until you mean it. But then you meant it and it was gone.
When Murray and Djokovic play, you can see the match almost as well with your eyes closed and your ears open, listening for their footwork, the skidding, the relentless scuffing of their shoes on the court, an occasionally desperate grunt to coax out that vital extra half step, and then a short stoppage of play and a patch of silence before they do it again. Together they were heralds of tennis’s new form of dominance: sadistic resilience and rugged precision, with shot patterns dangerous enough to threaten but safe enough to guarantee that they’d stay in.
Murray had been great at it for close to a decade.
Born in 1987, he grew up in the town of Dunblane in the center of Scotland. He attended Dunblane Primary School, where he and his older brother, Jamie, were when in March 1996 an armed man carrying registered guns entered the school and murdered sixteen children and one teacher before killing himself. One of the worst mass shootings in the history of Britain, it led to two Firearms Acts being passed in 1997. Murray’s parents split when he was ten, and he learned tennis from his mother, Judy, who was a coach. For the sake of his development he eventually moved to Barcelona for a year and a half to live and train at the Sánchez-Casal Academy under the tutelage of Emilio Sánchez, a three-time Grand Slam champion in doubles. Murray’s route to tennis stardom was measured but hardly slow. He was an elite junior player, turned pro in 2005, won his first title, and, upon attaining the ranking of forty-two in February 2006, became Britain’s top-ranked player. In 2007 he became a top-ten player, and in 2008 he played his first Grand Slam final, losing to Federer in straight sets at the U.S. Open. By this point he had become a fixture at the deepest stages of tournaments: a top-five player capable of winning some of the bigger 250s—Doha, Marseille, St. Petersburg—but he still stood on the other side of the chasm from Roger and Rafa, a chasm that Djokovic was already in the process of crossing.
Between 2009 and 2011, he upped his title haul, becoming a regular title-contender at the prestigious Masters 1000s. He also took on a new coach, letting Àlex Corretja go in favor of Ivan Lendl, who convinced Murray to add a bit more initiative into his play to complement his world-class powers of reaction and adaptation. Lendl’s stoic, no-nonsense demeanor became a stay against Murray’s constant complaining, moaning, and recriminating of the box of seats where his coaches, family, and associates sat. Also, Lendl’s having won eight Grand Slam titles himself and holding on to the number one ranking for an astonishing 270 weeks during the eighties, when Connors, McEnroe, Edberg, Mats Wilander, and Boris Becker were all in their prime, added some gravitas to his instruction of a player in Murray who was now winning everything there was to win—aside from the biggest titles of them all, the Grand Slams. And here was where Lendl could help Murray profoundly by way of having lost eleven Grand Slam finals to go along with the eight he won. Murray needed to learn not only how to win Grand Slam finals, he also needed to learn what to do with all of the losses.
He rarely had that little extra to overcome Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic. Entering Doha in 2017, his record against the three of them stood at twenty-nine wins and fifty-five losses. Of the forty-seven Grand Slam titles won by the Big Four, Murray had won three—Stan Wawrinka and his big, risk-embracing power game owned just as many and at three different Grand Slams (although Murray easily lapped him in the overall trophy count).
And yet, Murray’s success was singular: his Olympic gold medals and Wimbledon titles granted him a type of Anglo gravitas akin to a writer’s writer or a band that only recorded a few albums, all of them classics. The doubter would say he’d lost eight Grand Slam finals. The supporter would say he’d played in eleven Grand Slam finals. Similar to his game, what he was in the grand scheme of things always limned an edge. He’d amassed legendary, unprecedented success. But as late as the fall of 2016 it looked like he would never attain the rudimentary mark of a great player: the number one ranking.
Murray was rock-solid in his position as the second-ranked player in the world. Federer and Nadal were injured and inconsistency crept up on them with age. Meanwhile, Djokovic casually kept Murray at arm’s length from the top spot. More than with any other player, Murray’s career was playing out exactly as he played: he chased, he endured, and he was good enough to beat everybody else.
But the fall of 2016 changed Murray’s fortunes. Djokovic failed to defend his Wimbledon title, falling to Sam Querrey over three days and looking haggard and absent in doing so. This was the start of a spiral that affected his form first—Djokovic would win his next tournament, the prestigious Masters 1000 in Toronto in early August 2016, but looked like a shell of himself doing so; his opponents seemed in disbelief that a player who had been practically unbeatable for the past two years could appear now so flat: they fell over themselves to lose to him, as though that’s what they should do … Djokovic, meanwhile, would tend to his left arm between points and look up to his support team in the stands with a glare of bemusement one moment and a blank stare of befuddlement the next. Something was not right. But such was Djokovic’s greatness, the height at which he was playing, that even a dip in form left him with enough to make a final. The luck of the draw helped him reach the U.S. Open final. He started fast in the first set and held on, barely, to win that one. Then he found himself on the receiving end of Wawrinka’s onslaught. He took time off after, and reappeared for the end-of-the-year tournament in London. And once again, he seemed blunted but was good enough to reach the final. By this point, Murray had won every tournament he entered between New York and London. While Djokovic took time to figure himself out, Murray won—in order—the 500-point tournament in Beijing, the 1,000-point tournament in Shanghai, the 500-point tournament in Vienna, and the 1,000-point tournament in Paris, and then beat Djokovic in the final tournament of 2016, the 1,500-point ATP World Tour Finals, which left him rather unbelievably with the prestigious year-end top ranking for the first time in his career. It was a chase-down, snatch-and-grab act of epic proportions to end the year. As Murray rose to number one, the curtain closed on the year. Doha 2017 was to become both the start of a new chapter and a postscript to the last.
And it was. Until it wasn’t.
In retrospect, the cracks in the disastrous year that both Murray and Djokovic would end up having were there for all to see in Doha. In the first set of the first round, Murray, facing Jérémy Chardy of France, raced out to a 6–0 lead. Andy won the next set in a tiebreaker (7–2). In his second-round match he won the first set against Gerald Melzer in a tiebreaker (8–6) and the second set 7–5—total time: two hours and twenty-three minutes. In the quarterfinals Murray won the first set against Spain’s Nicolás Almagro in a tiebreaker (7–4) and then won the second set 7–5—total time: two hours and ten minutes. And then seemed to right himself against his first seeded opponent, perennial top-ten player Tomáš Berdych, whom he beat 6–3, 6–4, but he took another hour and forty-one minutes to do it. The final against Djokovic would take two hours and fifty-four minutes. Murray was spending an obscene amount of time on the court. It’s one thing to be locked in three tight sets in a match against Djokovic. It’s another entirely to be consistently locked into long battles against the rest of the field. Murray wasn’t making quick work of anyone: he simply couldn’t get off the court.
But the results were with him.
Later in 2017, at Wimbledon, Murray would hobble through the end of a defeat to Sam Querrey, the same player who had taken down Djokovic at the same tournament the prior year. His hip would fail him, as had his shoulder earlier in the year. Dogged physicality, living every point to its last possible end, being a wall: these were the building blocks by which Andy Murray rose to the heights of the game in an era when he could have been content with being a heroic loser, a rich man’s also-ran, and no one would have begrudged him it. At least not any more than they do now, for he simply isn’t as seductive as Federer or Nadal, or as successful as Djokovic, or as romantic as Wawrinka. We saw him battle through to the final at Doha and thought, Andy Murray knows how to win. And he did now. And how! With his win against Berdych he was on a twenty-eight-match win streak. The results were the results. But the results were coming from having to rev his engine further to its limits than he should.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the draw, Djokovic was crushing through the early rounds. He handled the sixty-third-ranked Jan-Lennard Struff, seventy-first-ranked Horacio Zeballos, and one-hundred-and-seventh-ranked Radek Štepánek with ease. Then in the semifinal he found himself in a deep hole against the veteran Madrid-born Fernando Verdasco, ranked forty-second at the time and on good days a handful for anyone, even at thirty-three years of age. Djokovic, for his part, was looking as gaunt as he ever had, not slender or slim but approaching skeletal, as though his body were feeding on itself from bottom to top, culminating in a sucked-out space on each side of his face where his cheeks used to be flush with life, and two dark vacancies where his eyes should be. This was compounded by his body language, an amalgam of fidgeting and wry slumps of the shoulders regardless of whether things went for or against him. At times, between points, he looked up in the crowd to the box where his coach and trainer were seated and offered them a blank stare that softened into a smirk, as though they were strangers who’d won a contest to sit in those seats and he had little interest in who they were or why they were there.
Despite all this, he is an all-time talent, hardwired with the instinctive aspects of his game—one is his unparalleled return of serve, another his easy absorption and redirection of pace on both forehand and backhand—that make him extremely difficult to beat. He uses these to race out to a 4–2 lead to start the match. Then, suddenly, he becomes a shell of himself and vanishes. He doesn’t win another game in the frame, and, even worse, gets broken at love twice in a row. Verdasco wins the first set 6–4.
The second set knots at the end: 6–6. They go to a tiebreaker. Win it, and Verdasco is on to an unexpected final against Murray. Lose it, and he lives to fight on for another set, but he’ll also have given life to the most lethal closer of the past half decade. Yes, Djokovic has been that good for that long. Verdasco played his way to a 6–2 lead. He only needed to win one more point out of the next four to win the match. Worse still for Djokovic, on this first match point he’s the one serving and his serve hasn’t been kind to him this night. At moments like these, on serve with everything to play for, Djokovic is known to bend forward at the baseline and bounce the ball relentlessly before starting the point. Most players bounce the ball a handful of times before going into their service motion, something in the range of four bounces or so. When nervous Djokovic routinely bounces the ball over twenty times before a serve, I imagine him rewinding in his mind how he got from finally winning the French Open in 2016 and completing the career Grand Slam and a continent-wide lead in the ATP Tour rankings to the spot where he is now, a semifinal in Doha, down four match points to Fernando Verdasco, carrying the bad mojo of the end of last season when he lost at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the ATP Tour Final, and, for the first time since the summer of 2014 was ranked something other than first in the world. Bounce bounce bounce bounce bouncebouncebouncebouncebouncebouncebouncebounce …
Somewhere between Djokovic canceling all four of Verdasco’s match points with clutch play and Verdasco gift-wrapping them with nervous play lies the truth of tennis. One step in the wrong direction in the middle of one point can cause an avalanche that sweeps away any advantage, no matter its size. Opportunity’s door opens and closes quickly, quicker than in most other sports. Verdasco tightens, reads his lines, plays the role of Fernando Verdasco. On the longer exchanges he hesitates before stepping forward, then retreats back; on the shorter ones, he sprays mishit forehands into the stands. A few people in the crowd, disappointed with his drop in play, begin to hiss.
Djokovic uses his two-handed backhand to take control of the early points. He has an undeterred ability to hit dangerous balls to all parts of the court with sufficient margin that they’re safely inside the lines. He doesn’t paint lines, he shadows them. The skill to hit these types of groundstrokes error-free and consistently gives his opponent little room for air or time to think.
Djokovic had finally rediscovered this core aspect of his game: he had reset. Verdasco was suddenly caught in a web of indecision. Should he continue to attack? He tried to take the initiative, serving for the match 6–3 in the tiebreaker, and shanked a ball into the stands. Or should he wait for Djokovic to make an error? The next point they played was a twenty-nine-shot rally that eventually ended with Verdasco blinking and hitting out. No one does the Safety Dance like Djokovic. Murray is close, but Djokovic has a strange ability to twist through the vise he seems trapped in and somehow squeeze the life out of his opponent instead. It’s not a pretty magic, but it’s magic all the same.
THE DOHA FINAL
Despite Murray taking the longest path possible to get there and despite Djokovic being dragged to the brink by Verdasco, there had been an air of inevitability that the number one and number two would meet in the final. And that air of inevitability about the number one and number two meeting in the final papered over most concerns about their form. Both of them had long ago mastered the art of manageable suffering. Djokovic did it more like a passive-aggressive dance, a loose-limbed tango; Murray, a game of cat-and-mouse.
The start of the seventh game of the first set of the first big final of the year. It was only a 250 tournament, as small as they get on the elite circuit, but it was to be the first statement match of 2017, the first clarion call of the new order of things finally cut free from the annoyance of the past. Finally, it was just Murray and Djokovic: one vs. two, slugging it out for tennis supremacy in the desert night, miles clear of all the pretenders and the two past glories on the tour.
Act one, scene one of the way things were going to be from now on.
Three-games-all in the first set of the best-of-three, first point of the seventh game. Djokovic takes a long, deep breath, bounces the ball just in front of his left foot again and again and again, and then, finally, rocks back ever so slightly and starts his serve. Murray had just navigated through his own tough hold of serve, which included a twenty-eight-shot rally at 40–40 that he survived using, as he often does, a defensive lob to steady himself in the point and then, after a few well-shaped crosscourt forehand conversations, punctuated it with a well-disguised forehand drop shot. The two started breathing heavily from the first points of the match. Djokovic is at least thankful there’s no wind tonight, unlike other nights in Doha where he had to contend with a continually troublesome gale gliding in off the Persian Gulf. Both are inclined to stretch a point out until it turns sheer and they can see an opening. When they play each other it’s an added exertion, their matches against each other tending to rumble on, each waiting on the other to make a mistake. Murray’s been the one to blink in these encounters most of the time, although just this past November, in the last tournament of 2016 in London, Murray had beaten Djokovic to end the year as the top-ranked player for the first time in his career.
Despite his tall frame, to which over the years he’s added much muscle, Murray isn’t a particularly powerful player, nor is he one imbued with much in the way of grace. He wears oversized wristbands that cover most of his forearms, and a baseball cap covering his unkempt waves of hair that nevertheless still sometimes spill out from the sides; wrapped up and dour on the court, he reminds me of a beekeeper about to enter a hive. He lumbers around the court, and yet his feet are stunning in their quickness: he gets to just about everything, rarely making it look or sound easy. Indeed, there’s little quiet in the way he moves. When he stretches to chase down a difficult shot sent his way from the other side of the net, an under-duress yell often precedes his legs firing into action like the loud engine of a muscle car sputtering before it revs up, rears back, and jumps into its speed. He’s lightning-quick. Not just of body but also of mind. England has embraced him as their noble (and now knighted) champion, but his game reflects the streetwise Scot in him. He lives off of wry chicanery hidden in his consistency; his shot pattern screws with his opponents’ rhythm, often lulling them into a false sense of expectation. Imagine being given a Russian nesting doll and opening it, working your way through one carbon copy of the same doll after another, until you come across one with an egg yolk stowed inside it that spills onto your lap. This is what it’s like to play him. One of Murray’s trademarks is the way he can turn a desperate reach for an opponent’s would-be winner into a ridiculously high and probing lob, one that hangs in the air long enough both to get him back into proper position on the court and to ask some questions of his opponent’s nerve as he waits for it to drop. Time is a tennis player’s ally, except when it’s not. The complications of handling a lob—the change of eye level, the broken rhythm of the court, and the supposed ease of an overhead smash in the sudden will-he-or-won’t-he silence of the moment—have coaxed embarrassing errors out of all kinds of players. It’s been perhaps the most glaring weakness in Djokovic’s game, and from the outset of the Doha final Murray didn’t hesitate when stretched by an angled Djokovic groundstroke to respond with a lob. But time and time again, Djokovic was ready for them. The two players punched and counterpunched over three tight sets. Having shaken free of the past, they played as if the future began there and then in the nascent days of January 2017, which for the first time would be all about them.
“This is what we wanted! The best two players on the planet really laying into each other.”
Djokovic would win 6–3, 5–7, 6–4 after a grueling two hours and fifty-four minutes. Grueling but exhilarating—there was a lightness in their play usually absent in their matches against each other. They played as though they seemed to know that, perhaps for the first time, they were the pairing everyone was waiting to see. They had no one to worry about for the next three to four years but each other … and themselves.
Djokovic would take the win in stride. “To start off the year with a win over the number one in the world and the biggest rival,” he said rather sanguinely after the match, “it’s a dream start, so I am hoping I can get the best out of it.”
Two matches later, Djokovic loses to a wild card: Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan, the 117th-ranked player in the world. Bowing out of the Australian Open—a Grand Slam he’s won twice on the trot and six times overall—in the second round, he says after the match, “There was not much I could do.”
Andy Murray would fare little better, making it only through three rounds.
And just like that, what Doha was vanished. No one ever spoke of it again.
THE IDEA OF ORDER AT THE AUSTRALIAN OPEN
With Donald Trump’s inauguration on the horizon, in the countdown to it there was no escaping the fact that January felt inherently weird. A different kind of weird, though. Not the typical I-keep-writing-last-year’s-date-down kind of weird, but rather something sad and cantankerous. A restless unhappiness circulated among many of us, a haggard sagging of the soul accompanied by an unquenchable need to share it. We are more efficient than ever in sharing our unhappiness. And we have practically mastered disguising our discomfort with wry, distant cynicism. We meme as much as we mean. But sometimes we’re still able to surprise ourselves and hit the streets.
January 2017 was an event horizon we all crossed kicking and screaming. There was no way out but forward, into the uncertainty of an unfamiliar world. And at the center of it was the Australian Open, which began on the sixteenth—the same day that Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus took on the title of Augustus, the first edition of Don Quixote was published, Hitler moved into his underground bunker, and—this particular year—we observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We watched tennis together in the middle of the night, you and I. Maybe you skipped Brisbane, Doha, Chennai, Auckland, and Sydney, but I know you were up with me for Melbourne. Either you couldn’t sleep or you needed something to take your mind off the day while Orwell’s 1984 flew off real and virtual bookshelves. You knew the Australian Open wasn’t going to either change or save the world, but you decided to take a peek anyway at any odd hour you could, because tennis can offer what Robert Frost said poetry provides: a momentary stay against confusion.
Djokovic and Murray holding the winner and runner-up trophies during the post-match celebration in Doha, January 7, 2017. (Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)
And so it was slightly past dawn and you and I were up. The sky is a dull file-cabinet gray. A thick morning chill scours down on the thin morning light. People hurry by under umbrellas, a few loiter on corners up and down the street, bareheaded, waiting for a car or a bus, newspapers tucked under their arms. This is how the year begins. It’s that time of year when winter is pulled by the end of the year on one side and on the other by the start of the year. It becomes sheer, so translucent you can almost see through it. The world feels topsy-turvy—fuzzed. We’re in Australia and I am in New York.
And therefore, as the calendar year starts and a new tennis season begins, you may find your senses thrown off a little. At least I do, watching a midsummer sport in midwinter in the middle of the night. Whether I stay up through the night to watch or get up far earlier than I should, I drift and am used to drifting, and after all, it’s only tennis. Isn’t it? It’s January, and 2017 has a vise grip on the mind. And here I am, groggy as hell, keeping up with news about tennis from sixteen hours in the future.
During this long January of discontent, I’ve found it especially difficult to turn away from tennis. Despite the lack of sleep, these middle-of-the-night siren songs have served me well—for the most part. Nine at night. Eleven at night. Three in the morning. While avid viewers of the World Cup or the Olympics only spend a couple of weeks every four years waking up at some godforsaken early hour to catch a glimpse of their sport of choice, tennis fans go through this every year, since the circuit starts the year in Australia. The new season clears its throat in Brisbane and then sets right off, full throttle, into the fraying world.
Tennis is a game I inherited from my parents. I’m old enough to have played with a wooden racket, but not old enough to have played seriously with a wooden racket. I’m also the age of perhaps the last generation of teenage champions. When I was a kid, seeing another kid win Wimbledon (as Boris Becker did in 1985 at the tender age of seventeen years, 227 days) or the French Open (as Michael Chang did in 1989 at the tender age of seventeen years, 110 days) was a big deal but not unfathomable; difficult but not unthinkable; far from the earth-shattering spectacle it would be today, when players in their mid-twenties are considered up-and-coming.
In retrospect, I was part of a generation of latchkey kids whose favorite tennis players were teenagers, favorite rappers were teenagers, favorite doctor was a teenager (Doogie Howser, M.D.). Tennis, in other words, fit seamlessly into my vision of the world as being low-hanging fruit for youth. And while Monica Seles lost some prime seasons because of having been literally stabbed in the back, and Michael Chang never again won a major after winning one at seventeen; while Steffi Graf retired at twenty-nine because she’d already done everything she wanted, and Boris Becker played in a style that eventually drained every ounce of champion vigor his younger self had brimmed with; while Jennifer Capriati—a pro at thirteen and a French Open semifinalist at fifteen—learned to love the game after losing her way, what didn’t change was the ode to youth that tennis proved to be. When you’re in your teens, words like resilience, endurance, and perspective aren’t real.
At the turn of the millennium, when I’d become invested in those words, I began to look at tennis differently. Becker was gone by then and Chang was no longer a top player, but Seles and Capriati were back and almost as good as ever. And the very back end of the last great teen generation—Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Roger Federer, and a little later Rafa Nadal—well, they were doing okay.
Going forth into adulthood, this had given me heart and perspective. I saw players I knew from my youth, or thought I knew in the way that young people think they know distant stars, grow and change; they matured. Andre Agassi first introduced the great late version of himself as a player to the world at the Australian Open when he won it in 2000, then again in 2001 and 2003. It was the last Grand Slam Monica Seles won before being stabbed in the back by a deranged Steffi Graf fan as she rested in her chair during a changeover, and the only Grand Slam she would win after her comeback. It’s where Serena Williams made her Grand Slam debut, in 1998 at the age of sixteen, and, in the same year, where she and Venus would play their first professional match against each other in the second round. And since 2004, Rod Laver Arena has been the virtual exclusive playground of the Big Four among the men: only twice has someone not named Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, or Murray won since then—Marat Safin in 2005 and Wawrinka in 2014. The Australian Open has long been like an idea of order: arranging, deepening, enchanting from the other side of the world. It’s the purifying fire by which we start the new season. Maybe you let the Brisbanes and Dohas pass, maybe you missed the opening band, but the Australian Open was never a thing to miss. After all, it was a Grand Slam and there are only four of them and this was the action that would set the circuit in motion, this was what would set the chairs on the stage for the first act. What it typically has not been is a tournament of great surprises. It’s not been a clearing of the field, it has been a clarifying of the field, a clarifying to the field of the way things are and will be. In a way it’s been the kindest of the Grand Slams to me; its scenes of summer and the ebullient blues of the hard courts offer warmth to the spirit and mind during the cold and somber slog through January. Unlike the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open, Melbourne gives my mind of winter what it’s been missing. I notice it most when in my most inspired moments I want to pick up a racket myself and play; out into the frigid air I go, traveling over the ice, to have a hit on a clay court kept warm under an insulated bubble.
Now it was time to let go of what was and accept what came next. That “accept” bothered me in a way that reminded me of my youth. Something stubborn inside me stirred, and I thought it and then wrote it. Just that word: accept … it didn’t feel like resilience, endurance, or perspective—nor did it feel like what those things should add up to. I had grown up. I had made my peace with the tennis players I grew up with being gone or going. There’s a time for all of us. And there’s a time to accept that. It’s time. Yes, it’s time. Lest we fall victim to what ails the world now: nostalgia.
ROGER FEDERER DOES THE BOOGIE
Late at night, New Year’s Eve 2016.
Some 2,696 miles away from Brisbane and 2,124 miles away from Melbourne, westward, at the end of the continent right at the shores of the Indian Ocean: Perth, Western Australia, a place referred to by travel writer Bill Bryson as the most remote city on earth. As it approached midnight, somewhere beyond a huge amoeba-shaped fringe of palm-edged pools and the hotel-cum-casino’s showy exterior of slanted stacked glass, inside a loud pink-lit ballroom, surrounded by a huge crowd and fifteen fellow tennis players, everyone elbow to elbow, everyone busting a move as the DJ worked the room, Roger Federer was doing the robot on the dance floor.
Andrea Petkovic, one of the game’s great bons vivants, had set things off much to the surprise of no one. It had started as one of those event nights. Black-tie, paraded onstage, perfunctory interviews with nice things said nicely, dinner: 495 Australian dollars (A$) for a single ticket; A$900 for what’s called a “perfect pair” ticket package, and A$4,500 for a table of ten for “premium West Australian dining and the finest beverages” and a little after-dinner entertainment from Little Bird and DJ Boston Switch to celebrate the start of both 2017 and the twenty-ninth edition of the Hopman Cup.
The Hopman Cup is a mixed-gender exhibition made up of eight teams with two players each, one man and one woman. Like the Davis Cup, Fed Cup, the Olympics, and the Paralympics, it’s organized and run by the International Tennis Federation as an event that sorts the players by country, and no ranking points are in play. Federer hadn’t played there since 2002 when he was the thirteenth-ranked player in the world, had a total of zero Grand Slams to his name, and his teammate on the Swiss team was Miroslava “Mirka” Vavrinec. But he hadn’t played anywhere, either in an exhibition or official competition, since July, when he blew a late lead and quite literally fell on his face at the Wimbledon semis against Raonic and subsequently canceled the rest of his 2016 schedule in favor, finally, of knee surgery and rest. Sometimes he checked the results as player after player passed him in the rankings. By the end of the year, he had dropped to seventeen and he was approaching five years since winning his last Grand Slam trophy, and even that one—as he approached thirty-one mired in a two-year title drought—seemed a postscript to the Roger Federer that had been. He kept playing and kept making semifinals, but keeping up with Djokovic on hard courts, Djokovic and Murray at Wimbledon, and the two of them plus Rafa on clay had put a heavy dent in the trophy haul until it eventually came to a halt. In Perth he felt rejuvenated but uncertain about what the future held. So he shrugged his shoulders and danced. Why not? He’d done his homework: week after week of hard training with his team, mainly at his residence in Dubai; this included a live-streamed practice session just nine days ago with the young Frenchman Lucas Pouille. Coincidentally, Pouille, who also lives in Dubai, was one position ahead of Federer now in the rankings and had beaten Nadal at the 2016 U.S. Open. Coincidentally.
Nothing could happen at Brisbane or Dubai that would have been worth the exertion. The seeds were already set for the Australian Open. Federer’s seeding would match his rank: seventeenth. If everyone held to form in the Melbourne draw, he would play two qualifiers in the first two rounds … and then play the tenth-ranked player in the world in the third … and then if he made it past him he’d face the fifth … and then Murray in the quarterfinals. Federer never felt he needed much practice to round into shape the way Rafa does, and there was little to be gained from throwing himself right back into the middle of the Murray-Djokovic rivalry at Doha. So why not do something different and return to the Hopman, have some fun, play some doubles with Belinda Bencic, spend some time with the kids on the circuit? Life’s short. We have the time we have. He was a kid here once, too: with acne, some leftover teenage grumpiness, and thick shoulder-length hair. Who knows how many opportunities were left to do something like this, when there’s no pressure behind you and no expectations ahead? Nostalgie in German, nostalgie in French, nostalgia in English, they all sprout from the same exposed root: the Greek nostos—a journey homeward, specifically Odysseus’s long voyage home after the end of the Trojan War as told in the Odyssey.
Whatever it was, whether it spread from the others there to Federer or from Federer to the others, the atmosphere at the Hopman was unusually amicable. And not just for that night, but something about that night on that dance floor encapsulated the feeling that was in the air. Everyone got up to dance, the players and the folks in the crowd moving in one murmuration. Nick Kyrgios played it cool before another year betwixt and between the surreal and the sublime. Sascha Zverev, still baby-faced and not yet in the top twenty, played the kid before cracking the top five and picking up a practiced strut along the way. Bencic and Kristina Mladenovic played best friends forever before both of their years flew off the rails as soon as they tasted newfound success. They and the others were going to ring in 2017 right. No hesitation this time, for some reason; they were all in. All of them. Even Dad.
Many of the men had already taken off their jackets and loosened their ties, and Dad Roger Federer was good to go. He looked curated: still dressed in his black tux, his black bow tie still perfectly placed, his jacket still buttoned at the navel, white shirt still perfectly pressed as he moved, the DJ working the room, and the clock counting down the last few minutes of the year. Federer loved the Dad vibe he was giving off, like he was chaperoning the kids on a night at the dance. The players formed an improvised circle around him, shielding him from the bevy of fans who wanted pictures with him, not for his sake—as usual, he was cool with it—but because they thought it was fun to hem him in. And that’s when, alone for a moment with the music, he began.
Arms pinned to his sides, elbows slightly bent, stiff in the torso, shoulders back, neck extended as high as it could go—it was a pretty good rendition of the robot. For a few seconds he went off somewhere with the rhythm.
There’s a picture you can no doubt find on the Internet that captures this moment. As things circulate across the void they often lose their author, especially now when it’s so common that someone takes a picture with someone else’s phone and then hands it back to them. Moments are linked now to their subjects rather than their authors. Mona Lisa would be an influencer. Daria Gavrilova, Zverev, and Mladenovic are off-center to the right, Zverev and Mladenovic leaning into the frame as though they’re sneaking into the shot, the shorter Gavrilova standing tall in the center flashing a peace sign with Zverev. Deep in the background on a slight elevation, is the DJ, accompanied, his head down in work, his worktable covered over by a bespectacled man in the middle, jacketless and wearing a red tie, the flash has caught his attention but he doesn’t quite know whether to bomb the picture and smile or ignore it, so he just stands there, his indecision leaving behind a pained look on his face. And just ahead of him, to the left of the frame, neither in the foreground nor in the background, Federer is getting his groove on. There’s something about it, how everyone is seen and being seen, that still feels fresh and, to be honest, strange. Then again, how could it not be strange: it’s a picture of Roger Federer doing the robot framed by people clearly celebrating that they’re in a picture in which Roger Federer does the robot. I said it was a pretty good rendition of the robot, but I have to take that back now. It’s because of his face. The mouth is wide open and seems as if it has something important to say. And his eyes. Those aren’t a robot’s eyes. They have too much life in them. He’s having too much fun.
Roger Federer, unknown, Daria Gavrilova, Alexander “Sascha” Zverev, Kristina “Kiki” Mladenovic. Hopman Cup New Year’s Eve Gala, Perth, Australia, December 31, 2016. (Photograph taken by Andrea Petkovic with Daria Gavrilova’s phone; courtesy of Andrea Petkovic)
Federer’s first official match of the year, on the first day of the Australian Open, was unfamiliar territory not only due to the amount of time he had missed but also due to his seeding.
Don’t think of a ranking as purely a cosmetic compilation of who’s doing well in the circuit and who’s not. Rankings also position players in a tournament like pieces on a chessboard. Your ranking has to be high enough to enter a tournament directly, and if you just miss the cut, you get to compete in qualifiers. If you make it through qualifiers, you start from scratch with the rest of the already-qualified field, but having played additional matches and having to play a seeded player.
If you automatically qualify for a tournament but your ranking isn’t high enough to receive a seed, then your fate is in the hands of the random draw. Some unseeded players are drawn against other unseeded players, some unseeded players are drawn against a wild card, some unseeded players play a seed. A Grand Slam has a field of 128 players. The first 32 are seeded. So, picture a chart made up of eight sections, and in each of those eight sections picture sixteen players paired up in eight matchups.
Now imagine the top half of the chart being sections 1–4.
And the bottom half of the chart being sections 5–8.
All the matchups in the top half will whittle down the competition until there’s only one matchup left. This will be one semifinal. The same thing will happen in the bottom half, yielding one last game in that section: the other semifinal. The winner of the top half of the draw (sections 1–4) will play the winner of the second half of the draw (sections 5–8) in the tournament final. Therefore, certain players can only play each other if they both arrive at the final.
The top two seeds of a tournament are always drawn into separate halves, one in the top and one in the bottom. The idea being that, if everything holds to form, these two players will play in the final. Further, the third seed is put into the other side of the half of the draw that the second seed is in. And the fourth seed is put into the other side of the half of the draw that the first seed is in. The seeding anticipates, again, that if everything holds to form, the third and fourth seeds will be the other semifinalists. The third seed is expected to beat everyone in his or her half of the draw until reaching the second seed. The fourth seed is expected to beat everyone in his or her half of the draw until reaching the first seed. Note that the first seed, as a benefit of being the first seed, is scheduled to play the fourth seed, not the third.
These sections are like ecosystems. The seeding in a section is like the gravity of expectation. When a top seed loses early, all hell breaks loose in a section because a top seed’s section consists of players with low seedings, no seedings, wild cards, and qualifiers. Things we call a “Cinderella run” on one side of the coin and “shit shows” on the other occur largely because certain seeds, usually the very top ones, get knocked out of their section early. Sometimes, though, an unseeded player or a wild card could mean trouble for everyone else in a section of the entire draw. In 2007, Serena Williams returned to tennis after some time away engaging in other pursuits. She entered the Australian Open ranked eighty-first in the world and therefore unseeded. She landed in a section of the draw in which the top dog was fifth-seeded Nadia Petrova. Unlucky, Nadia. The top seed was Maria Sharapova. Suffice it to say, Serena won that tournament.
You can easily see how all this gets turned on its head, but the general idea is that as the pairings reduce in number, the higher seeds survive. It goes by quickly: a section of one half of the draw of a Grand Slam begins with sixteen players, by the second round it’s down to eight, by the third round four, and by the fourth round only two players are left. The winner of a fourth-round match is the winner of that section. The winner of that section is what a quarterfinalist is. The top eight seeds are the heads of the tables of the eight sections of the tournament and therefore the players, by logic of their seeding, who are expected to make it to the quarterfinals. How they are paired up is a matter of the random chance of the draw.
Simple enough. I just wanted to lay this all out so we can keep in mind how screwed Roger Federer was at the start of the Australian Open as the seventeenth seed. Simply by looking at the draw again, you see Scylla and Charybdis waiting all over the place. He was going to have to get past Tomáš Berdych, the tenth seed and tenth-ranked player in the world, just for the pleasure of playing the fifth seed and fifth-ranked Nishikori. Beating Nishikori after beating Berdych would win him the section and leave him with, in theory, a quarterfinal matchup with Murray. If he beat Berdych, Nishikori, and world number one Murray, who was 28–1 in his last 29 matches, he would play Wawrinka, who just won the last U.S. Open over Djokovic and beat Nadal in 2014 in Melbourne. And if he beat Berdych, Nishikori, Murray, and Wawrinka, he would get for his troubles a final against Djokovic, whom he hadn’t beaten in a Grand Slam match since the 2012 Wimbledon semifinal.
Copyright © 2018 by Rowan Ricardo Phillips