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Posts Tagged ‘Australian Open’

It’s Over: Federer’s Otherworldly Streak of 23 Consecutive Semi-Final Appearances Broken by a Sledgehammer

June 1st, 2010 No comments

I’d seen the future during the 2009 Australian Open, when Roger Federer fell down by a quick two sets to the hard-hitting Czech, Tomas Berdych. Scrambling and on defense, Federer mustered all of his considerable court craft (and a mental vacation by Berdych) to get through the early-round match in five sets. I thought then that Berdych and maybe one or two others had the arsenal to defeat Federer: height and torrid groundstrokes than would take away the great one’s time to create his inspiring masterpieces.

In last year’s U.S. Open final, Juan Martin DelPotro, another hard-hitting giant, blew Federer off the court in the fifth set. And then it happened again today — in the quarterfinal of the French Open, which was almost universally expected to feature a final between Federer and his personal bane, Rafael Nadal, he was caught and passed by the thumping, hammering strokes of Robin Soderling. After Federer won the first set, he let down just a bit (as he did against DelPotro last year), and Soderling stormed through the breach. By Federer’s last service game, the clearly rattled Swiss committed four unforced errors to hand the match over to Soderling to serve out — which he easily did, showing remarkable nerve.

One point sticks in my mind as emblematic of  the limits of Federer’s great genius. With a set point to go up by two sets to one, Federer tracked down an overhead smash. He executed a beautiful, balletic jump from the nether reaches of the court, well beyond the baseline, and hit a curving shot at full stretch. The ball was headed toward Soderling’s side of the net, where it would have dropped in for a set-ending winner, likely turning the match around. But not today! Soderling stretched upward (I’m not sure he’s capable of leaving his feet), reached over his head and hit an-over-the-back shot into the open court. Here it is:

After that, the whole thing unfolded with a kind of preditability — even though this is a guy Federer had defeated all of the previous twelve times they’d played. But he’s improved, and he’s not the same player here — especially under these conditions. Last year, on a similarly wet and heavy day, Soderling blew Nadal off the court on his way to a final against Federer, where he caved under the weight of destiny, as instantiated by Federer’s almost perfect game that day.

Federer had a great deal to lose. In addition to having his just…silly streak of 23 consecutive semi-final or better appearances in Grand Slam events (dating back to 2004!) snapped, he will lose the number one ranking next week if Nadal goes on to win the French Open. In that case, he’ll be one week short of Pete Sampras’s all-time record for most weeks at Number 1. And with Nadal almost five years younger and on the ascendancy once again, there’s no guarantee he’ll ever get it back.

But don’t expect Nadal to waltz through the final. I think Soderling has shown that he’s ready to step up and win the event. He’s already shown that he can take down both Nadal and Federer on clay. Now he “just” has to do it in the final. I’m reminded of a line from the justly forgotten Superman III, where Robert Vaughn says to a henchman:

I asked you to kill Superman. And now you tell me you couldn’t do that one simple thing?

Soderling just killed Superman. Now let’s see if he can take down the Hulk — for a second time, and when it most matters.

Shadows and Light — The Compromises of an Aging Athlete

February 1st, 2010 2 comments
Roger Federer poses with his Australian Open trophy on the bank of the Yarra River in Melbourne on Monday, a day after capturing his 16th Grand Slam title.

Yesterday, Roger Federer captured his record-extending sixteenth title in a Grand Slam tournament, winning the Australian Open in a one-sided match against the latest pasty-faced Brit pretender, Andy Murray. (Here‘s a good summary of the match.) Murray, a Scot,  is an inventive and amazingly mobile player, and he’ll soon win one of these big ones: probably either the U.S. or the Australian Open (the suffocating pressure at Wimbledon might be too much to overcome, at least for awhile). But watching Federer cruise to yet another title, one had to ask: “Will this never end?”

It probably will, and sometime soon. But these days, with rival Rafael Nadal’s career clearly in peril because of the persistent injuries his relentless style and body type make inevitable, it’s easy to see Federer as unstoppable. And part of the reason is that the past year has seen a new Federer: a man who realizes that his time at the top is limited, and that he can’t simply assume he’s going to win every match on his unsurpassed talent alone. Compromises have been made; some wise and inevitable, others disturbing (if slightly amusing).

Over the past year, Federer has added the strategic drop shot to his already formidable arsenal. For years, he’d eschewed it as a desperate, almost avulsive, way to end a point. Now he uses it against the Legion of Baseline Heroes, who stand back and blast away. Throw in a drop shot and watch their comfort level drop. He’s also added a violent second-serve return, no longer able to rely on his sliced or chipped backhand to get the point back on neutral terms. He didn’t do much of this sort of returning against Murray (and when he tried, it rarely worked), but the threat of it can have the desired effect of unsettling the opponent.

These innovations are smart, and, if anything, one might ask why Federer didn’t try them sooner in his career. The answer, of course, is that he didn’t need to.With the glaring exception of Nadal (mostly on clay), Federer was unbeatable. From 2005-2007, he barely lost any matches at all.

Now, it’s different. The general public, to the extent it follows tennis at all, looks to the four Grand Slam tournaments (mentioned above, plus the French Open) as the measure of success; there, Federer continues at his insane level — 23 consecutive semifinals, and 8 consecutive finals, reached; an average of more than two of these majors won every year for the past eight years; and so on. But Federer has been mortal for the past few years at all of the other tournaments. He now saves and marshals his best efforts.

Less savory are some of the other things Federer has been willing to do in order to keep winning. In his quarter-final match against the human ball-striking machine named Nikolay Davydenko, Federer was in deep trouble: Down a set and a break of serve, and almost down another. He rallied and won (of course), but he used a kind of perceptive gamesmanship to do so. After the first set, he took a bathroom break. This is permissible, and a regular practice of many players. (Even Venus Williams took such a break at this year’s Aussie Open, and I can’t recall seeing her do that before.) But Federer has long decried gamesmanship of any kind, calling out the whiny Novak Djokovic for his “injury” timeouts. Of course, when I heard why Federer took the time out, I was too impressed by his perceptive abilities to criticize him. Speaking to ESPN’s Darren Cahill shortly after the match, Federer said he was trying to survive until the sun went down; the match had been conducted under a late-afternoon sun, and Federer had said (almost poetically) that the ball was “half in shadow, half in light” so that he could only see half of it. Someone could construct a musical suite on this theme.

But what about Federer’s sophisticated mind-game (not really “trash talking”, to be precise) against Murray in the days before the match? Some of it was just funny: In the interview after his semifinal with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Federer said that the British hadn’t won a Grand Slam “in like 150,000” years (74 is the slightly more accurate number). But in press conferences before the final, Federer turned up the heat: Murray would feel the pressure; It would be important for Murray — but not for him — to win the first set; Murray’s head-to-head winning record against Federer (which now stands at 6-5) was constructed when Federer “wasn’t at [his] very best”; Murray had cratered during the previous major final encounter (at the 2008 U.S. Open, also won by Federer in straight sets).

The tactics seem to have worked, but maybe they weren’t necessary. Federer enjoys amazing crowd support everywhere he goes, even against home-town heroes. This, too, helps him win. Is his new approach a risk to this capital of good will? Perhaps. And to what lengths will he go to remain on top? We’ll see. But these latest actions by the great Federer remind us that elite athletes will do what they need, even if the rest of us don’t like or understand it. Just watch and enjoy his sublime tennis, while it lasts.

Public Health and Welfare in State of the Union Speech

January 28th, 2010 1 comment

State of the Union

Despite my current frustration with Obama — or maybe because of it — I watched the entire State of the Union speech. I’m sure it’s being endlessly picked apart by all kinds of talking heads, bloggers, and the like. Me, I’m watching the Australian Open. (The indomitable Serena Williams just beat back a tough challenge from the letter-limited Li Na to advance to the final. No news there.) But I do want to pause to grant some limited props to Obama for mentioning two of my pet issues: Public health and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The promise on DADT had generated an anticipatory, bloggy buzz, and it was heartening to hear the President speak to it. I’m confident it will happen. (Missing, though, was any mention of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act which I had thought was also likely to pass into law this year. I was reminded that this issue had been raised in a State of the Union as long ago as the end of the Clinton Administration. Can we please get there? The goal seems to shimmer and recede….)

The DADT comment came towards the very end of a pretty good speech, and very close in time to another issue near and dear to me: public health. Of course, everything the President mentions is public health to me (health care reform is just the most obvious example, but I can’t bear to talk about it right now). But to hear him pledge energy, money and effort to public health efforts to fight terrorism and infectious disease — now that was something. My night was made in five minutes.

Now, to bed. Oh, wait…the recently unretired Justine Henin is taking the court….

Trenchant Observations on Massachusetts and Ball Boys…in Pink

January 19th, 2010 No comments

There are no shortage of analyses on the Massachusetts Senate race, and I want to weigh in with my own observation: Scott Brown won because he’s a hunk in the same televangelist mode as Mitt Romney.

One key difference: Romney would never have posed in the all-together. That’s altogether non-Mormon. The flap didn’t hurt Brown any, though, perhaps because he looked like this:

Scott-Brown-new3

Put aside the unspeakable early 80’s hairstyle and he looks pretty good. But very straight-looking, thanks — in the Massachusetts Senate, Mr. Soon-to-be-Filibuster supported amending the state’s constitution to ban the gay marriages that have been taking place for most of the decade.

I do wonder if Brown’s image could have survived had an image of him in this get-up surfaced:

James Blake meets some of the ball boys and girls who will be working during the tournament.

(That’s American (falling) star James Blake in the middle.) Ball boys in pink? That’s what they’re wearing this year at the Australian Open! They actually look sort of cool when you watch the matches, but they’ve caused quite the controversy.