Why Tennis Rules the Earth
Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates after defeating Rafael Nadal of Spain during the men's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne early Monday.
One of these days men's tennis is going to get boring again. There will be a fallow period. Greats will retire, get hurt, fatten up, open bad restaurants, babble on TV and buy vineyards. There will be a new, unremarkable No. 1. A murky two through 10. Maybe a U.S. player—a real-live U.S. player!—will crack the top five. Grand Slam finals will shrink to three uneventful sets. Tennis will return to that stale-aired foyer it got trapped in a while ago—dull, characterless, skippable.
That time isn't now. Men's professional tennis may be the most satisfying sport on the planet at the moment. There is no game with so much excellence currently swirling at its top, that so reliably delivers not just entertainment, but historic greatness. It isn't to be missed. Conventional superlatives fail. Once-a-lifetime? Symphony of brilliance? Wicked good? It all sounds cheesy, inadequate. But what's happening in the men's game is as close as sports gets to unadulterated joy, the kind of outrageous viewer experience that leaves the audience gasping, as if anaerobic, as it did Sunday morning, in the men's final of the Australian Open.
To be clear, when I say men's tennis, I am really talking about the interactions of three players. Maybe four, if we want to be generous and include Andy Murray, who has yet to win a Grand Slam, and keeps grabbing for that glory, only to pull the doorknob off in his hand. The unquestioned top three are world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Between them, they have won 31 Slams, and Djokovic is still shopping in aisle one. They are as formidable and as entangled a trio as tennis has ever witnessed—as silly as it is to get into generational comparisons, it's fair to say that the great three of Borg, McEnroe and Connors (26 combined Slams) are on the run, in their flowing hair and short-shorts.
These days are like those good old days. This past week there were early mornings, depending on where you lived, and your ability to have woken up in darkness to watch the spectacle. Reasonable people reasonably used a DVR, but Sunday's 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5 epic, won by Djokovic over Nadal, wasn't designed to be breezed over via remote control. This was a match that accelerated and de-accelerated and accelerated again; that both men locked up and let escape; that left a pair of champions droop-shouldered and wobbly. It lasted a boiled egg under six hours, beating the second-longest Grand Slam final by 59 minutes. It was briefly delayed by rain. It ended with Djokovic yanking at his collar, stripping off his shirt, and unleashing a primal yell—Fred Stolle meets Freddie Mercury.
The win was Djokovic's second straight Australian Open title and his third Slam victory in a row. Nadal won three straight in 2010, and Federer did it twice before, and Pete Sampras once before him. Looming above, there is only Rod Laver, who polished all four in the 1962 and 1969 calendar, and watched Sunday's final in the arena that bears his name.
Once considered an interloper with dubious endurance, Djokovic, 24, now stands as the sport's alpha. He began 2011 with a 41-match win streak, and has won four of the last five Slams. You'd think Djokovic's dominance might suck some of the drama out of the sport, but this is thoroughly not the case. After a string of one-sided defeats to Djokovic, Nadal's narrow loss Sunday is new fuel for the Spaniard, who remains just 25. "During all of 2011, I didn't play much like this," Nadal said afterward. At 30, Federer is elegantly fighting the sunset—he's still capable of beating both, pushing Nadal to four sets in the semis, beating Djokovic in the French and taking him to match point in the past two U.S. Opens.
Tennis fans are giddy, and may get carried away in the afterglow of these tournaments, but this is defensible carrying away. That 2008 Wimbledon twilight five-setter between Federer and Nadal set a glorious standard, but since then there's been a steady stream of classics, on all surfaces, between the big three, and even Murray, too. As soon as new matches are consecrated, they're replaced. (How quickly Sunday's thriller vaporized Djokovic's five-set semi over Murray and Nadal's four-setter over Federer, not to mention Victoria Azarenka's 6-3, 6-0 rout of Maria Sharapova in the women's final.) The torrent of great tennis has undermined the old fear that the game would unravel with new technology, that it would become a tedious game of baseline heavy hitting. Ha.
A confident Djokovic will press toward a Steffi Graf-style "Golden" Slam, with the delicious potential exclamation point of an Olympic title in London at the All-England Club. But his most formidable challenge may come next, at the French Open, on the red brick dust Nadal claims as a pied-à-terre.
Could a 60-minute Super Bowl equal this kind of drawn-out saga? An NBA Final? An Olympiad? (Please don't say the Pro Bowl or the NHL All-Star Game.) Every spring someone trots out the claim that the flurry of buzzer beaters in the NCAA basketball tournament makes it the most riveting event in sports, and there's always the World Cup, but what's happening in tennis feels far more intimate, close up, personal. Djokovic, Nadal and Federer are deep in our pores. It feels like they have more to give, but you never can be sure, and that's what makes it so….whatever word you want to use. On to Paris.
By Associated Press, 30/01/2012