The top two male tennis players are going at it right now in Flushing, New York, home of the U.S. Open, the final Grand Slam of the year. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will vie for the title tonight, and if there are two things for certain, they are this: 1) I will DVR-watch starting at 8pm; 2) the fast-forward button on my remote will get a serious workout. Because not only are these two the fittest players on the tour, meaning there will be a bevy of 20-30 shot rallies, they are also among the slowest, meaning they will take their time between points. Nadal is especially guilty of delays, as he features a litany of OCD-like rituals before each serve.
And there will be much serving and hitting and rallying. Louisa Thomas over at Grantland recently wrote about what I bet many fans are feeling – the sameness of it all. I have no beef against rivalries – I enjoyed Sampras vs. Agassi as much as any fan. I also enjoyed Roger Federer vs. Nadal. But this latest head to head between Novak and Rafa is just too drawn out, too much of the same styles of play. Both of these men come, as most top players now do, from the School of Attrition, where they grind their opponent down with their dogged retrieving and clocklike consistency. In Djokovic’s previous semifinal match against Stanislas Wawrinka, there was a 35-shot rally. Impressive, yes, but not exactly entertaining. The majority of the shots bounced on or around the service line, meaning both players were content to strike their safe shots to each other. Granted, they were making small moves with their hits to eventually get the other out of position, but it just took too long. I believe the sweet spot for rallies is around 10, with a max of 15. Anything more than this, the shine of the exchange fades.
I’m not saying I miss the tennis of the early 90’s, when players like Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic blasted their rocket serves and followed up with a kill volley. In that case, there were too few rallies and the game became robotic in a different yet ultimately same way. What we need to make this game more entertaining and interesting now is to find a happier middle. Unfortunately, I don’t think this will happen anytime soon. With Roger Federer on his way out, what we have left is the three-headed human-machine-ball monster of Djokovic-Nadal-Murray. It’s possible that Juan Martin del Potro may make that a foursome, or perhaps Tomas Berdych will, but all of these men are built to trade groundstrokes with each other in the back court. None of them are shotmakers in the mold of Federer, who at his prime loved to strike short balls to draw his opponents into the net, where he’d then pass them with a wicked angled forehand.
The game has changed, and of course will change again. But for me, right now is not the Golden Age of tennis. Instead, it is the Interminable Age of tennis.
I think it goes without saying that I shouldn’t give up my day job for a career in graphic design. Despite the terrible display of my Photoshop skills, I have the headline that’ll redeem me:
Explanation: Andy Murray is Scottish. The cat is a Scottish Fold (notice its folded ears). And like the feline, Mr. Murray folded on his third try at a Grand Slam final this past Sunday in Melbourne. It’s a cliche to say that a single point decides a match, but in this case, it was true:
There was no point of greater importance than this one. Murray was down 4 games to 5 in the first set, and down 15-30 on his serve. If he wins this 39-shot rally, it’s 30-30 and I’d bet my last dollar it goes to a tie break. But he loses, and it gives Djokovic double break point, which he quickly capitalizes on, and wins the first set, and subsequently, the match, in straight sets: 6-4, 6-2, 6-3.
Where to from here for Andy Murray? He’s been to the finals for three Grand Slams, and he’s lost them all in straight sets. On the bright side, Ivan Lendl lost his first four and still managed to win eight championships in his career. And let’s not forget that Murray’s done way better than his U.K. compatriot, Tim Henman, who never got past the semifinals of any Grand Slam.