One of the subtle nuances of sportswriting — a nuance that is hard to grasp from the outside, if you’re not used to the process of churning out content after watching yet another sporting event — is that wins and losses are not created equal. Some clusters of successes and failures can be thrown into the same general category or receive the same tonal treatment, but over the longer reach of time, it’s just not true that losses acquire the same level of impact or carry the same weight of commentary for a team or athlete.
To be sure, there are some athletes for whom one loss really isn’t all that different from another. Consider someone such as Ernests Gulbis or Nicolas Almagro. Every time they fall short in a major, or in some particularly significant moment, the story is basically the same. On the margins or at a very granular level, one loss might own a particular detail which could ever so slightly altar the trajectory of the conversation, but for the most part, it’s just a repetition of a very familiar narrative.
Yes, an editorial commentator or news analyst can’t quite run on auto pilot, but for players who hit a ceiling and generally remain in a given place for a long time (think of Tsvetana Pironkova or Sabine Lisicki on the WTA, just to give two examples out of many others), the larger framework of the narrative just doesn’t change that much… not enough, at any rate, to say, “Hey — that athlete has truly upended the way I’ve viewed her over the past four or five years. This really marks a sea-change in her evolution as a tennis player.”
For tennis players who live in that vast territory of being better than many thousands but not as good as the big dogs — in other words, inside the top 100 but outside the top 10 — conventional wisdom is often hard to break. Conventional wisdom can be perceived as lazy, and it’s up to the commentator or analyst to be sure that a longstanding view continues to square with the facts of the present moment, but “conventional wisdom” — like cliches — usually exists for a good reason. It generally doesn’t get planted into the public imagination without being affirmed several times.
It’s really in the realm of the top tier — the top 10 in general — where players’ reputations are frequently written and re-written, tweaked and adjusted. No, these athletes shouldn’t be subjected to knee-jerk reactions in which you’re a bum one day and then a golden god the next, but at the top of tennis and other sports, the reality of “losing at a high level,” of accumulating many successes but still being subjected to the occasional failure, makes it that much harder — yet even more necessary — to pay constant attention to reputations, track records, and how they do or don’t evolve.
This is why the men’s quarterfinals on Wednesday at the U.S. Open were so enjoyable… and should reflect positively on the winners much more than they reflect negatively on the losers. A lot was won by Kei Nishikori and Novak Djokovic in these matches. Very little was lost by Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray.
EXCELLENCE AMIDST THE ATTRITION
One of the realities of contemporary men’s tennis is that it is attritional in nature. That’s what the sport has become. A fellow named Novak Djokovic, along with Rafael Nadal, is centrally responsible for that reality. It’s not a mere accident that in recent years at hardcourt majors, Djokovic and Nadal have set the standard for two-match sequences with a maximum of court time.
In the 2012 Australian Open semifinals and final, Djokovic spent 10 hours and 43 minutes on court. He needed four hours and 50 minutes to beat Andy Murray in the semis, and he needed five hours and 53 minutes to outlast Nadal in the final. In the 2009 Australian Open semis and final, Nadal spent nine hours and 37 minutes on court in Melbourne, nipping Fernando Verdasco in a five-hour, 14-minute semi before besting Roger Federer in a four-hour, 23-minute final.
It’s easy to look at those numbers and conclude that Djokovic did something more impressive. However, Nadal’s matches against Verdasco and Federer were much more aggressive in terms of the ambitiousness of the shots traded inside the tennis rectangle. Verdasco played go-for-broke tennis for five full sets in what was the best match he’s ever played, and likely ever will forge as a professional. Federer engaged Nadal in four magnificent sets before fading a few games into the fifth set.
Djokovic’s wins were, by all means, hugely — not just modestly — impressive. Yet, they were impressive because they marked the Serbian superstar as the game’s foremost survivor at the time. Djokovic, in 2011 and then into the first month of 2012, became the master of attritional tennis. Running more, spilling the tank more, fighting more, suffering more — Djokovic was able to put his body through more punishment and still emerge intact. His tennis was very good, but prone to lulls and hiccups. His competitive qualities elevated him past Nadal and into a higher realm of achievement.
These days, Nadal has regained the distinction of being the man you’d trust in a five-set match against Djokovic. Nadal has wrested away control of “the long grind” from Nole at the majors. Yet, the bigger point to illustrate here is that both Nadal and Djokovic, together and in roughly equal measure, have ushered in the era of attritional tennis, demanding from the ATP Tour the commitment to fitness that can carry a body through a pure slugfest.
Before this very week in New York, the story of Kei Nishikori had acquired a very obvious and unfortunate identity.
As Juan Jose Vallejo put it in this Rolling Stone piece:
“There is no body part that hasn’t sidelined him already in his short career. Just this year Nishikori has had to withdraw or retire from events due to injuries to his back, hip, right foot and left groin.”
Of more immediate consequence was the fact that Nishikori had to withdraw from both the Toronto and Cincinnati Masters 1000 events, giving him minimal match play and zero exposure to the top four heading into the U.S. Open. His playing status for the U.S. Open was no sure thing a few weeks before the tournament. His level of tennis was not the question mark — “Clay Nishikori” outplayed Nadal in the Madrid final before his body got the better of him. The main point of uncertainty surrounding the Japanese star was his health, and it didn’t figure to be good enough to last long in New York.
Yet, what has Nishikori done the past three days in the Big Apple? He didn’t quite match what Djokovic did in the 2012 Australian Open or what Nadal pulled off in 2009. Yet, Nishikori has managed to survive two five-set matches over the course of eight hours and 34 minutes — four hours and 19 minutes in Monday night’s (and Tuesday morning’s) win over Milos Raonic, and four hours and 15 minutes in Wednesday’s even more impressive takedown of 2013 semifinalist and 2014 Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka.
What stands out about Nishikori’s victory beyond the barrier-busting ability to:
A) endure at a higher level over a longer period of time
B) reach his first major semifinal
… is that the 24-year-old defeated both Raonic and Wawrinka — especially Wawrinka — with shotmaking quality more than mere survivor skills.
Nishikori certainly managed his energies well in both matches. He physically struggled at points along the way, particularly in the early stages of each fourth set. Yet, it doesn’t quite seem accurate to say that Nishikori outlasted Wawrinka (Raonic, yes, but not the Swiss). This was a shotmaker’s match, with both men crushing groundstrokes instead of being content to hit rally balls the way Djokovic and Nadal sometimes are.
Nishikori-Wawrinka featured two of the very best backhands on tour, and those backhands both saved set points in a spellbinding third-set tiebreaker. Wawrinka saved a set point at 5-6 with a down-the-line backhand sent from heaven. Nishikori, down set point on Wawrinka’s serve at 6-7, unleashed an even better backhand — if that was humanly possible — to level at 7-all and create the final push he needed to go up two sets to one and obtain a cushion in the event of a fourth-set loss.
Nishikori’s backhand, though, is a known quantity. The true revelation in this match was that “Special Kei” was able to deliver a “Kei-O” to Wawrinka with his forehand. When a player’s supposedly “weaker wing” is extremely strong, his opponent will find it hard to create winning patterns and sequences. This is the problem Wawrinka ran into more than anything else, and since Nishikori’s serve retained excellent placement in the corners of the service box, even into the fifth set, the Swiss — for all he’s achieved in tennis this season — wasn’t able to rise to a higher level.
Wawrinka failed to defend his semifinal points at this tournament, but he came close to doing so. Moreover, given his lack of form in Canada and Cincinnati, Wawrinka did quite well to battle this far in the tournament. Roland Garros, when he meekly exited in round one, did much to reinforce the notion that Wawrinka wouldn’t remain at the center of the story of tennis in 2014 and the near future. However, making the Wimbledon quarterfinals and then backing up that result with a quarterfinal in New York has affirmed Wawrinka’s place in the top tier of the men’s game… not at the level of Djokovic or a healthy Nadal, but very much in the conversation at any major tournament.
It’s easy to say that Wawrinka didn’t back up a result at this tournament — technically, that’s true. On a broader level, though, Wawrinka grew in defeat. That’s what happens when you lose not because of your inadequacies so much as your opponent’s uncommon display of excellence.
Much of what applies to Wawrinka in his match against Nishikori also applies to Andy Murray after his loss to Novak Djokovic in the late quarterfinal on Wednesday night.
Murray, replicating his performance in the fourth round against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, showed so much of the aggression and zeal that were strangely absent from his no-show of a loss to Grigor Dimitrov in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, a result made more perplexing by Dimitrov’s mentally frail showing against Gael Monfils on Tuesday. Against Djokovic, Murray went after his shots instead of retreating into the passive game that unnecessarily prolongs his early-round matches against weaker opponents and leaves him exposed against the heavyweights in men’s tennis.
Murray hit his forehand as well as he’s hit it all year… and since his 2013 Wimbledon title. Murray’s game rediscovered much of its vigor, and that’s why he was able to engage Djokovic — currently, the best player on tour — on even terms for the first two and a half hours of this three-hour, 32-minute struggle. Precisely because Murray hit with such conviction, forcing Djokovic to do the same, this was a slightly better Murray-Djokovic match than normal. It meandered through rough patches marked by Djokovic shanks and Murray balls that hit the bottom half of the net, but most of the time, it was defined by quality exchanges that frequently deviated from the traditional attritional template these two can so easily fall back on.
This fact — that Murray played the match with the right disposition (just not with sufficient execution of shots) — should rate as a source of encouragement for him and coach Amelie Mauresmo. In a narrative at least somewhat similar to Roger Federer’s this year, Murray — if he can regain that solid base of fitness Federer has found in 2014 after a rough 2013 — should be ready to achieve at a high level in 2015. Losing to a rival on a big stage is never fun or ideal, but this result just happens to be a loss in which a match is all Murray lost. He should be encouraged about everything else that happened for him at a tournament in which he very easily could have packed his bags in round one. Thankfully, the Headcase Artist Formerly Known As Robin Haase was his opponent, not someone with more chops.
Djokovic, though, is the player who is breathing the air of a big dog right now. He conquered his major-final demons at Wimbledon against Roger Federer. He and coach Boris Becker have moved past the uncertainties raised by losses in Melbourne and Paris earlier this year. His mind’s in a great place, he’s excited about his growing family with wife Jelena Ristic, and the early losses in Canada and Cincinnati — far from jeopardizing his chances here in New York — have given him fresher legs for the U.S. Open.
It’s all rather hilarious if you think about it: Much as a lot of tennis fans and pundits worry about Rafael Nadal if he loses a clay-court match heading into the French Open, a lot of pundits moved in Roger Federer’s direction heading into this U.S. Open, following Djokovic’s stumbles in Toronto and Cincinnati. Yet, with semifinal Saturday on the horizon, Djokovic — drawing an inspiring but physically taxed Nishikori, who will be playing in his first major semifinal — is an obvious favorite to roll into Monday’s final. Everything is set up perfectly for him to capture this tournament. Pre-major panic about Djokovic this summer is as much of a laugh as pre-Roland Garros panic always is for Nadal.
Speaking of laughs: Djokovic is likely to have the last one at the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center on Monday night.