In January of 2003, another old man — in tennis terms — won a major title.
Andre Agassi, three months short of his 33rd birthday, became one of the oldest ATP major champions in the Open Era of professional tennis. His opponent in the final of the 2003 Australian Open, though, was not Andy Murray, or Novak Djokovic, or even Lleyton Hewitt or Goran Ivanisevic or Patrick Rafter.
It was Rainer Schuttler.
No offense to the German — who also made a Wimbledon semifinal a few years later and lost to Rafael Nadal — but Agassi feasted on markedly inferior opponents in those first few years of the new century.
No, those titles weren’t “cheap” in any way. Agassi reinvented himself (for the second time in his career, if not the third or fourth) and built a base of fitness which brought out his best tennis in his later years as a player. In that respect, Agassi’s old-man phase was more fruitful than the old-man period of Roger Federer.
In the 2005 U.S. Open final, Federer — in his prime — was pushed hard by a 35-year-old Agassi in New York. Federer was down a break at a set all in the third, and not until he won a third-set tiebreaker was he safe from an old man playing at a great height.
The intersections of Federer’s and Agassi’s careers — and when each man played high-level old-man tennis — do not diminish Agassi himself, not to any slight degree. What those intersections serve to do, however, is that they magnify what Federer is achieving today. More specifically, they magnify what he achieved on Friday with a jawdroppingly beautiful 7-5, 7-5, 6-4 win over Andy Murray, a luckless player who performed really well but walked off Centre Court at Wimbledon with zero sets in his pocket.
Back in January of 2003, ATP tennis was at a low point. Agassi was doing more than anyone could have expected of a 32-year-old. He added many layers of greatness to a career which defied conventional wisdom at every turn. With Pete Sampras retiring, though, and the No. 1 ranking being passed around like a hot potato (remember those times?), the presence of Schuttler in the final in Melbourne confirmed what had happened in previous years, and at majors other than the Australian Open: A lot of random results were marking the bracket sheets.
David Nalbandian might be the best Open Era player never to win a major, but his appearance in the 2002 Wimbledon final was a total aberration, given that grass was his weakest surface. Todd Martin made the 1999 U.S. Open final, when Agassi was there to fend him off.
Martin Verkerk made the 2003 Roland Garros final. (Who? Exactly.) Stan Wawrinka’s coach, Magnus Norman, slipped into the 2000 Roland Garros final. The turn of the century marked a precarious time in men’s tennis, with the Williams Sisters, Lindsay Davenport, Justine Henin, Jennifer Capriati, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters, and others giving women’s tennis a profound and deserved upper hand in terms of ratings and box-office appeal.
In the early half of 2003, men’s tennis needed someone, something, to give it a kick in the pants.
That someone is the same person who kicked Andy Murray in the pants on Friday afternoon, when the cathedral of tennis witnessed one of its most elaborate yet brief liturgies of all time.
The record will show a 2-hour, 7-minute match — straight sets, and not even a single tiebreaker. Heck, the first semifinal of the day between Novak Djokovic and Richard Gasquet had a tiebreaker, for cryin’ out loud. Yet, packed into those 127 minutes was the best tennis Roger Federer has played in a best-of-five-set match in many a year. Sure, you could perhaps point to another match with better raw numbers if you looked long enough, but against Andy Murray at Centre Court in a Wimbledon semifinal, one month short of age 34?
Adjusted for circumstances, this old-man version of Federer has rarely, if ever, been better in a best-of-five context.
Another way to try to express how great this match was — purely as a reflection of its raw quality — comes in this form: The numbers on Murray’s side were numbers that ordinarily would have pointed to victory for him.
Murray hit 74 percent of his first serves. He won 50 percent of second-serve points, which — given his weak second delivery — is not that bad. Murray finished plus-18 in his winner-unforced error differential, which is excellent. In three long sets with plenty of teasingly involved rallies, Murray committed a total of only 17 unforced errors. Given that the 10th game of the second set consumed 20 points and 15 minutes by itself, and given that Federer’s first-serve return — an unexpectedly productive shot for him on Friday — forced Murray to hit a lot more shots as a server than he would have liked, Murray was very crisp and precise in this match.
He was. It’s not an overstatement.
Murray’s average of just under six unforced errors per set — basically, one every two games in conditions suited to Federer’s style of play — is something he would have readily asked for if offered a statistical scenario before the match.
Murray cannot be one bit regretful about the statistics he produced in this semifinal.
The problem for him was that tennis is a dialogue. You can play really, really well — I’d grade Murray at an A-minus in this match — but if the other man gets straight As, well, you’re out of luck.
Federer hit 76 percent of first serves — and not just by merely getting them in, but by hitting the center service line or the corners of the service box. He won 84 percent of first-serve points, almost (almost) rendering his 55-percent second-serve win rate irrelevant. Federer piled up 56 winners against just 11 unforced errors.
As the Australians would tell Murray, “Sorry, mate.”
There’s not much else to tell a losing player when he plays a high-quality match and can’t even snatch a set on the sport’s biggest stage, in its grandest setting.
Andre Agassi raised the bar for old men in tennis in January of 2003 and in preceding years. Federer has taken that high bar and raised it several notches, 12 years later.
The references to 2003 in this piece are not just meant to appreciate Agassi or draw a comparison between him and Federer. A larger purpose of the comparison is to remind tennis fans that the sport was waiting for its next big star and its next big rivalry once Sampras-Agassi ceased to exist in September of 2002. In terms of being a full-calendar, full-season player, Sampras lost steam late in his career, but the Sampras-Agassi rivalry remained robust all the way through its last point, in the 2002 U.S. Open final. When that marquee attraction was no longer a possibility at the majors, the ATP needed a substantial boost.
Enter Federer, and enter the heart of this particular discussion as well.
Fans of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic feel this feeling more deeply than others, but plenty of people in the vast global community of tennis fans share it… including me: It’s nauseating whenever a certain subsection of Federer fans or journalists (Nadal and Djokovic fans will tell you they’re one and the same, and while that’s unfair as a broad charge, it’s certainly true in isolated instances) speak of the Swiss as a walking, breathing deity.
FEDERER IS GOD!
WITHOUT FEDERER, THERE IS NO TENNIS!
HE IS THE ONLY REASON TO LOVE TENNIS!
KING OF THE WORLD AND RULER OF ALL, O MAESTRO, MY MAESTRO! YOUR BEAUTY IS OUR TRUTH!
Etc., etc., etc.
When Federer retires (and gee, that doesn’t seem to be anytime soon, given what we just saw on Friday at Wimbledon), what will his fans do with their tennis lives? Will they be like the legendary comedian, Lenny Bruce, who saw the epic Game 7 of the 1960 World Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Yankees and then never attended another baseball game in his life?
Bruce said that after watching a baseball game as great as that contest in 1960, there was never any point in watching another baseball game, because no game was ever going to be better than what he’d seen on that October afternoon at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field.
Are Federer fans really going to do that whenever their man hangs up the racquet and the sneakers? Tennis — like any sport — is bigger than just one man. I do get an upset stomach when “NO FEDERER, NO TENNIS!” comes across my Twitter timeline.
(You knew that was coming, right?)
… there are a few really damn good reasons why commentators and fans have “tennis-gasms” and become fawning subjects when Federer is at his very best, especially in the latter stages of tennis’s most famous and prestigious tournament.
More specifically, there are a few really good reasons why people feel Federer IS tennis, and one of them is that Federer turned a lot of people on (and in some cases, back on) to tennis in 2003, with Rafael Nadal later joining the fun to give tennis its next great rivalry. Federer and Nadal created the rivalry which breathed new life into men’s tennis, before Roger lost steam. The Federer-Nadal rivalry has given way to Nadal-Djokovic and the Djokovic-Federer contest we’ll see in Sunday’s final, but it must (and should, and will) be remembered as the rivalry which changed men’s tennis shortly after that down period in 2003.
So, as much as it pains me to read any “Federer as deity” talk, I am caught in a contradiction and a trap.
It is impossible to reconcile: For any great player or team at the peak of excellence — Federer, Tiger Woods in his prime, the New York Yankees in the 1950s, the Boston Celtics in the 1960s, the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s, any international football team in its Premier League or La Liga heyday, etc. — what else are commentators supposed to do?
No — really: What the heck do you expect analysts and bloggers and reporters to say when one man leaves you shaking your head in disbelief, over and over and over again?
No writer ever made a splash or felt particularly satisfied by simply writing, “Roger Federer played the 19,764th really good match of his career and won. The End.”
The written word is made for the rhetorical and artistic flourish, so writers are going to want to try to say something clever or flowery about Federer’s similarly artistic game when it sparkles. Why have writers in the first place? Why have a language? Why engage in the attempt to put words to something visually beautiful if the attempt is seen as pointless — or as inappropriate when done to excess?
It’s not easy to be able to write words which can fully capture the kind of match Federer played against Andy Murray. It doesn’t mean, however, that people shouldn’t try — they’ve tried for years. The result is sometimes hyperbole, sure, but even the most word-weary, Federer-worship-hating Nadal or Djokovic fan has to look at Friday’s match and say, “DAYYUMMMM! That was incredible!”
Federer, a month short of turning 34, turned in a performance that called forth the swift strokes, swaggering strut, shutdown serve, and swashbucklingly Swiss style of his radiant prime. That he did so against one of the game’s best returners — in that player’s own nation, when that other player was 28 years old and near his physical peak, all while playing at a high level himself — is simply astounding.
There was my attempt to capture Fed’s amazing performance on Friday, not to mention the improbably more luminous quality of a career that is somehow still becoming larger.
Maybe some of you will find those words excessive. Yet, what really is untrue or inaccurate about them? What in those words is deficient in terms of telling the story of Friday’s match?
Roger Federer — now 10 of 10 in Wimbledon semifinals, with only one set lost out of 31 — has reached a 26th major final and will have a chance to become the oldest man in the Open Era to win a Wimbledon singles final. Ken Rosewall defied time by making the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals in 1974 at age 39 (!), but he lost those matches to Jimmy Connors. Federer, should he beat Djokovic on Sunday, will have defied time on a different level and at a higher elevation.
Roger Federer is NOT God, and there’s a heckuva lot more to the sport of tennis than just him… but on Friday, this man — who is doing things old tennis players are not supposed to be doing — sure looked like something close to a god on my television.
He didn’t even sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night, either.