Was the 2018 Australian Open a greater tear-jerker than the other majors which preceded it?

In the finals of major sporting events both tears of joy and of sorrow are not uncommon. Unlike in team events when both elation and sadness can be shared, in the one-on-one contests the first reaction to the final outcome becomes purely personal and individual. Congratulations or commiseration from the support team, fans and well-wishers will come later but when you stand on the podium holding the trophy, or the consolation prize, the emotions are all your own, for you to manage. You are exposed to the world, emotionally denuded, the mask off and the defences down, and your words and behavior on such occasions say more about you as a person than anything else you may do, either in private or on other public occasions.

There was Caroline Wozniacki sprawled on the court, weeping at the end of the final rally whilst Simona Halepsat apart, with the despair written on her tear-streaked face wordlessly eloquent about her emotions of the moment. Halep, coming in to the final, had survived uncompromisingly harsh examinations, first at the hands of Lauren Davis, possibly the best match of the tournament in terms of intensity, ending at 15-13 in the third set after almost four hours of attritional tennis, and then against the more fancied Angelique Kerber, in another three set, three hour epic. Her defeat in the final was perhaps due to the cumulative effect of the exhaustion of two preceding marathons, compounded by ankle injuries on both legs and the resolve of Wozniacki, desperately seeking her first major win. Despite her understandable distress, Halep remained philosophical and hopeful of better times ahead whilst generously acclaiming her opponent as a worthy winner.

In a women’s singles field split wide open in the absence of Serena Williams, irrespective of their current rankings, the winner could have been Kerber, Halep, Wozniacki, Muguruza, Pliskova or Ostapenko; throw in an outside chance for a resurgent Sharapova and the emerging Naomi Osaka and you are confronted with a healthy depth of talent which, surprisingly, seems more secure than the men’s field.

The last five men’s majors have been won, in an “on-off” sequence, by Federer and Nadal, the former 36 years old and returning to the circuit in 2017 after several month’s absence on account of injury followed by surgery and the latter, plagued by numerous intermittent injuries himself. In a sport in which dominance has as much to do with youthful energy and absence of injury, as mature wisdom and experience, Federer, strictly speaking, has no business being where he is at right now. Despite the hype surrounding Dimitrov and the next generation players – to which Hyeoung Chung, the latest cult hero has now been inducted – represented by Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios, Dominc Thiem , Shapavalov and Medvedev, four men over thirty continue to dominate the four majors. There is also the infrequent incursion from Wawrinka, again himself over thirty.

With the elimination of Djokovic and Nadal, Federer was the bookmakers’ favourite for the Australian men’s title, notwithstanding challenges on the way from emerging stars. The encounter with Chung was typical, the actual content of the contest falling far short of both expectations and the pre-match media build up. Irrespective of the injury to Chung which resulted in a premature ending, it is most unlikely that there could have been a different outcome, even with a completely injury free Korean. On the brink of rewriting another piece of Tennis history, it seems inconceivable that a relentless Federer would have yielded the opportunity to an unheralded newcomer, no matter that the youthful challenger had previously taken out a weary and ailing Djokovic in straight sets.

Notwithstanding a highly lop-sided record, Cilic having beaten Federer only once in nine preceding meetings, the result of the final was not a given. Cilic had the galling memory of the tearful end to their previous encounter at the Wimbledon 2017 final to spur him on, with his confidence backed up by some excellent tennis against worthy opponents, en-route to the latest final. Initially, whilst a rampantly dominant Federer seemed bent on delivering a very quick demolition to Cilic’s aspirations, once Cilic shed his initial nervousness, his power game was able to halt Federer’s forward march and, midway in the fourth set, it seemed as if both were competing on absolutely equal terms. Federer was totally dominant when his serve was on song – the results manifest in the sets that he won – and was pushed around when he lost that rhythm. However, finally, both genius and magic prevailed over tenacity, power and gallantry and Federer walked away with the Norman-Brookes trophy, as he had done last year.

In the process Federer re-wrote the record books as well, firstly sharing six Australian Open crowns with Roy Emerson and Novak Djokovic and, secondly, becoming the first male singles champion to move to the magical ” twenty” major title mark. That there are three women ahead of him- Margaret Court with 24, Serena Williams with 23 and Steffi Graf with 22- perhaps suggests that, overall, there has always been a greater depth of talent in the men’s field than in the women’s; that is notwithstanding a dominance at the top – not seen previously in several decades in the men’s game – by just three men, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic who, together, account for 47 Major’s singles titles of the last 61, commencing with the 2003 Wimbledon final, Federer’s first major win. The only other interlopers in to that exclusive fraternity are Murray and Wawrinka with three each, whilst eight others share one each. During the same period there have been 19 women’s singles champions.

The fact is that of the last 51 major singles titles, five men together, Federer at 36, Nadal at 31, Djokovic and Murray both at 30 and Wawrinka at 32, have won 49.This amazing statistic needs to be a serious concern for the next level aspirants. Commenting on this dominance, former men’s world number one, Marat Safin, said recently that, “if Federer and Nadal are still winning there must be something wrong with tennis”. He went on to say that in his day, emerging champions used to show their mettle by winning senior tournaments at age 17 and 18, whilst some of the best of today’s second tier take at least another five years more before replicating such success. What he may not have taken in to account is the fact that in his day there were only two genuinely dominant players, Sampras and Agassi, with the first being essentially a serve volley specialist, unsuccessful on the slower surfaces and the latter, languishing in to a long period of obscurity before a final re-emergence.

Irrespective of the recent sidelining of Djokovic, Murray and Nadal through injury, Federer’s dominance at 36 plus defies critical analysis. Agassi has said that he has given up making predictions on Federer as he continues to defy the norms of tennis longevity. Perhaps, the fact that Federer has been largely injury free for most of his career is, most likely, due to a far more effective and balanced off-court regime than the others at the top. What is on show for the public on the court is the brilliance, the skill and the durability but what is not seen is the off-court preparation which reinforces the more visible dimensions – the hours of practice, the physical training, the analyses, the counselling, all of which contribute to the on-court result but are rarely spoken of. In Federer’s case these ingredients seem to have achieved an ideal composition, a balanced mix that other stars have not been able to establish. Perhaps, all these factors are further buttressed by the comfort of an obviously loving family.

Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are supposed to be equally obsessive about their respective diets and training regimes. Nadal with his gladiatorial physique, Djokovic with his greyhound leanness and Murray of the Scottish bulk are clearly physically superior to Federer, visually. The latter does not seem to possess any visible advantage, except till he starts striking the ball and moving around the court with the effortless grace that is as much a hall-mark of his game, as the magical shots he produces to confound opponents. This pristine fluidity is also reinforced by a ferocious but contained intensity and relentlessness, all the more effective for being understated, as opposed to the “in-your-face” aggression and the theatrical bellicosity of most of the others.

It is also an endearing aspect of this peerless champion’s persona, the humility and inner sense of balance he demonstrated with total frankness at the post-match interview, when he spoke of the anguished self-doubts that had plagued him before the final. The passion that he has for the game is best revealed by his emotion. He wept on losing the final at the same venue to Nadal, in 2009 and wept again, after defeating Cilic for his twentieth.

Realistically, whilst Federer’s stay at the top is obviously going to get shorter and shorter as time goes by, in a post-match interview he did sound a serious warning to both his close rivals and the aspiring next level; he said that he believes his game has improved consequent to certain adjustments he has made, particularly in his serve and the service return. The results are self-evident, in that he has won the last three major titles after turning 35, almost five years after the previous set of titles and after returning from a six month injury layoff, during which his ranking slid to 17. The threat that this senior citizen of tennis still poses to the other, younger contestants, needs no further elaboration.

Anura Gunasekera

This article first appeared on February 3rd, 2018 in the http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=179259

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