A Matter of Life and Death

Sunday, September 09, 2007 /by

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[Andrew Friedman/Rolo Tomassi and I got to talking the other day, and I invited him to write a post on the substance of our conversation. Here, are his ruminations on Men's Final day. Enjoy - Pete]

You’re all dead, and if you ain’t, you oughta be…I’m the one is livin’.  I’m the one who puts you on the map.
    - Francis Phelan in William Kennedy’s novel,  Ironweed

The long, arduous climb up the exterior steps to the nosebleed region of Arthur Ashe stadium, euphemistically named the Promenade, can be a depressing slog for tennis fans without access to luxury suites or Loge tickets, especially those making the trek for the first time.

But on the final Sunday of the US Open, the Himalayan hike offers something of note even before the tennis action begins.  The vantage point available from the peak of Ashe Stadium on this day is one of the more poignant sights in tennis.  All but two outer courts, where lower ranked, relatively unknown players contested their early-round matches over the past two weeks, are eerily empty, so much so that gazing over the National Tennis Center from the top of Ashe is a little like looking down on a patchwork of fields from a window seat in a passing jet plane.

Well, it used to look like fields.  More like swimming pools now that the courts are painted an oceanic blue. The color is an apt metaphor for what’s occurred here since August 27: the players have been swallowed up by the tournament, as surely as drowning victims are gobbled up by the sea. Some went more peacefully than others, but at the end of the day, they’re all gone, just the same. 

It’s been said that all we ultimately remember about Grand Slams is the winner, and it’s tough to argue with that.  The scheduling debacle of this year’s Wimbledon is already receding, while Federer’s survival of Nadal in the final looms larger and larger with each passing week.

As of this morning, one hundred twenty-six men and one hundred twenty-seven women from the singles and doubles main draws have left here on a loss, and that includes those who savored a victory or more before succumbing to one of the great truths of any sport: at the end of the day, there is a winner, and a loser.  Carlos Moya’s sentimental dream run is already fading, just like Arnaud Clement’s first round, five-set triumph over Ivo Karlovic, Donald Young’s first-ever slam match win, and scores of other momentary victories.  Like Roger says in those Gillette commercials: “The past is yesterday.  Just a nice memory.”

What’s it like to be the last gladiator standing in contests like these?  Once you become a show-court-only player, do you ever spare a thought for the guys who die out there in the land of broken dreams beyond the walls of Ashe and Armstrong, or in the case of Roger Federer, your fellow elite (okay, almost-fellow elite), whose dreams you have denied so many times?

I’ve often wondered if Federer has to keep the flip side of his dominance at bay.  Does he ever wonder what it’s like to be one of the guys who will likely never win a major title because their prime coincided with his?  Does he ever feel….bad for these guys?  Does he feel anything for them?

I asked The Mighty Fed about this in the press conference following his three-set win over Davydenko yesterday.  He shifted uncomfortably in his chair for a moment, then looked away and said, “Oh, sometimes,” which brought a wave of laughter from the packed house.

“And what is that feeling?”

“Well, I mean, I lost against many players early on in my career, like one, two, three, four times. I couldn't figure out how to play them. Just eventually it gets really hard, you know, because you try to do something different every single time. But at the same time, you can't go away from your own strengths, you know. If that strength runs into the other guy's strength, the other guy is just better on the day. It's just really hard, you know, I guess mentally at one stage. Yeah, I mean, I've had many tough losses in my career, too, that made me want to just retire, but I hung in there. Now that I'm on the other side, you know, the winning side, I don't think about it. I try not to think about it too much.”

Translation: Not really.  It’s their problem.  They can beat me, or die trying.

But what really struck me from that answer was this gem:  “Now that I'm on the other side, you know, the winning side, I don't think about it.”

It’s a life-and-death way of looking at the tennis world, only death is the before stage and life is the part that comes after, the promised land to which you cross over, the winning side.

Looking over Federer’s last three years, it almost seems that simple, as if he ascended to some otherworldly place in 2004, and that’s where he exists now, over on the winning side.  Oh, sure, there are a few other guys out there that complicate things once in a while, especially Rafael Nadal who, at least where the slams are concerned, seems to have a restricted passport to the winning side stamped “clay only.”

Roger was almost dismissive in his evaluation of Novak’s chances today, pointing out that Djokovic is still very young, that this is his first slam final, and that he’d be facing the World Number One.  He also, gracefully, pointed out that Novak beat him a few weeks ago up in Canada.  The message seemed to be that Novak has won a lot this year, even against Roger, but let’s not get carried away.

I thought Djokovic had the stuff to beat Roger in this tournament, and I still do.  But he’s only shown it in spurts, as recently as yesterday.  He looked to be wilting in the heat for a long stretch in his semi, hit a handful of ill-advised and horrendously executed drop shots, and appeared frustrated and out of sorts much of the time, and that was against David Ferrer.  Will he be able to bring his best stuff against Federer, and will it be enough to topple him over five sets?

It feels increasingly unlikely as the hour approaches, but you never know.  Sometimes being young can invite dangerous abandon; remember what Safin did to Sampras on this Sunday in 2000?

To put it another way, what we’re going to learn to today is whether or not Novak Djokovic has crossed over to the winning side, or if he’s still an earthbound tennis mortal, ready and willing—but not yet able—to ascend into the light.

- Andrew Friedman

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