The men’s semis are set in Key Biscayne, as you know: Murray-Del Potro, Federer-Djokovic. DP’s win over Rafael Nadal yesterday was a minor, messy epic, complete with an Argentine contingent roaring against Rafa—isn’t that some kind of tennis sacrilege? Nadal didn’t have it from the beginning; he couldn’t get much penetration with his backhand, and in the third set Del Potro hit like he had nothing to lose, which he didn’t. I wanted to see Murray-Nadal, but I’m happy to see del Potro take a step forward and beat one of the top guys—it was a mental roadblock for him that was only going to get harder to knock down with time. I just wish I’d been able to watch him pull it off. After Nadal hit a netcord winner in the third-set tiebreaker, MSG+, the New York network carrying Key Biscayne, faded out and went to the start of a New York Islanders game. Adding insult to injury, the Isles announcer apologized for the “long time" that the “tennis match” had taken, and that he would keep us updated on how the match with Juan-Martin “del Poto” “worked out.”
It worked out so that we now get two semifinals that have a little history to them, as you can see from the videos here. The first, above, is from last year’s match in Monte Carlo between Federer and Djokovic; the second, below, comes from the fabled face-off between Murray and del Potro in Rome. I’ll begin in Monte Carlo.
—Djokovic was still in the midst of his meteoric rise at this point. He had beaten Federer on his way to winning in Australia, beaten Nadal on his way to winning in Indian Wells, and he would go on to win in Rome a couple weeks later. There was a sense of challenge in the air as this match started. Djokovic came out firing with confidence, as if he was ready to blow the old man off the court. Rather than play defense, Federer swung back harder and made it a slugfest. At this juncture, 3-2 in the first, the result is still in the balance.
—A Djokovic ground stroke lands close to the baseline. Apparently, his family and entourage, stationed there, say “that ball was in.” As you can see, Federer, the game’s resident traditionalist conscience, is having none of their interference. He says either, “Be quiet, OK,” or “Keep quiet, OK.” Then he kicks at the ball mark with comical frustration.
—This moment can be seen as Federer’s classicist revolt against the encroaching forces of populism as represented by the hammy Djokovic and his overtly boosterish entourage. Federer is the voice of decorum and tradition informing them of how to behave at a tennis match.
—It worked. Almost immediately after this moment, Djokovic began to fade. He eventually retired from the match with a mysterious ailment. While he would win in Rome, his run toward the top ranking, which he had so boldly stated was going to be his, was over. He lost in straights to Nadal at the French, in the second round at Wimbledon, and to Federer in a listless U.S. Open semi. Perhaps not coincidentally, his entourage also hit its high-water mark of involvement and boosterism in Monte Carlo.
This second and much longer clip took place a month later in an empty center court in Rome during a late-night encounter—yes, encounter—between Murray and del Potro.
—What’s interesting is that the bad blood has already started to flow by the time we pick up the match. Murray begins with a pointed, “Yeah, come onnnn!” when del Potro puts a forehand in the net. Anyone who has ever played junior tennis will recognize his tone as one of aggrieved aggression—he’s getting back at del Potro for something.
—We learn what it is at the changeover. Del Potro has drilled a ball at Murray. But it gets worse from there. Murray glares at del Potro, who says seomthing like, “It’s always the same, you and your Mom.” I can only guess that he’s referring to their junior days, and Judy Murray’s presence at her son’s matches.
—Murray, like Federer above, is having none of it. He proceeds to utter some of the most poetic words ever heard on a tennis court: “The guy’s talking about my Mom. What the hell’s he doing?”
—The chair umpire, Fergus Murphy takes over, sort of, scolding del Potro like a first-grade teacher: “That’s enough, Juan.”
—Some of the better lines then come from announcer Jason Goodall. “This match is heating up nicely,” he says with mischievous irony. Then he speaks for all of us in wishing that the umpire had let it go on. He imagines Murray and del Potro as two hockey players, their shirts pulled over their heads, trading haymakers on the court. Oh, if only it had been so.
—Murray wins the set and the match. From this, he comes across as the tougher kid, and del Potro as a guy who can be intimidated, who isn’t a natural in the harder regions of competition, most of which have been swept clean from the pro game. Seeing this makes me wish we could get a little bit more of the chippiness of the 70s and 80s every once in a while.
—But the rancor was buried by the end of the third set. Del Potro suffered a severe back injury and retired in tears. Murray, believe it or not, ended up consoling him.
—Judy Murray has been in Key Biscayne this week. What are the chances Juan-Martin goes there again Friday night? Alas, the two players say they’ve buried the hatchet.
Kids today, so quick to forgive. What are we going to do with them?
Enjoy the matches and have a good weekend.