As I settled in to watch the Roger Federer vs. Stanislas Wawrinka match yesterday, I wondered: Given that both these guys are Swiss, doubles partners who bagged Olympic gold, and that we all know who the man is in Switzerland, what chance is there that Wawrinka will go out there hunting trouble against his vulnerable but beloved countryman?
This wasn't an enviable situation for Wawrinka. It's one thing to take the sledgehammer to an icon from a rival nation, or to one with whom you have no real relationship. It's quite another to turn on a countryman and doubles partner who helped write your ticket to glory - especially when you both come from a relatively small nation that's flush with pride because it's punching well above its weight when it comes to impact on the pro tour. And to top it off, Federer is such a classy, low-key guy that the status quo in Switzerland is one that the pros in any nation on earth could only hope to emulate.
I have no doubt that Wawrinka is aware of his implicit obligations as a professional tennis player, playing for money before spectators who hope to see a good show. But a big part of getting a job done, and certainly of getting it done well, is wanting to do it. It's hard for me to imagine Stan Wawrinka wanting to beat Federer with the degree of unfettered determination and aggression called for by that difficult job, a degree that tennis pros under most circumstances have no trouble attaining because that's what they do. Or that's what they do under normal circumstances, which were not quite in play yesterday in the Caja Magica at the Madrid Open.
Wawrinka did nothing in the course of the subsequent match to make me think my line of thinking was off the mark or inappropriate. In tennis, as in anything else, it's a wise idea to choose your battles, and I felt watching the match that Stan the Man had decided that he's just as soon pass on this one.
You could make a big deal out of this, call out Wawrinka, ridicule him, or feign something like moral outrage, but that would be posturing. If you ignore psychological realities, or try to pretend that they don't exist in order to make your point, you're not playing a fair hand. And if the two men happen to meet at the French Open or at Wimbledon in a few weeks time, the dynamic might be different because the dynamic is shaped and influenced by the conditions. I think every seasoned pro feels that in a major, all bets are off - the glory is there to be seized, and unless you're a Federer or Rafael Nadal, your chances of grabbing it are limited. Pass on them at your peril.
But this was Madrid, why rock the boat? So the upshot is that I'm still withholding judgment on Federer's game. I still need to see him have to scratch and claw, to whatever degree Federer ever does that, against a quality opponent before I feel comfortable looking ahead to Paris.
On the women's side of the draw, a different element was in play a little earlier today, as Venus Williams sallied forth to meet Sam Stosur. Coming into this match, Stosur had positioned herself as a sorely needed role model for the WTA (I have more to say about the state of the women's tour in that regard in a post over at ESPN). Stosur has been playing the best tennis of her life (she won 21 of her last 24 matches going into the quarters at Madrid). She's been maximizing her talent, which isn't at quite the same level as the talent of the leading ladies of the WTA. But she's been all about the tennis, and nothing but the tennis - a refreshing change when you look at the WTA tour these days.
Venus has done her share of the heavy lifting this year as well. She was 22-3 going into the match with Stosur. And Venus has far more big-match experience, as well as superior talent. You know the old saying, class will tell. . . It's even more appropriate in athletics than in the original, (and wildly insupportable) social context. Venus routined Stosur 6-3, 6-3, to continue what can best be described as a clay-court revival.
Venus has pretty much made Wimbledon her home these past few years, but her results in the other majors have been disappointing - and puzzling. If you ignore her outstanding Wimbledon record, Venus hasn't won a major since the fall of 2001. I find that baffling, even though a large share of the responsibility for the situation could be laid at the feet of her sister, Serena. But if Venus is truly feeling it on clay, she'll be a force in Paris.
It's funny, I always expected Venus to do better on clay. She certainly has the physical gifts, in the form of her speed, strength and stamina. Over the years, her strokes seem to have become less rather than more reliable, which doesn't hurt her as much at Wimbledon, where she's got the serve and off-the-ground power to force three-to-five stroke points. But on clay, a little it of inconsistency can go a long way toward ruining your chances, no matter how spectacular your shotmaking or how impressive your athleticism. We saw how inconsistent Venus can be in her last big tournament final (Miami), but she's certainly capable of performing on a higher plane , even if the stuff at ground level is red dirt.