The Future is Not Now
“I think the right height for tennis runs from Federer to Nadal,” Pam Shriver said last night. She was at courtside, watching one of those men, Roger Federer, warm up against his taller opponent, Robin Soderling. In the booth, John and Patrick McEnroe, who had been discussing how the “right” height for the sport had risen in recent years, were confused for a second, but finally got it. Federer and Nadal are both listed at 6-foot-1 (though each of them looks a little taller in person). The physical similarities don’t end there: Nadal is 188 pounds, Federer 187; in his prime, Pete Sampras was also listed as 6-foot-1, 188 pounds. As Shriver was saying, let’s not get ahead of ourselves—or above ourselves. Whatever inroads the game’s giants have made, 6-foot-1 has won 20 of the last 22 Grand Slams.
As this Grand Slam progresses, it’s looking more and more like it’s going to be 21 of 23. Night sessions at the Open have been alternating symphonies of whoop-ass, conducted—one with the left arm, the other with the right, both in black evening tennis wear—by those 6-foot-1 maestros, Federer and Nadal. They’ve made the men’s event their own personal forum for score settling. Two nights ago, Nadal knocked off Feliciano Lopez, who had beaten him in Queens in June, in straight sets; last night it was Federer’s turn to right the wrong that Soderling had done to him at the French Open. If anything, he outdid Nadal by running and hitting circles around the No. 5 seed, also in straight sets. There's been wind at the Open, but it's been no match for the second winds that Federer and Nadal have found these last two weeks.
Early in the match, Soderling was forced to come forward for a short ball. He bent to hit it, floated a weak slice crosscourt, and was passed. While Soderling would never be described as smooth—I heard him referred to as “Clodderling” a few times earlier in his career—it was still a remarkably awkward maneuver for a pro. I thought that Federer had to have noticed, and that he would find a way to draw the big man forward again. He did. He broke serve later with an utterly ungettable drop shot, and eventually threw in a few of his trusty short crosscourt backhand slices.
But those ploys were hardly necessary. Last night felt like the culmination of Federer’s post-Wimbledon surge. With and without Paul Annacone, the focus in Toronto, Cincy, and here has been on offense, not just in his strokes, but in his movement. Federer looked as fast and sharp and comfortable as he ever has last night—his serve, his drops, his lobs, even his hesitation flick volleys were working. His defense was offensive—Soderling must have been offended, anyway. When he moved Federer right with his haymaker crosscourt forehand, the Swiss was there to cut off the angle and create a sharper one back crosscourt. By the third set, it felt like Federer had stood the taller man down; the tables had turned from the French Open and he was the one at the baseline dictating from the center of the court, the place where a slugfest like this is going to be won. Soderling, by contrast, looked stiffer than ever. Stiff on his serve, which wasn’t working for him; stiff moving forward; and stiff reaching back for lobs. At times he looked the way he had once looked: too tall.
As far as 2010 goes, Soderling the invader from the barbaric future has been vanquished. Nadal stood in and outhit him at Wimbledon, and Federer outclassed him at the Open. Is it time to pencil in a Federer-Nadal final? I don’t think I’ve ever seen both of these guys looking this determined and fresh at this late point in the season. Nadal, wielding an entirely new weapon, has yet to be broken. He also seems to have solved his issues with burnout on hard courts. Looking back at his performances in Toronto and Cincy, there’s a sense that he was saving a little of himself. After his Wimbledon win two years ago, he came back flying and fist-pumping his way to a title in Toronto. This year he went down in the semis with little fanfare and talked about how his hard-court game was a work in progress, the serve wasn’t ready, the backhand was just coming along. Both of them have come along nicely in New York.
Verdasco, Youzhny, Wawrinka, Djokovic: As I write this, they’re all still in the tournament. They all have a theoretical chance to reach the final. And there will be wind playing havoc with ball tosses and possibly results. But Federer didn't even seem to notice the wind last night, and Nadal's basic accuracy with his serve and forehand will help him. Rog and Rafa appear to be heading for a serious collision on Sunday; they may only be 188 pounds each, but it’s a collision that could match anything you’ll see in the NFL that day. Federer showed last night that the future of the big man is not now. The future is just like the past. It’s 6-foot-1.