Mornin'. I keep blinking. Every time I flick on the television, or check out the live scores, I blink when I see the numbers posted there: Novak Djokovic winning in under an hour? What did he do, hope to catch a plane to Moscow and play a WTA match, just to try something a little different? Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, blown-out by Andy Murray? How about Roger Federer pounding legitimate hard-court heavyweight Robin Soderling as if Roger were the guy playing the bass drum in the Basel Southwest High School Belted Galloways Marching Band and Bugle Corps?
That sucker went 1 and 1. Ouch. The bigger they the harder they fall, right, Roger?
Actually, this is all further proof that we're living in a parallel universe, only this time we're inhabiting the side with the greener pastures and sunnier skies. If you ran these scores—and many others produced this fall—by us in 2009, or almost any other recent year, our reaction would be another round of weeping and gnashing of teeth over the bogus fall "circuit." We'd be windbagging about the terrible length of the year, as if playing ninety matches a year (and that's the highest reasonable number), an average of one every four days, is a Draconian demand.
We'd be talking about how the players don't care about anything except Grand Slam events, although appearance fees can also get their attention now and then. And we'd be talking about injuries, major or minor, that have a direct impact on individual results or even the way the brackets at any tournament play out. The players would play right into it; as soon as one or two guys started whining about how tired they are, the outcry would go up: Shorten the calendar! Fall tennis is not healthy for Spaniards and other living creatures!
In other words, the entire conversation would be a bummer. A bore. And, most important, an irritating, self-fulfilling autumn prophecy.
Yet does anyone suspect that Djokovic is blistering the shorts off these guys with a blowtorch because his hapless opponent are all tired, or disinterested? Federer's participation on the fall tour in the past has sometimes seemed an act of charity, at least until the year-end championships came around. Now, it's like he's running around the hallways and tunnels in Shanghai with a willow switch, trying to beat guys out of hiding in order to smoke them. You can almost feel his energy—the same energy Djokovic cited the other day when he tried to explain how he could appear so motivated and look so sharp in Shanghai, winning his first match there, hours rather than days after he clubbed his way to the title in Beijing.
And with the year Nadal had, Federer has good reason to feel energized and motivated.
Or take the case of Tsonga. He's been injured and, believe me, the setbacks of a long hiatus always outweigh the advantages. These guys are players, when they can't perform their most basic job on regular basis, bad things like rust, loss of confidence, mental softness, happen. But Tsonga is fresh and fit, and that combination can be a great asset in the fall, when players who have been on the trail all year are often fatigued or rapidly losing steam. Tired players always pay a price in motivation, and are thus vulnerable to a guy in Tsonga's position: fit, healthy, mentally fresh and in pressing need of ranking points. But the pre-emptive way Andy Murray ushered him out of Shanghai was telling. 6-2, 6-2. As if to say, Not this fall, bub.
Welcome to the non-fulfilling prophecy.
The bottom line: These guys, including a surprisingly keen Rafa Nadal, are playing like it's mid-May or something. And that's great for tennis. So it's on to the semis, where Juan Monaco will meet Murray, and Djokovic will face off against Federer.
A few days ago, we were speculating on the likelihood of a Federer vs. Nadal final, only to see the bottom fall out when Jurgen Melzer inconveniently upset Nadal. But if anything, Nadal's loss makes the more compelling semifinal seem that much more significant—there's the value of having a three-way rivalry, which is the best way to describe the current relationship among Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. One of these three guys was destined to serve as the insurance policy; this week, it's Djokovic, promising to deliver the payout Nadal was unable to offer.
Is anyone going to suggest that a Federer vs. Djokovic semifinal is some kind of fire sale? Who knew that the interior fires Djokovic sparked with his performance at the U.S. Open could have such a broad, across-the-board affect on what was once the lame-duck season?
I'm really not sure how all this came to pass. Plain, old, good luck, I suppose. Djokovic catches fire, and for once Federer has things to gain with a strong finish. And Nadal himself is in that delicate position of having to finish, to answer the last of the questions lobbed at him, in order to be able to claim that he had as a good a year as humanly possible. For he knows, as well as we do, that his habitual struggles in the fall have left a few asterisks on his record.
And the way things are going, Murray is likely to screw up everyone's best laid plans. If he inserts himself back into the conversation about the top players, it would be the ideal ending, brimming with the kind of irony you expect to encounter in a parallel universe. It would also add another intriguing element to the overnight revival of the fall tour. And it wouldn't be so awful to end the year with four men vying for the bragging rights to the ATP Tour, right?
This blinking isn't so bad. A fella could get used to it.