Hey, anybody know who won the final in that tournament in London over the weekend?
Seriously, though, Roger Federer's win over his nemesis Rafael Nadal this weekend brings with it a significant sense of "closure," at least to the tournament year in tennis. But, as I wrote in a post for ESPN, "closure" works better following an unexpected tragedy or bout in a court of law than in sports. So let's remember, there's still this little matter of the Davis Cup final coming over the weekend.
Bad News for Davis Cup Reformers
The run-up to this Davis Cup final vividly demonstrates the significance of the tournament to all but the most transcendent of international stars, and it ought to resonate with those who cling to the idea, promoted mostly in the American Davis Cup-averse media, that the premier annual international team sports competition is passé, or of no interest to anyone not wearing a seersucker suit and straw boater.
When Novak Djokovic said the impending Davis Cup final in Belgrade (where Serbia will host France) was a distraction that prevented him from perhaps having the kind of World Tour Finals he would ordinarily hope for, you know that this "nobody really cares about Davis Cup" meme is somewhat threadbare. And guess what? The increasing number of emerging, top-quality players from nations other than the U.S. is only going to boost the luster of the competition.
Belgrade may not be a major tennis capital (yet) or media center, but if this final delivers what it promises, Djokovic may pull off a John McEnroe. When McEnroe arrived on the scene, Davis Cup was at low ebb in the U.S. He reinvigorated it, and it's safe to say he took the whole world with him. It was simply because he believed in the concept and credibility of Davis Cup. Also, McEnroe more or less shamed a number of his countrymen, including Vitas Gerulaitis and (briefly) Jimmy Connors into re-examining their indifference to the competition. So forget the problems of marketing Davis Cup, the so-called overloaded calendar, the trials of having to play a Davis Cup tie in the after glow of a major). The blunt truth is that top players—most top players—have the utmost respect for the competition and do their best to take part in it.
While next weekend will belong to Djokovic, Janko Tipsarevic and company, this last one was all Federer's, although he did recognize his own supporting cast of two, even though neither man lifted a racket. After winning, Federer acknowledged the impact Paul Annacone has had on his results since they began working in earnest in June. Here's the exact quote from The Mighty Fed:
"I had to regain some confidence. That only comes through winning matches. After having somewhat of a disappointing clay season, Halle, Wimbledon stretch, where I wasn't able to win any tournaments and didn't play my best tennis, played a bit passive, it was important that I was able to pick up my game. I started moving better, started feeling well physically and mentally. I'm sure Paul has helped in this regard. So has Severin (Luthi). That's why I'm very happy with my team at this stage of the season."
This is typical Federer commentary, and it confirms the feeling that the guy could have a heckuva second career after tennis as something like a high-ranking UN official. Notice the baroque, elusive touches. "I'm sure Paul has helped. . ." not simply, "Paul really helped. . ." What exactly did he mean by "happy with my team at this stage of the season?" I thought the season was over. Note the patient stating of the obvious: "It was important that I was able to pick up my game." How about the nod to Severin Luthi (how many part-time coaches can one guy have)?
The instinct to spread around the credit and not give anyone too big—or small—a share, to not leave anyone out while also not admitting to over-reliance on anyone, is typical Federer and not all that different from the hard-working bureaucrat's mindset. And yes, I know that you could parse anyone's comments, delivered in a press conference, in a similar fashion. There's a lot of fat and grisle in most conversations. But TMF's is of a certain kind that I believe sheds a little light on his personality. I have to admit that this manner of speech and the thinking it implies leaves me a little cold, because, hail, it is cold.
I don't want to take credit away from Luthi; he's served Federer steadily if, to us, opaquely. That's fine. But from here it looks like the big change in Federer's attitude as well as certain aspects of Federer's game, owe to Annacone, the apostle of aggressive, "show your opponent that you're Roger Federer and he's not" tennis. Or, if you prefer something less blunt and more literal: "Play to your strengths." (As in, don't just bunt back some kind of return with your shotmaking arsenal.)
The rounded edges of Federer's speech can be explained various ways, starting with his talent for and presumed desire to avoid making waves. Note that Federer divulged no state secrets in praising Annacone and Luthi and contrast that to what we know about the working relationship between, say, Andy Roddick and Larry Stefanki, or even the late-career technical analyses freely offered by Andre Agassi, or even the obsession with the role of character in tennis so often indulged by Boris Becker.
Ironically, Federer's approach brings to mind something Becker once told me about Annacone's other iconic protégé, Sampras. I paraphase: Pete has a great talent for setting up walls that keep the rest of the world out and help him stay focused on his mission. You could say the same of Federer.
Three Things You Can't Avoid. . .
It's funny, but the news in tennis tends to come in bunches having a greater relation to the Grand Slam and Masters calendars than any other factor. That's because outifts like the ATP and WTA like to drop their big news items during moments when the eyes of the world are focused on tennis. Hence, it was a pretty big week for all kinds of news, resounding as well as ephemeral. Did you see that Serena Williams pulled out of Hopman Cup as well as the Australian Open? She's still recuperating from surgery and issued a heartfelt promise that she'd be back and "better than ever."
Maybe, when she's fully healed, Serena could have a heart-to-heart with 40-year old Kimiko Date Kumm, who recently averred that she may not be able to compete in the next Asian games (she lost in the semis this year) because by then she'll be 44 years old. I'm just hoping Serena and her sister Venus Williams can stick around long enough to hit, say, 32. On the other hand, starting in their late 20s, players are basically hostages to the unpredictable master, injury.
Kimiko said she's been feeling the strain of top-grade WTA tennis in her 40-year-old body, and I say we need to immediately launch a Don't go, Kimiko! campaign. I'm not a sentimentalist who thinks players ought to quit while they're on top or near it. Play as long as you want and can, knowing that there are three things in life you can't avoid: death, taxes and the WTA or ATP ranking/entry system. That's something Serena will have to deal with as well, if and when she returns. She'll probably be out of the Top 10 by then.
Spouting off the Starboard Bow. . .
How about that tempest in a teapot in Wales, where the chief executive of Welsh Rugby Union got his shorts all in a bunch because the BBC stayed with that thrilling Andy Murray vs. Rafael Nadal match at the World Tour Finals. Because of the length of that match, viewers were denied the first seven minutes of a match between the Welsh and the All-Blacks (New Zealand). It's usually tennis advocates complaining about the lack of respect they get in the big picture, so while I sympathize with the Welsh, all I can say is: a food chain is not a pretty thing, try to live with it.
Well, I'm already over my promised 1000 words, and I haven't even touched on the Aussie old guard, who are back in the news. John Newcombe called out 18-year-old Bernard Tomic for being in poor physical shape (while admitting he doesn't actually know what Tomic is—or isn't—doing, fitness-wise), and Tony Roche is back for another stint as Lleyton Hewitt's coach.
Let's leave the implications of those two items for the start of next year, when we'll be homing in on Melbourne and the Australian Open. For those of you who care, this is a spinoff of the News of the Day, which was a hard format to float because it appeared at random, and often dwelt on items (as does this piece) that are not exactly hot off the presses.
But this, or something like it, probably will become a regular feature at TennisWorld except during weeks when I'm traveling and providing on-site coverage. I'll try to keep to the word count, too. . .