by Pete Bodo
File it under the heading, How Far the Mighty Hath Fallen—the ATP website had this strangely hysterical headline running on its home page carousel: Murray's Back! Scot Snaps Losing Streak. . .
It's not that I don't wish Murray all the best, or took any pleasure out of that awful string of losses he's suffered since losing the Australian Open final to Novak Djokovic. But I'd say this is a bit of an over-reaction, although probably a measure of just how much the ATP, along with most of the rest of us, would like to see Murray back in the mix near the top. It's especially true this week, in Monte Carlo, where the absence of Djokovic has threatened to make this another of those Can Federer Beat Nadal on Clay? yawners.
No offense, Federer fans. Nor you Rafa fans, either, for that matter. The bottom line is that I've seen that particular movie before, and the only thing that might make it more interesting is the one thing that's least likely to happen—a win by Federer over Nadal. You want to argue that a win by Federer over Nadal later this week wouldn't be seismic? It would unleash a thundering volley of headlines (Federer Halts Nadal Streak! Roger Breaks the Bank in Monte Carlo!), as well as help No. 3 Federer win back a large chunk of the turf he's conceded to the present No. 1.
Don't think it can't happen. In fact, it's just the kind of thing that has happened, just when everyone's been lulled to sleep by the predictability of it all. Let's face it, Federer has been largely written off by many pundits and all but the most besotted of his fans. I confess to being as guilty as anyone in this enterprise, but really it's less because of Federer's form than the way Novak Djokovic has muscled and elbowed his way onto the stage. The game in general doesn't accomodate the third wheel very well, as Jimmy Connors might have told you back when Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe decided to cut him out of their little rivarly.
It's a little like that today, with Djokovic, Nadal and The Mighty Fed in a volatile, three-way mix that many not be as settled as it appears. Federer is the oldest—by far—of the three, as well as the most successful. And fair or not, there's a measure of Federer fatigue out there—how could there not be? In Djokovic, fans have a strikingly different sort of personality, someone who's gruffer, less polished and more earthy. Djokovic is poised somewhere between the extremely physical and boyish appeal of Nadal, and the sophisticated, adult vibe projected by Federer. Neither neanderthal nor metrosexual, Djokovic covers a lot of that middle ground and is different enough from both his peers to make a good rival for either.
These days, though, that quote delivered by Andy Roddick a few weeks ago keeps knocking around in my head. I have to paraphrase what he said about Federer's current form (or is it, "of Federer's critics?"): You'd better be very good at your job if you're going to criticize Federer for the way he's doing his. . .
The statistics underscore Roddick's point. Federer won Doha; Nadal hasn't won a title since last fall. Federer may be 0-3 against Djokovic this year, but Nadal is 0-2, and both of those losses came in finals (Indian Wells and Miami). In the three biggest tournaments of the year so far, Federer has lost to Djokovic twice (Australian Open and Indian Wells semis) and Nadal once (Miami semis). Nadal has lost to David Ferrer (quarterfinals in Australia) and Djokovic (finals at Miami and Indian Wells). The only takeaway from this is that Djokovic is killing both these guys.
So what happens now that he's out of the equation, sitting out Monte Carlo?
The elephant in the room of this particular conversation is the surface—that red clay that Nadal so loves, and on which he's won the last six titles offered at Monte Carlo. It gives great comfort to Nadal's fans, and undoubtedly to Nadal himself, that he's back on his turf. But as any Federer fan can tell you, all good things come to an end, and at some point so will Nadal's invincibility on clay, as well as his superiority at Monte Carlo. And for years now, Federer has been the obvious No. 2 on clay, less disadvantaged by his skill set (or lack thereof) than by the way his game matches up with Nadal's.
Federer is very well-positioned to re-insert himself into conversation in Monte Carlo. The only player he's never mastered on clay is Nadal, but he's played him on the surface plenty and beaten him now and then. When it comes to Nadal, I've always believed that his respect—a respect tinged with awe—for Federer is sincere and deeply felt. Given that Nadal has doubts of his own to deal with, no matter how comfortable he is at Monte Carlo, I'd say Federer is pretty well-positioned to make trouble for him.
After all, Federer has absolutely nothing to lose here; he goes in unfettered by questions or challenges to his status (Djokovic settled that issue weeks ago when he took over the No. 2 ranking). And with all the conversation centering on Nadal and clay, or Djokovic and his recent successes, Federer has a right to feel aggrieved as well as motivated. Looking at his draw, I can see Nicolas Almagro posing a big obstacle, and No. 4 seed David Ferrer an even larger challenge. It's unlikely Federer could get by either of those two men with a B-game on clay, which means that if he does make the final, he ought to be a threat.
Revenge, as we know, is a dish best served cold. And that's the only way Federer could serve it up in the here and now at Monte Carlo.