Roger Federer has his work cut out tomorrow, no doubt about it. Both he and his semifinal opponent Novak Djokovic dodged large-caliber bullets in the quarterfinals, and neither of them has played with overpowering confidence and focus during this second week of the French Open.
And let's be frank about this: Both of them are patsies being set up for Rafael Nadal, who has once again answered the call on the red clay of Roland Garros.
We all know that anything can happen, but probably won't—not with Nadal, and his rivals, in their present states of effectiveness. So that takes a little bit of the edge off this rematch of their last U.S. Open semifinal, in which Federer had two match points against Djokovic—two points that might have dramatically altered the narrative for 2011.
For had Federer won that match, Djokovic's year (not to mention that of Federer or Nadal) would look very different—not least because Nole would have been hard pressed to explain two losses to Federer in three major events. That didn't happen, of course, and we now know that Djokovic's successful, electric response to those match points was just part of an ongoing series of remarkable recoveries and improbable feats, a saga enriched by another episode just the other day, when Djokovic survived four match points to defeat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
A part of me would prefer to see Djokovic win this semi, to spare us another version of a spectacle that has become somewhat disheartening—the sight of Nadal beating the tar out of Federer in yet another French Open final. I'm just being honest here, and of course we all know that anything can happen. But it probably won't. Mind you, I have nothing against Nadal and stand in awe of his accomplishments at Roland Garros. And I have come to praise Federer, not to bury him.
Yesterday morning, when I flicked on the TV, Federer was visiting with the ESPN crew, including Darren Cahill and Brad Gilbert, at their on-site anchor desk. I sipped my coffee and stopped to watch. I didn't take notes, and in truth nothing Federer or anyone else said was particularly earth-shattering. So I'm comfortable paraphrasing Federer, who did a little recap of his come-from-behind win over Juan Martin del Potro, and then talked about his chances. He was incredibly relaxed, almost jocular, as he revealed his disappointment in how slow the court seemed to be this year. And he seemed very sincere when he suggested that the conditions, and the form of the contenders, really pointed to a successful title defense by Nadal. He sounded more like a commentator than the next guy drifting into Djokovic's cross hairs.
The talking heads tried to draw him out, of course, looking (albeit with no special insistence) for a juicy headline or lead-in quote. But there really wasn't any forthcoming. Federer was basically talking about how the odds were stacked against him in a frank, knowing, and all-is-fair-in-love-and-tennis way. And I just had to marvel at the guy—at how even-handedly and well, reasonably, he addressed the issues and the situation in which he found himself.
I suppose some people would have wished to see more fire in his tone and words, but let's not forget that a lot of fire was spent, usually unseen, in that quest that ultimately netted him 16 Grand Slam singles titles. I imagine some would have liked for him to be disparaging or snide about his rivals. But Federer doesn't do disparaging and snide. I think some people, the sort who are so irresistibly attracted to Nadal, would have expected more passion. Federer's reputation suffers a bit, unfairly, because he isn't more passionate. Passion is sexy. Passion sells. Passion seduces. Just look at the fuss created when Federer whirled on a spectator the other day—she had yelled "out" while a Federer sliced backhand was still afloat—and yelled back, "Shut up." Passion can be shallow and vulgar; never underestimate the power of those qualities.
The last time I checked on YouTube, "Federer Yells Shut Up" had generated quarter of a million page views.
You could interpret some but not all of this as owing to the fact that at age 30, Federer is calmly coasting toward the finish line of career, the heavy lifting long completed. Sure he can relax now, with world No. 1 Djokovic a mere 11 Grand Slam titles behind him, and No. 2 Nadal pre-occupied trying to get Nole out of his face. But I don't really think that does the man justice. The word "special" is applied these days to almost any schmo who manages to penetrate close to the center of our radar, so I wouldn't insult Federer by applying it to him. In fact, in some ways he's the anti-special.
Great players are supposed to be complicated, a la John McEnroe or Martina Navratilova. Or detached and inward-turned, a la Pete Sampras, Steffi Graf, or Bjorn Borg. Roger Federer is simultaneously uncomplicated and outward-turning, a deadly anti-special combination. Roger Federer is regular. When it comes to filling out that line on the job application, he writes "champion" and then goes and sits down with all the others to await his turn to be called. What makes Federer special is that he's anti-special.
That might lead you to think that at this point a tournament like the one underway in Paris is something of a lark. There's no question he's been there and done that. There's no question that his prospects are at best grim: Meet the hammer of the tennis gods in Djokovic and, if you're lucky, earn the dubious privilege of getting torn to pieces by Nadal. It doesn't sound like it's worth getting all dressed up for. Can it be that the very impossibility of the situation liberates Federer?
I've tried for my entire career not to be besotted with every pretty game that comes along. I've poked fun at Federer for showing up at Wimbledon looking like he just leaped off the cover of the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, just as I've criticized Nadal for his complaints about the calendar or blue clay, and Djokovic for his early-career penchant for quitting. But the more time goes on, the more I respect Federer, and the grace and ease with which he carries both the benefits and disadvantages of his position. It's the very fact that he's anti-special that makes him special.
I don't know if some dimension or aspect of that quality can be made to work for him in the semis, and I just have to wince when I ponder how short-lived his joy might be should he manage to take down Djokovic. But you know the old cliché about how it's not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game.
And nobody, but nobody, has played the game as admirably as Federer—in every way imaginable, on and off the court.