Reading the Readers: Sept. 25

Tuesday, September 25, 2012 /by
Reading the Readers returns, in a slightly altered form. As you might have noticed, over the past week I’ve been asking that questions or comments for this column to be sent to my email. I’m hoping it will be easier to respond than it has been with the comments, most of which, of course, aren’t meant to be answered by me. 
 
So please send me whatever you have to say; I’m planning to run two or three items each Tuesday.
 
*****
 
Lucky Andy?
 
Steve,
I was happy for Murray [winning the U.S. Open]. It would have been borderline unbearable for him to have lost another Grand Slam final, especially from two sets up. And I understand that it's politically correct to celebrate Andy's perseverance and success, but I have a contrary point of view to express, if for no other reason, just to spice things up. So here goes.
 
Although he did play well, I felt this victory was the gods’ chance to give Murray a tennis version of a lifetime achievement award. He didn’t seem to be the “better” finalist, but in the high winds, Murray’s superior slice and his overall better junk-ball side, combined with the fact that Novak had to play three days running (and four of the last five), swung the balance. Add to that the fact that Rafa was out and Roger lost a bit of focus and capitulated to a white-hot Berdych. 
 
And...had the Djoko/Ferrer semi been contested simultaneously (on Louis Armstrong) with Murray/Berdych, Ferrer would probably have won, as Novak looked at sea in the tornado conditions. Then, Ferrer would have had a chance of beating Murray in the still-windy final.
 
So kudos to Andy, but I don't think this really alters the balance at the top of the game.—d
 
D, you seem to have forgotten to mention that Rod Laver is 74 years old and retired—wasn’t that a bit of good luck for Murray, too? 
 
My point is, every Grand Slam win is partly a series of occurrences beyond a player’s control. Sometimes he gets the breaks, sometimes he doesn’t, and this is true for everyone, not just Andy Murray. But your comment does raise the point of whether, or how much, we should mention extenuating circumstances in a player’s Grand Slam victories. At the extreme end, we might call this the asterisk debate.
 
You could, if you weren’t a fan of Murray’s, frame his breakthrough major this way: First, Nadal, who had beaten him at two majors in 2011, wasn’t there; second, Federer, who had beaten him in the Wimbledon final in 2012, lost the round before; third, Djokovic, who had knocked Murray out of the Aussie Open earlier this year, was hurt by the wind and had played the previous day.
 
Or, if you were a fan of Murray’s, you could frame it this way: He came back from the dead to beat Marin Cilic on a day when he was horribly off; in the semis he played a smart match in the wind to defuse a previously hot opponent, Berdych, who had a 4-2 record against him; and in the final he gutted out a five-setter over the hard-court-loving defending champion, Djokovic, who had played well in his previous two matches.
 
To me, there are no asterisked Slam titles, and there’s no need to mention any supposedly mitigating circumstances; 128 of the world’s best players set out to win seven matches, and only one of them does—that’s an accomplishment worth praising. And there was certainly no shame in the fact that Murray only had to beat one member of the Top 3 along the way. That's how it usually works for all of the top guys.
 
In Nadal’s 11 major-title runs, he's had to beat both Djokovic and Federer three times, all at the French Open, in 2006, '07, and '08. In Djokovic’s five Slam-winning runs, he's had to beat Federer and Nadal once, at the 2011 U.S. Open (Del Potro did the same thing, in reverse order, at the Open in 2009). Federer has never won a major in which he faced both Nadal and Djokovic. 
 
I'm not saying any of those guys had it easy, of course; what I am trying to say is that Murray's win wasn't a fluke of good fortune. Does it mean there will be a change at the top of the men’s game? Not necessarily, or even probably. But Murray earned this one.
 
*****
 
Where's the Nole Love?
 
Steve,
I would like you to get more in depth on the issue of Novak Djokovic’s perception among tennis fans in Western countries. 
 
Following the quarterfinal at the U.S. Open against Del Potro, a friend of mine who stayed up all night watching them (it ended around 3.00 A.M., Central European Time) was confused with the reaction of the audience for most of the match. In his words, they were on Juan Martin’s side overwhelmingly. I kind of started saying things like, 'Novak’s new to this No 1 in the world thing, it will take some time to win the hearts and minds of tennis lovers around the globe,' and so on. After all, Roger and Rafa have been there for years, so it could be that people are just not accepting changes coming all of a sudden. His reaction was that the Rafa and Roger thing is clear to him, but why against Del Potro? Novak was the defending champion, played finals there before that…
 
So the question would be, is there something missing in Novak’s tennis puzzle in terms of being appreciated the way Nadal and Federer are (soon to be joined by Andy Murray)? Has it got anything to do, in the words of Ivan Lendl, with his Eastern European origin? Is it his chest pumping, screaming and roaring and other things, not usually associated with the coolness of tennis?—Milan Vincic,
Bosnia and Herzegovina
 
Good question. I was at all four of the Djokovic-Nadal Slam finals in 2011 and 2012, and the only time Novak enjoyed the upper hand with the crowd was in the fourth set at Roland Garros—but that was probably a typical Parisian vote against Rafa more than anything else. 
 
You’re right about the fundamental issue: Federer and Nadal have been at the top significantly longer than Djokovic. Federer has been winning Slams since 2003; Nadal since 2005. While Djokovic has been in the Top 3 for five years, he didn’t really ascend to their level until 2011. It takes a while for casual tennis fans to adjust to new faces, especially in the States. As one sportswriter in the U.S. said last year, while Novak was in the middle of his winning streak: “Djokovic? I was just getting used to Nadal.” 
 
Plus, in Federer, you’re dealing with the most popular men's player, worldwide, since Bjorn Borg. Tennis fans tend to rally around an aging legend, so Federer will have that going for the rest of his career as well. And I think you can count on Rafa getting a surge of support when he finally comes back.
 
The Del Potro case was more surprising; your friend was right, the crowd in New York was ready to explode if he had won the second set. But remember that there was a sizable Argentine-South American contingent in the audience, and that this the same town where Guillermo Vilas was carried around the court after winning at Forest Hills over an American, Jimmy Connors, in 1977. 
 
Del Potro, of course, has also been a champion here. No one in New York forgets his win over Federer in ’09. And he’s very popular everywhere. You have the gentle giant thing, as well as his long struggle to come back from wrist surgery—people like the guy.
 
As far as Novak himself, it’s true that the chest beating and roaring in victory can be a turn off for the more traditional tennis segment. Ditto for his exuberant entourage. People also remember Djokovic’s younger days, when he was known for medical timeouts and retirements. When he asked for an MTO before the last game of the Open final, someone in the crowd in Ashe yelled, “Go back to your Mommy, you baby!”
 
But while I don’t think Novak will reach Federer levels of love, I think he’ll grow on people. He’s not a villain, and while he may be Eastern European, he’s no Ivan Lendl; Novak is much more of a showman than Ivan the Terrible ever was, to put it mildly. He wants to be liked. The overall feeling I get from crowds that watch him around the world is a respect for how good he is. He has won over the crowd in New York at times, with his impersonations and dance moves, and his rise to No. 1 last year made him a huge international star—winning does that. But I don’t feel like there’s a personal connection yet between Djokovic and the general tennis audience in the West and in Australia. 
 
Give him a few years, and a few ups and downs that people can relate to. Let him tone down the roars of victory as he ages. Then give him an upstart young player to challenge him, a new punk for people to hate. Novak’s too likable, in my opinion, not to be liked by tennis fans.

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