The Next Episode

Tuesday, February 25, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

There may be 60-some-odd tournaments in a typical ATP tennis calendar, but the reality is that the game is a lot like a high-quality television mini-series—think The Sopranos (which I never watched), or Hell on Wheels (which I did).

In tennis, the annual mini-series has roughly nine episodes. Some are better than others, characters come and go, sometimes disappearing or playing smaller roles for entire episodes at a time—a little like the way top players are written out of the script, sometimes for lengthy stretches, right after Grand Slam events.

The first episode of tennis’ mini-series ended with the Australian Open trophy presentation. Most of the plot twists in that one revolved around the fortunes of Rafael Nadal. Just when the familiar plot-line of Nadal’s rivalry with Roger Federer seemed to be going stale, a new character, Stanislas Wawrinka, was introduced. In a compelling teaser, Wawrinka knocked off Novak Djokovic on his way to a surprising final-round win over Nadal.

As in any good mini-series, some big questions were left hanging. We were left waiting for them to be answered while we sat through the second episode, a quirky one featuring the likes of Ernests Gulbis and Fabio Fognini. That’s kind of like the Sopranos, but without the mobsters.

The new, third episode, which will be played out on hard courts over the next month, begins this week in Dubai. In it we return to the plot-line developing for two staples of the show, Djokovic and Federer. As in any well-conceived plot, one of the most fundamental issues will be that of motivation. What are these guys doing in Dubai, and why are they doing it?

Take Federer. He’s a little like the smooth rich guy who keeps wanting to get richer. When is enough enough, you may wonder? What more does the guy want? What is it that keeps him going? Is there a wooden racquet somewhere in his past called “Rosebud”?

Then there’s Djokovic, whose impetus seems more apparent. First and probably foremost, he’s embarking on this episode in a tainted state for the first time in more than three years (the Serb won the Australian Open in each of the last three years). On top of that, he’s also needful of avenging himself upon Nadal, who blazed back from a long hiatus to rip the top ranking out of a seemingly complacent Djokovic’s hands last summer.

Federer, meanwhile, is now down to No. 8 in the rankings and he hasn’t won a title since Halle last July. It was the 32-year old star’s only tournament win in 2013, and it certainly helped his cause that Nadal withdrew from the tournament after winning the French Open.

Federer has had an outstanding history in Dubai, where he spends so much of his downtime that calling him Roger of Arabia doesn’t miss the mark by much. You might even look at Dubai as kind of a bellwether for him; he’s won the tournament five times, and so what if some of the guys he beat for titles were Jiri Novak, Feliciano Lopez, and Mikhail Youzhny?

Federer has a solid history in this third episode. He’s won a grand total of 11 titles at Dubai, Indian Wells, and Miami, the two March Masters events. Those five wins in Dubai can only help his confidence, but what it does—or doesn’t—do for his motivation is a slightly more complicated question.

Parsing Federer’s comments and interviews is a fascinating pastime. Djokovic may be the one who almost automatically assumes a diplomatic modality in public, but it’s Federer whose actual statements are most like those of a charge d’affaires. He’s reasonable and tactful, he avoids colorful language, and his matter-of-fact tone invites us to accept as a given most anything he says.  

The other day, before his start (where he’s safely through the first round), Federer spoke about the vote of confidence he recently received from Pete Sampras. The American suggested that Federer might win another major, and if so it would probably be at Wimbledon. It was a charitable assessment, for accomplishing that feat would give Federer a record eight Wimbledon singles titles—one more than Sampras accumulated.

“I don't want to break his (Sampras’) records necessarily,” Federer amiably pointed out. “That's not what I'm playing for. I'm playing for myself, for my team, for my country, you name it.”

Note the deference to his friend Sampras, which is heartfelt—as well as a nice hedge against anyone trying to impose a do-or-die mandate on Federer. Sampras played on past his apparent prime partly because he wanted to flip the bird at the critics and unbelievers who had circled above him for almost two full years before he vindicated himself gloriously at the 2002 U.S. Open. But Federer doesn’t do Armageddon well. In fact, his capacity for not getting carried away, for living in the moment, and for avoiding energy-consuming vendettas borders on genius.

And did you notice the neat way Federer wove “my country” (code for Davis Cup) into his list of priorities, along with that softening “you name it” at the end of his comment, just in case anyone might hazard painting him into a corner regarding goals, or remark upon a shift away from what has been his towering, singular ambition for so long—to win Grand Slam titles?

This newfound streak of patriotism (and I don’t mean that as cynically as it may sound) will serve Federer as well as he’ll serve Switzerland, because at this point in his career it’s all about motivation. The reality is that the odds on Federer leading Switzerland to a Davis Cup victory are better than on him winning another major. Why should Federer spend the year beating himself up for not matching his previous, amazing feats? The Davis Cup must be like re-discovering a toy that was cast aside in haste some time ago and finding out what fun it is.

By broadening his focus, Federer also takes away some of the pressure that is unavoidable in his situation. That’s also where the 2016 Olympics come into play. The games are far enough in advance to guarantee that what Federer does tomorrow, or next month, or even next year, doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot.

All in all, it seems that Federer is doing an amazing job finding motivation without taking on the stress or risking the terrible ups and downs that are part and parcel of growing older in tennis. But at No. 8 in the rankings, this hard-court episode—a segment during which he’s often played the starring role—could tell us a lot about the shape of his future.

For Djokovic, this episode could loom as his opportunity to exact a little payback from his rivals. For the past three years, he assured himself that his year would be a success by winning that first major in Australia. Now, he doesn’t have that capital socked away. The looming question is, how will Djokovic react to this cruel one-two punch of losing his top ranking and his Australian Open title in such a short span?

A lot has been written about Djokovic’s decision to hire Boris Becker as his coach, a move clearly suggesting that Nole seeks to shore up his determination, if not his motivation. The irony is that Djokovic, closing on age 27, seems stuck at six Grand Slam titles—the same number won by his present Svengali. But Becker was 6-4 in major finals, while Djokovic is 6-6.

The world No. 2 ranks right behind Federer as a Dubai icon, with four titles. Combined with March’s Masters’, he’s collected nine titles during this episode. To long-time fans, it may seem like a cruel plot twist, but Djokovic and Federer are penciled in to meet in the semis despite the absence of Nadal and Andy Murray (Juan Martin del Potro is the top seed on the opposite side of the bracket).

Fans of both players can rest assured that whatever happens, there will be plenty of episodes left in the weeks to come.

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