One of the fine things about this Grand Slam is that it transpires in the most pleasant and manageable of all the Slam Cities, Melbourne. There's no 90-minute (traffic dependent) commute from the heart of the big city, to some outlying borough or outskirt where the event takes place (the other three majors are, oddly enough, nearly identical in this regard).The National Tennis Center here is just a 10-minute walk - all downhill, but then there's that slog back up at 3 a.m. - from the official media and tournament hotel, the Hilton on the Park.
The happy days when press, players and officials all congregated at the same hotel or two are long gone, but the Hilton retains a bit of that old-school vibe. When you go down to the dining room for breakfast, you're apt to share the elevator with an icon of the game, a top coach, or commentator. This morning, I was meeting Heinz Gunthardt (a former player and coach of Steffi Graf) and Peter Minder, his booth-mate for the SF Swiss national broadcasting network. At the next table over sat the BBC's John Lloyd and some of his broadcasting crew.
"What did you think of last night?" Lloyd asked.
"Man, that Federer," I replied. "I'm still scared."
Well, it was kind of true, although the shock and awe so many people felt here last night had slightly faded overnight. In fact, in short order Heinz chimed and and offered the theory that sure, The Mighty Fed had played well, but the more important theme of the night had been how god awful badly Andy Roddick had played in the ritual sacrifice conducted on the Altar of Rod Laver.
"You've got to be kidding me," I said, dismissing his contention. I said it was a career-defining match for Federer; nobody had ever schooled a top player so thoroughly on such a big stage. The night belonged to Federer, he lit the skies over all of Australia with his brilliance.
The match was about Roddick, Heinz retorted. He played the most absurd match of all time. We're lucky we didn't have a blackout!
Heinz started to recite his litany of complaints: Roddick had one overhead winner, in the entire match; how does a guy who's playing anything like acceptable attacking tennis get passed so exclusively and, perhaps more tellingly, get lobbed so infrequently? Then there were Roddick's approaches to the net. How does a guy with a huge serve, playing on a relatively fast court, win just nine of 31 approaches?
Heinz, I countered. This is one of those arguments that starts with a flawed premise (the real story of the match was Roddick, not TMF) and ends up god knows where - kind of like deciding the value of two will really be 3, and then working on a long sequence of addition. I was feeling grumpy; thankfully the waiter arrived with my coffee.
"You think?" Heinz poked around his eggs Benedict. That sneaky little Swiss was planning something, I just knew it. "Did you see the highlight reel?" (carmaker Kia, the main sponsor here, has a feature in which it quickly runs through the best shots of the match in rapid-fire sequence).
I bit on it. "No."
"Every single shot they showed was a passing shot. What does that tell you?"
"Enlighten me," I muttered.
Roddick was approaching behind ridiculous shots, Heinz said. His approaches were beyond bad, and so obvious that Roger knew where every one of them was going. And they had perfect pace for hitting passing shots. They were right in Roger's wheel house. As a player, you love it when the shot comes at you with enough pace so that all you have to do is make contact and send the ball in the direction you want it to go. If you're playing that guy, you don't give him that. Ever.
I hated to admit it, but I was starting to see Heinz's point. He went on. Roger had no depth on his shots. He must have given Andy 30 balls that were perfect for making approaches to the net. "I haven't played the game for years but I guarantee you, even I, right now, could have hit, oh, five of those short balls for winners - or at least made an approach shot that set up a winning volley or forced an error."
Heinz cited a strange statistic: Roddick made two volley winners; he made one unforced error. That was in the entire match.
At this point, Lloyd weighed in from the next table. He couldn't understand why Roddick hadn't tried to approach the net behind more kick serves that forced TMF to hit high backhand returns. And when Andy did approach the net, Lloyd said, he always went barreling right up the middle. "It was like there was a sign, saying 'This way to the net', and Andy wasn't going to stray form the path."
So we have all those passing shots, yet so few volleys. Andy was getting passed not when he was at the net, but before he got there. Playing inside the court is all well and good, but perhaps that's a little too far inside the court.
"Usually," Heinz interjected, "You get a sense of what you need to defend against. You approach, leaning one way or the other. It's like you're thinking, 'It's 70-30 that he goes down the line, or cross court. And you're ready to move in case the guy takes the low percentage option. Roddick did a great job defending the center line."
I was beginning to be persuaded. This wasn't mere Roddick bashing. This was two guys who know what they're talking about getting under the hood of a match, wrenches in hand, with their sleeves rolled up. Maybe you really do have to have been be a player to understand this stuff - or at least give a match a day to sink in before you start making judgments about it.
Now here's an interesting thing: This interpretation of events may seem like Roddick bashing, but if you think about it, it's an analysis that cracks the door and allows a ray of light to fall across the gloom in which Andy presently must be immersed. It suggests that for all of TMF's skill, his Tsunami of glory was set in motion by Roddick's earthquake of misjudgment. This doesn't diminish Federer's accomplishment: the match is already in the books as a rout, and history will only bake the numbers (6-4,6-0,6-2) and make them harder. But as a discussion, this is meta.
"Oh, did you notice?" Heinz said, innocently. "The only break Roddick got was made playing from the baseline."
"I know, Heinz," I said. "It's just something to think about. Thanks for sharing."
"I didn't see a single serve to the body, either," Heinz added.
Peter Minder, a former Olympic Games competitor for Switzerland in the discipline of Modern Pentathlon, added, "There was no release in Andy. How many times did he come in behind a forehand, just to see a passing shot flying by him. If he had released, there would have been some winners on the approach - some passing shots that Roger didn't get enough racquet on."
Somehow, the observation rang true. It seemed like Andy planned to come to the net and take his chances with the volley, only there were no volleys. The point was usually over before he had a chance them. This was both a tribute to TMF's passing shot, but just as much of a comment on the quality of Roddick's approaches. Nobody held a gun to Andy's head and told him to rush the net. This is purely a matter of judgment.
Lloyd said, "I don't know what Jimmy said to Andy right after the match. But if I know Jimmy, the first words out of his mouth, 'Don't come in here looking for sympathy."
I asked Lloyd what he meant, exactly. He said that by the middle of the second set, it was clear that Andy was thoroughly flummoxed and demoralized. He didn't help his cause by so obviously expressing his frustration and disappointment.
"Yeah," Gunthardt said. "But remember, Ivan Lendl once beat Jimmy love-and-love. With Jimmy's attitude and all."
Now here was something interesting. Connect the dots and you could be forgiven for wondering about Andy's game plan. I suppose that if the match was entirely about TMF, the point is moot. But if the analysis holding sway at breakfast had merit, you'd be entitled to second guess Andy's chosen - and startingly straightforward - path to destruction. It certainly bore less resemblance to the nuanced strategy that carried Arthur Ashe to his epic upset of Connors in the Wimbledon final of 1975 (can you say "irony") than to the reasoning that led to the Polish mounted cavalry to charge, head-on, at the armored Nazi Panzer divisions in the early stages of the Blitzkrieg. Sure you get points for courage. But none of them appear on the scoreboard.
I don't mind if everyone wants to attribute Federer's win last night to pure genius, taking the match as an ultimate statement made by our era's ultimate player. You'd have to be a true contrarian - and not in a good way - to protest that interpretation. At the same time, I know from various ecological catastrophes that massive events almost never occur for a single reason. Usually, a variety of factors act together, at precisely the most critical moment, to create a catastrophe that ends up being larger than the sum of its parts.
I think we witnessed just such a catastrophe last night.