First Ball In, 8/11: Caught at the Finish Line

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Thirty-somethings Roger Federer and Venus Williams both came up just short at the Rogers Cup. (AP Photos)

There’s no stopping now on the road to New York. The pros spent the last few days heading south from Canada to the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio—more likely on a plane, or a private jet, than the fabled, and apparently mothballed, blue U.S. Open Series bus. Before we join them, I’ll take a last look back at the weekend in Montreal and Toronto. Here are four things that stood out.


Finaled, Again

Last year, John McEnroe was asked the question that everyone in tennis is asked these days: Does Roger Federer have another Grand Slam title in him? McEnroe’s answer was interesting, and is looking prescient at the moment. He said he thought that Federer could definitely get to more major finals, but that winning one was unlikely. He cited a 35-year-old Andre Agassi’s loss to Federer in the 2005 U.S. Open final as the scenario he could see playing out for Federer himself over the next couple of years. It’s one thing to reach a final in your 30s, McEnroe said, and another thing to win it. He thought that one of the other top guys would usually be there to stop him.

At the time, the distinction seemed too thin to me. A final is just one match, after all; if you can win six of them, why can’t you win a seventh? But so far McEnroe has been on the money. Federer, after looking so good for two weeks at Wimbledon, lost the final to one of those top guys, Novak Djokovic. But it wasn’t just Wimbledon. Federer has reached seven finals this year and lost five of them, including all three Masters finals he’s played. He lost to Djokovic in Indian Wells, Stan Wawrinka in Monte Carlo, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Toronto. In Indian Wells and Monte Carlo, he won the first set, but couldn’t win a second.

Tsonga had a huge week in Toronto, obviously, but he doesn’t qualify as part of the ATP’s top tier, and Federer had won seven of their last eight matches. It seems as if winning a big final in itself has become a problem for Federer. There’s the physical aspect, of course; Federer at 33 had to play back-to-back matches over the last few days, and he followed an evening session Saturday with a 3:00 P.M. start on Sunday. But as he said, he didn’t lose because he was tired. He said he actually felt better on Sunday than he had on Saturday. 

“It’s just, like, it wasn’t my day, man,” Federer finally concluded on his way out the interview-room door.

Federer cited his inability “to create enough opportunities” on his opponent’s serve. That was similar to what he said after the Wimbledon final. In both matches, Federer’s return was his weak spot. He couldn’t muster any break points against Tsonga, even though Jo made only 50 percent of his first serves, and he couldn’t break Djokovic for three sets on Centre Court. 

Maybe that’s all it takes, and maybe that’s what McEnroe, a fellow champion who aged, knew last year. Physically, you can’t quite handle the fastest shot in the game, the serve, the way you once did. Mentally, knowing that fact, knowing that you aren’t in your prime anymore, and that you aren’t quite what you once were, you can’t muster the confidence—the sense of entitlement—you need to cross the finish line in first. You have the speed, but your younger opponents have the kick.


Nalby—With a Smile

Can we now say that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is the new David Nalbandian? Jo’s Toronto run, through Djokovic, Andy Murray, Grigor Dimitrov, and Federer, reminded many of us of Nalby’s legendary runs at the Madrid and Paris Masters in the fall of 2007. In Madrid, the Argentine beat Rafael Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer (as well as Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro); in Paris, he beat Federer and Nadal again. 

Tsonga now has 11 career titles and two Masters, matching Nalbadian’s 11 and two. Jo has reached one major final, the same number Nalbandian did. Jo has made one ATP World Tour Final; Nalbandian won one. Jo’s career-high ranking is No. 5; Nalbandian’s was No. 3. Jo’s career record, which is currently 307-141, is in the ballpark of Nalby’s 383-191.

Each had, and has, a strong following among tennis fans—Jo for his explosive game and infectious personality; Nalbandian for the purity of his ball-striking (his personality, maybe not so much). The only problem with this comparison is that every time Nalbandian gave his fans hope for a deep Grand Slam run, he dashed those hopes immediately. After Toronto, Tsonga fans are hoping for better from Jo.


Venus Wasn’t the Only One Playing

That sounds a little obvious to bring up, but viewers of ESPN might not have been aware of this basic fact on Sunday. While Venus’ surprise appearance in the final was clearly the big story for fans watching on the U.S. network, ESPN’s commentators, especially Pam Shriver, were over the top in their focus on her. I like Shriver as a commentator, and I was as happy as anyone to see Venus do well last week. But I don’t like to hear an announcer openly root, and even coach, one player, and narrate the match strictly from her side. A pro tournament isn’t the Olympics. Venus’ opponent, Agnieszka Radwanska, was hardly an unknown. She was the higher-ranked player in this match, and, like everyone else, she has her own story. It was at least worth a mention. (And yes, I did write about Aga yesterday.)

As far as the broadcast of the men’s final, I think it’s time to retire the phrase “I’ve never heard Roger be so vocal on court.” Federer was indeed vocal on Sunday, but he’s been vocal many times before, and he’ll be vocal again. 


The Unretiring

“For some reason in tennis we always do that to our players. It’s weird. We don’t encourage them to stick around. It’s like ‘get out of here.’ So I’m not getting out of here.”

That’s what Venus Williams said after her close loss to Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon in June. So far Williams has been as good as her words. Based on her performance in Montreal, she’s not going anywhere soon, except back up the rankings. 

Watching Venus and Federer in triumph and defeat over the weekend, I thought about Venus’ statement and how true it was. We watch these two champs play, and all we can wonder and ask is when they’ll quit playing. Yet Federer is just 33, and Venus is just 34. We’ve got them out the door at an age when many people’s lives are just getting started; according to the laws of the United States, neither is wise enough yet to run for president.

But by now they are wise about the ways of tennis. Yesterday Federer finished his post-match speech by smiling and telling the Toronto crowd to "Take it easy." Venus, on her way out to make her own concession speech, took a moment to high-five the ball boy who accompanied her there. Federer and Williams seemed to be saying: Losses happen, but you won't last long in this game if you don't let them go and move on. That's the beauty of not retiring: There's always another chance to do what you love to do.

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