Empire Strikes Back

by: Steve Tignor | March 02, 2015

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Both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal picked up titles this week, despite their early losses at the first Slam of the year. (AP Photo)

Four weeks ago, I wrote that February was the most "frenetically insignificant" month on the tennis calendar. Twelve ATP events were squeezed into its 28 days, but with no majors, Masters or Davis Cup rounds to call its own, it was unlikely to play a prominent role in the tale of the 2015 men's season. 

With hindsight, that still seems true. Yet we may also look back and see February’s final week as the starting point for a development that will have significant consequences down the road. Significant, but not necessarily new: In each case, we were reminded that the ATP's establishment won’t be abdicating its power anytime soon, and that this season might not look all that different from the last 10. 

*****

At first, 2015 was supposed to be a year of upheaval on the men’s tour. A new generation would finally put the Big 4 out to a pasture—or at least offer a serious challenge to their decade-long reign. 

A month later, after Novak Djokovic won his fifth Australian Open, 2015 became the year of the Djoker. With an aging Roger Federer and an eternally injured Rafael Nadal both out before the semifinals in Melbourne, it looked like the Big 4 had finally been reduced to the Big 1.

At the same time, slightly lower on the tour’s totem pole, something similar was happening to another member of the golden generation. In Australia, 32-year-old David Ferrer was beaten with metronomic ease, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3, by Kei Nishikori in the fourth round. After dipping out of the Top 5 in 2014, iron man Ferru finally seemed to be softening with age. He had certainly slipped below Nishikori. The 25-year-old won each of their four meetings in 2014 by beating Ferrer at his own doggedly laborious baseline game.

So what happened this past weekend? All of our assumptions from January, and from the two paragraphs above, were flipped on their heads. All of the wise thoughts about how “father time is undefeated” were locked away in the cliché drawer again. And all of tennis was reminded, in case they had forgotten, that Federer, Nadal and Ferrer aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Even at their advanced ages—Rafa, who will be 29 in three months, is the youngest—they still have titles to win and world-beating tennis to play.

Ferrer’s title in Acapulco this weekend was likely the least significant of the three in the long term, but it was the most remarkable. It was Ferrer’s fourth win at the Mexican Open, but his first since the tournament switched to hard courts last year. More important, and hard to believe, it was Ferrer’s third tournament win of 2015, and it improved his record to an ATP-best 18-1. Even at 32, he was able to win on clay in Rio one week and on asphalt in Acapulco the next. In those 10 matches, Ferrer outlasted 10 younger opponents, and capped his run with a 6-3, 7-5 win over Nishikori. He only got stronger as he went.

"Tonight I played my best match this week," Ferrer said after his win over Nishikori. "I played very aggressive, without mistakes.... In important moments, he made more mistakes and I took my chances. I feel very confident with my tennis now."

If Ferrer has lost a step, Nishikori couldn’t find it.

"I tried to be aggressive," Kei said, "but I was missing too much. Especially with this slower surface, he gets everything."

Ferrer may never make it back into the Top 5 or reach another Grand Slam semifinal, but he’s still ready to take anything that his younger, less-willful opponents give him. Ferru’s body won’t last forever, but his mind is aging gracefully.

*****

The same, and more, can be said for Federer and Nadal. If Ferrer has spent 2015 putting a halt to a seemingly inevitable decline, Rog and Rafa spent last week turning the clocks back to their primes. 

Both were playing on favored courts, in parts of the world where they have had success in the past. Federer won his seventh title on the fast hard surface in Dubai, while Nadal won his 46th clay-court title, in Buenos Aires. Both were utterly different players from the ones we had seen stumble out of Australia.

After his third-round loss in Oz, I wondered about Federer’s momentum. Over the last three years, he had become streakier than when he was No. 1: He was up in 2012, down in 2013 and back up again in 2014. At 33, was that positive momentum sustainable in the face of a disappointing Grand Slam defeat, when he knew he wouldn’t have a chance at another Slam for four months? Federer's answer was a definitive yes. He didn’t drop a set in five matches in Dubai, and he closed it by outhitting the world No. 1, 6-3, 7-5. 

Federer, in what has become his characteristic late-career style, was aggressive, and he stayed that way even when it wasn’t working for him. He hit 37 winners to Djokovic’s 19, but was just nine of 21 at the net. The difference, as it so often is, was his serve. Federer hit 11 aces and saved all seven break points he faced. Serving at 3-4, 15-40 in the second, with Djokovic gaining steam from the baseline, Federer hit four straight unreturnables to hold. And while he had his struggles at the net, he put a forehand volley on the baseline to save a set point at 4-5. Aggressiveness has its own rewards.

"I congratulate Roger," Djokovic said. "Today he was a better player; there wasn’t much I could do."

"I think the first set belonged to me," Federer said, "Whereas the second set belonged to him more... It seemed like the moment I wasn’t serving great, he created chances for himself and put a lot of pressure on me."

That was Federer the realist talking; but Federer the overjoyed champion, who said he couldn’t wait to play in front of his fans again, also had his say yesterday.

"I’m so unbelievably young," Federer said, "and people keep telling me how old I am. I’m very happy to be playing so well."

*****

A day later and a few thousand miles away, Federer’s most famous rival echoed his sentiments.

"All titles are special," Nadal said after beating his friend, Juan Monaco, 6-4, 6-1 in Buenos Aires for his first title of 2015. "But I’m really happy because I have not been a champion for a long time. Against Monaco, I played my best of the week. That’s great news for me because I’m trying to gain more confidence."

Nadal, in my opinion, actually played his best tennis of the week, and of the year, in dismantling of another Argentine, Federico Delbonis, 6-1, 6-1 in the quarterfinals. It felt like the breakthrough he had been waiting for, the match where he stops thinking and starts flowing across the dirt again. Nadal's forehand had troubled him the previous week in Rio, but he let it fly with abandon, and assurance, to both corners against Delbonis. With that shot clicking, everything else fell into place. His drop shots were well timed, his volleys were well placed, his backhand was a weapon, and he was a step ahead in the cat-and-mouse rallies at the net. 

Sliding and slugging, Nadal was back in his element on clay, and he knew it. By the time he stabbed a backhand for an improbable winner against Delbonis and celebrated by throwing two fists in the air, any lingering thoughts of Rafa’s decline, like Federer's and Ferrer's, had disappeared in the red dirt.

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