The Two Versions of Roger Federer

Having recently turned my focus to tennis on this blog (tennis has always been a first love outside of social media), I have become much more aware of the drama surrounding Roger Federer.  In my naiveté, he was purely a tennis great with a persuasive GOAT case.  Like most, I loved his style of play, his dominance and the way he carries himself (I also like how he has generally always handled the press; you can ask him almost anything it seems.  “Your forehand was really effective today, Roger.”  “It was. I was able to control the match by keeping Thomas on the baseline, prevent him from getting too comfortable.”  Love the candor).  Roger is a confident (borderline arrogant) tennis player.  He is not afraid to agree with the typical glowing assessments of his game.  And there have been many since so many of us professional and amateur spectators have fallen in love with Roger Federer’s tennis; at some point at least a mild case of admiration.

In my case, I certainly enjoyed his run (continue to enjoy his more recent “limited” brand of world class tennis); however, once the more down-to-earth reviews (my own) hit the press, following some pretty clear examples of his demise, I focused more on other players and story-lines.  Tennis has a tremendous history; Roger, for the true tennis fan, has a strangle-hold on about five or six years of that history.  The 17 majors come primarily from that short HISTORICALLY PRODUCTIVE duration, with a couple of late Wimbledons (2009, 2012) a gift French from Soderling (2009) and an Australian Open (2010) that complete his majors accomplishments.

Pretty remarkable that he has been able to stay so hard-charging in these more recent years, but those numbers clarify that he has won only one major in the last five years.  So, again, although fans might want to create a much longer and dominant run by the Swiss craftsman, his was a more defined 4-5 year period of dominance.

He took-up residence at the top of the mountain as the previous era waned and gave way to this new comer.  A very interesting foreshadow is Federer’s match with Sampras in the fourth round of Wimbledon 2001.  Pete is the defending champion, trying to win his fifth straight and secure his eighth Wimbledon Championship, the most all-time (which would have extended Pete’s Wimbledon dominance – his seven, of course, was equaled by Roger).  Think of the significance of that match; Roger secured his tie with Pete, in effect.  That was the last we saw of Pete on that particular grass, and the 19-year-old Fed Express was just getting ready to take-off.

Another big match that speaks to this generational transition is the 2005 U.S. Open final between Roger and Agassi.  This is a great example of Roger’s styled dominance – any shot from the Swiss, even from a defensive position, becomes lethally offensive.  Federer actually beat Agassi in the 2004 U.S. Open quarter finals, as well.  The 2004 match went five sets while the 2005 one went four, again, echoing the gradual demise of the previous (Pete/Andre/et al) era.  Roger had conquered and ruled the court assertively by 2004-2005.

Indeed, for tennis fans, by 2005 the Roger Federer show was running strong with each successive year producing more of the same – dominance on three of the four surfaces, firm grip on #1, marketing darling, dashing, brilliant and so on.  Books were being written about him; formidable literary talent ventured explanations of his sublime, almost effortless control of the game.

On my end, I would routinely wake either at 2:00am to watch an Aussie Open final, or at some other odd hour to see the French or Wimbledon finals live as Roger contested another challenge to his peak supremacy.  This was men’s tennis during this period of 2004 through 2007 or so.

But then the fortress began to crumble.  I would love to research video and recall specific matches and changes in style, commentary on how Roger’s vulnerability, which began on the clay vs. Nadal, spread to other surfaces and tournaments.  In other words, this would be an interesting project: to chart the shocking (felt premature) realization that Federer was dying.

I chuckle at the suggestion that Federer/Nadal 2008 Wimbledon is the greatest match of all time.  This is my favoritism rearing its head; I was enjoying the dynasty.  Roger was the embodiment of tennis at the time, and his reign at Wimbledon was picture perfect. Roger losing to Nadal on grass seemed like a bad tennis joke.  This high energy Spaniard can have his clay, but beat Roger on grass?  Wow.  It was almost like an Albert Costa or Gaston Gaudio winning Wimbledon.  No thanks.  Greatest match of all time?  Too many others to consider.  I prefer some of the Sampras/Agassi battles, or Sampras/Rafter or one of my earliest tennis memories (and probably my greatest): Borg v. McEnroe 1980.  I was a huge Borg fan, couldn’t stand Johnny Mac and my mother would make me leave the room when my emotions got too heated, especially in that fourth set tie-break and epic fifth set.  Hell, I was twelve years-old.

But I digress.  Federer’s castle was crumbling.  By the time Nadal was able to kick Roger’s ass on the grass, yikes.  This was getting all too real.  This is seven years ago, today.  That’s a long time ago, folks.  From what I recall, the 2009 Australian Open was the icing on the cake.  Roger had every potential tool to keep Rafa at bay; the growing lopsidedness of the rivalry (on ALL surfaces) was starting to baffle tennis fans.  Some of us got beyond the baffle.

What really baffled me at first was Roger’s stubbornness, beyond his own mental weakness, against Rafa.  If you look at some of the early Roger, against Pete at 2001 Wimbledon, for instance, you see incredible touch at the net, an amazing variety of shot-making for a 19-20 year-old.  Fast-forward to Agassi 2005; you see Roger so dominant he is staying more back-court, showing such incredible fore and back-hand ground stroke genius that he doesn’t have to come to the net as much.  But against Nadal, I would argue he needed to use more variety, take some pace off the ball, go to the net (I understand this is a scary proposition given Nadal’s ability to pass), make Nadal think.  Trading ground strokes with the bull was a fairly unsuccessful strategy, in my humble opinion.  I recall a point in that AO five-setter (Rafa’s only AO title by the way) where Roger was making this suggested change in strategy, which was working.  But he’d return to form, try to use pace to beat the game’s most physical presence.  You could see Roger’s frustration.  He so wanted to beat Rafa, over-power him. 2009. The verdict: Rafa owns Roger.

Roger Federer campaign officially over.  Clean-up after yourselves and get the hell off the top of the mountain.

Again, this is six or seven years ago (the ’08 Wimbledon should’ve been fair warning).  Sure, there is frustration since some of us thought Roger could have handled his tennis differently, but oh well.  Borg’s reign ended, Mats’, Boris’, Stefan’s, Lendl’s, Pete’s, Andre’s, as well.

Seeing some of the recent (continued) discussion of the aforementioned Fedhead phenomenon, I’m just surprised there is still so much Roger fervor.  It’s been a long time since he carried the proverbial big stick, especially at the majors.  This sort of nostalgia seems a bit delusional, a tad counter-productive.  Need less to say, we are in a golden era of tennis and other players have and are making quite a name for themselves.  Fedheads, look at the calendar.

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Having said all of that, Roger has still made a great living on tour since 2008-09; this has become a different version of Roger Federer.  Not dominant.  He’s a more benign feature of the game, a tour elder hopefully teaching, advising for the benefit of the sport.  Admittedly, there is still fodder for these Fed fanatics to clamor for more, renew their hope, etc.  In reality, the Federer of the five or six year dominance was just an earlier version, a different player.

For many, his “dominance” seems much longer (the Fedhead would probably argue) because of this newer version of Roger.  One could say that Roger has simply aged and become less a force in sport.  Or one could say that Federer has added this other dimension to his greatness.  He went through a lot (along with his fans) in that period where the physical and mental fortitude began to fail.  I would argue he came-out the other side a different version of Roger.  He is not at all the same player he was.  Keep in mind, we had five or so years of the first version, and five or so years of the second.  Is the second hurting or helping his legacy?  That’s where this discussion eventually goes.

The difficult-to-define-GOAT-distinction is a popular topic in many sports, including tennis.  Looking at things objectively (and using my own eyes), I was in the Sampras camp for a while.  Then Roger made a great case, as well.  One of the biggest points in support of Roger was the position of tennis itself, the institution, the industry.  Laver, McEnroe, Borg, et al., seemed to agree Roger is the GOAT.  I concluded this has to partly be a result of the fact that they have seen Roger play in person.  His greatness was visible on the screen, but how are all of these historians of the game (and great players) so definitive on this huge recognition?  It does not take an historian to suggest, for example, that Roger dominated a soft men’s field.  Go look at the results (If there was no Roger, Andy Roddick would have ten majors?  Holy crap ;)  That’s what puzzled me: the seeming consensus of so many intelligent and experienced tennis fans.

Living in southern California, I have access to Indian Wells, a great tennis venue that attracts a great men’s field (I would say women too, but the great Williams sisters boycotted this tour stop for years, so there you have it).  In 2012 I got to see the Roger/Rafa semi-final match and the final between Roger and John Isner.  The weather included stormy winds with on and off rain.  Pretty miserable actually.  But when the tennis did resume, Roger put on a show.  I was reminded of how Roger played in that windy U.S. Open final vs. Agassi, a match that I know many Fedheads probably point to for evidence (keep in mind, Agassi was 35 years old at the time).

Roger dominated Rafa 6-3 6-4 and, as you can imagine, it wasn’t that close.  Two things jumped out at me: watching Roger play live, in person, gave me a different perspective.  His court vision, his footwork, his very obvious feel for the game was incredible.  There was a lightness about, a lot of ewwwwws and ahhhhhs.  Roger dazzled the crowd and his opponent.  Secondly, as the weather worsened, Roger’s game adjusted and rose to the occasion.  His game seemed to get better in the worsening conditions.  This says a lot about his fundamentals, the sustainability of his game which we see as a huge part of his success in 2015.  On the other hand, Rafa was befuddled, lacked confidence, couldn’t execute much at all.  This impressed me and gave me some insight into the GOAT claims made about this guy; the beauty of his argument – I know this is cliche at this point – is pretty persuasive.  This match also informs my position on Rafa.  Great player, even better competitor.  But limited.

Further more, I saw the men’s semi-finals at this year’s Indian Wells.  In the quarters, the day before I arrived, I watched (with dismay) Milos Raonic destroy Nadal (if Nadal had won, we would’ve been rewarded with Djok/Murray and Rog/Rafa semi-finals).  This beat-down along with his 2015 French and Wimbledon are enough to say the clay master is done.  If he comes back from this abomination, we should all have many many questions about his preparation and medical treatment.  Raonic destroyed him.  Nadal was 10-15 feet behind the baseline for the Canadian’s serve, and just looked tired and unfit – an utter mess.

I only clarify this last point because of what I saw in person the following day.  Roger toyed with Raonic.  The Swiss’ tennis display was so sophisticated, so brilliant.  Raonic was beaten easily, looked lost, like he didn’t quite belong.  It was incredible, again, to see Roger put together shots that seemed so strategic and improvisational at the same time.  One can begin to understand, I thought, the sheer joy and delight of this man’s greatness when it is seen in person.

He was great for the eyes, for the tennis exhibition, the purity of the sport.  This guy is not winning any majors.  But he was worth every penny (so was watching Novak DOMINATE the men, including Roger).  Roger is a purist’s GOAT.  People who say Rafa is GOAT have a point, but in the end are probably missing a critical part of that calculus.  Watch Roger play now.  He is clarifying the argument, perhaps.  It’s not all about majors, perhaps.

But getting too excited about Roger’s tennis exhibition has a flaw, I admit: that’s most likely true of watching other players in person.  And this was an ATP 1000 event, so it’s played in the best-of-three format.  Roger is definitely relevant in this format still.  Sure, Novak beat him in the Indian Wells final the following day, but Roger has consistently put himself in that position through out the years, including 2015.

In end, that’s the complication of Roger Federer: there are two versions.  His time at the top is over, has been for about six or seven years; again, he has only one major in the last five years.  However, where most players (even the great ones) fade away and out of the game entirely, Roger hasn’t.  He’s perhaps more an ambassador to the game at this point.  The man can still play.  At 33, almost 34, what he is doing is as remarkable as other players (Nadal) spiraling out of the sport before they reach 30 (on a side-note, we have heard Novak say he is confident he can play high-level tennis for several more years.  Saying he can dominate for 2-3 more years is quite reasonable.  Not all 28 year-olds are the same, as I argued earlier.  Like Roger, Novak could have a similarly extended impact on the sport).

This second version of Roger concerns his “longevity” (ala 2015 Indian Wells and Wimbledon – evidence of his spectacular game), which has underscored his earlier dominance.  May be this  has confused fans.  He’s not the same player, but this adds to his legacy and the confidence of that Roger-is-GOAT-contingent.

He is on a long farewell tour, so to speak.  Part of the (reasonable) tennis fan says Roger can not win the big tournaments anymore, hasn’t for a long time, he’s done; another part says he is still so magnificent on the court, playing the game we love so well, so polished, still somehow so brilliantly.  Because of that, he still gives people hope, I suppose.

Can you blame the Fedheads for their hope (false belief)?  Does it border on celebrity worship?  I suppose you can do whatever you want.  Either way, Roger continues to delight us and teach us about the game; and, despite his inability to go five sets with some of today’s younger athletes, he helps keep some of this next generation honest and accountable to the game’s tradition and class. Hopefully, these youngsters paid attention while the sport thrived in this golden age.

More Tennis Analysis

Tennis fans are in full hypothetical mode (some might say there’s a lot of hype, too), looking at comparisons, history, using common sense and bias to try and figure-out where Djokovic ends-up in the big picture of men’s tennis.  A very common approach is to compare Nole to Federer and Nadal, looking at age, majors accumulated, at what pace and so on.  One source, included a few particular points to consider.  This article more or less fired a few warning shots across the bow of those wanting to believe that Djokovic can “make hay” over the next two years and equal or exceed, at least, Nadal. Such comparisons make sense, especially when the players are contemporaries.  But such comparisons are equally as hypothetical since we’re still, in the end, trying to predict the future.

I include just these two points (of the article’s seven).  If anything, it’s fodder for analysis and conjecture, my two best friends!

1. “DJOKOVIC JUST TURNED 28. AFTER TURNING 28, ROGER FEDERER AND RAFAEL NADAL HAVE COMBINED FOR TWO MAJOR VICTORIES, BOTH FEDERER’S. Granted, Nadal has been 28 for all of one year and Federer may not be done yet either. But Djokovic is approaching the age where the Slams don’t come in bunches, which is why catching the others may be tough. Djokovic got out to a slower start winning two Slams by the time he turned 24, compared to five for Federer and seven for Nadal. At 28, the tally was Federer (15), Nadal (14) and Djokovic (9).”

Looks pretty grim for Djokovic when you put it like that!  I remember the same sort of discussion surrounded players and their significant others having babies.  Once a baby is born, forget about winning a major.  The most obvious flaw in this statistic is the lack of context.  No doubt, age is an issue and 28 is not “young” in professional men’s tennis.  But it certainly isn’t “old” either.  Federer’s numbers are pretty untouchable at this point for either Nadal or Djokovic.  I think we can add a little balance to Federer’s numbers by pointing-out that between 2004 and 2007 he was dominating a fairly soft men’s game.  Having watched a lot of tennis during this time, or even looking back at some “top tens” from that era (time/distance provides a little perspective) suggests he took advantage of some very beatable foes.  His 3 and 4 set wins in major finals is pretty telling, as much as looking at who he was beating.  HOWEVER, that does not take away from what he did.  17 majors is incredible.  As for that age, 28 for Federer almost certainly coincides with when he found Nadal and Djokovic in his draw, having to face these guys regularly.  Of course, his win percentage plummeted.  He was no longer #1 and we all saw how clear this case was made time and again in some of those H2H with Nadal, especially.

With Nadal, I will just say that he’s overmatched in this comparative analysis.  He’s a clay court guy.  He’s lost twice in ten years at Roland Garros.  So, there’s his incredible advantage.  He’s 28 now and he looks pretty much done on all surfaces.  His brand of tennis, which includes limited skill-set and propensity for injury, isn’t sustainable.  So 28 in Nadal’s case means something different from what it means in Federer’s case.  This age comparison seems legit on the surface, but I think the contextual analysis suggests it’s just as flimsy as one saying Djokovic is going to win 15 majors.

Djokovic at 28 has his own set of circumstances.  Like Nadal, he does have a fairly physical style of play from the baseline.  But almost anyone can see the similarities end there.  Djokovic’s flexibility along with his ability to stay pretty injury-free make him a very different 28 year-old, not to mention that his game is evolving, improving.  I don’t know the details of his diet and fitness routines, but we know he’s done significant work in these areas (gluten-free, etc.) to establish a healthy long-term system for competitive tennis.  In other words, he and Nadal are not at all comparable in this way at the age of 28.

As for the similarities to Federer: again, Federer at 28 had two all-time greats emerging and starting to beat him consistently H2H.  Djokovic doesn’t have that kind of tennis landscape before him.  Granted, he’s not blessed with a bunch of pretenders and push-overs, but currently the game sees two of the three GOATs on the serious decline, especially in the five-set format.  Even Nadal’s hey day included Federer still winning and Djokovic rising.  Djokovic, we could argue, does not have these kinds of in-their-prime nemeses.

In closing, the age does and does not provide insight on what is going to happen.  Certainly, Djokovic needs to take care of business here and now (and in 2016-17).  Tennis fans should be rooting for this class act to pass his many great tennis tests ahead and graduate!  Nothing is guaranteed, but Djokovic’s kairos couldn’t be more significant.  The stage is your’s, Nole.

2.  “DESPITE THE GREATNESS, ODDS ARE DJOKOVIC WILL BE REMEMBERED AS THE THIRD-BEST PLAYER OF HIS GENERATION. While there was a point where Federer’s status as G.O.A.T. was in doubt, his longevity (with a continued presence near the top of the rankings and his contention in Slams) is likely to set him apart. Djokovic will be known as the better hard court and grass court player than Nadal, but the Spaniard is the best ever on clay, something Djokovic can’t say about his greatness on hard or grass. That hurts his case, even if his best five years in Slams (ongoing) is better than Rafa’s or he eventually gets to Slam No. 14.”

Hmmmm.  Not much to say here, other than if he flirts with 14, he will eclipse Nadal and could be considered a huge contender for GOAT though, again, Federer’s 17 is really remarkable, along with his MANY other records.  I know the Australian Open does not carry the same weight as the French, but the Serb will be considered the greatest of that tournament’s history.  This may sound absurd, but Rafa’s tie to the clay hurts his legacy.  I would say just look at the list of French champions over the years.  Other than Borg or Rafa, you have an inferior player winning on that surface, in some cases a flash in the pan.

In my humble opinion, Djokovic has to do more at the U.S. Open.  I suppose this is a bias of mine, but the U.S. Open hard court tennis is an exceptional test of tennis.  I want to argue that’s where the greats display their best game.  Federer’s five straight USO is insane, almost more impressive than his grass pedigree.  Sampras’ five USO titles put him on the GOAT podium.  That’s a super legit surface, a big time venue, and a place where Djokovic needs to make his mark.

Time will tell.  I am definitely not buying stock in that claim that he will be remembered as the third-best player of his generation.

That’s what makes this time, right now, so interesting.  History-making (significant moves being made on the top of the mountain) is unfolding before our eyes.  Whatever you do, do not change the channel.

Novak Djokovic

Pardon this reiteration.

I must not be paying attention.  I have, counter to much of the tennis world, had Djokovic an all-time great for a couple of years now.  Granted, anything can happen; I suppose we can’t assume too much, but when you see a consistent game starting to emerge and do things like Djokovic did in the 2012 Australian Open Final against Rafael Nadal, such legitimate tennis excellence is hard to ignore.  I recognize that he has lost some tough-to-swallow finals; recently I lamented his loss at the 2015 French and a few days ago clarified we’re still on schedule following his 2015 Wimbledon championship.  On schedule for what?  On schedule to challenge the top of the sport, all-time.

Indeed, a lot has to happen and has to work-out for the superb Serb to accumulate the victories and overall evidence to convince this persnickety tennis crowd of his greatness.  But bear in mind: he most certainly can.

As is perhaps the case with this blog and my position on certain sporting matters, if there is a public perception that I see as somewhat delusional, or flawed in any way, I want to try to bring attention to that.  Sally Jenkins’ recent article about the lack of appreciation for Djokovic seems odd to me, since I have been appreciating and elevating his game for 2-3 years now.  People are still not getting Djokovic?  Do people think he’s living-up to his nickname Djoker?  Pay attention, folks.  This is a serious competitor who can (will he?) at any point now put it into cruise control and virtually own men’s tennis, especially at the majors.  Up next is his MUST win at the U.S. Open to curb anymore doubt about his late season “fitness” and that 1-4 history.  After that, we give him a pass at the Australian Open (he has won five of those) so he can concentrate on and win the French, the one major (he’s been to three finals) that’s proven too difficult to win (as it has for many tennis greats).

With nine majors in his possession, he should win the USO in September and (to reach his potential – not very many tennis players have this kind of potential, so I don’t say this lightly) win three of four in 2016.  Sure, that’s dominant and let’s say he doesn’t quite win the next four of five majors, his growth in the game and happiness on and off the court should manifest a total of 12 to 13 majors by the end of 2016 (and think of the missed opportunities he’s already afforded).  Is it too much to ask that he has 12 majors by the end of 2016?

He’s fit and with special attention to his diet (weight) and flexibility (athleticism), his viability should extend 3-4 more years.  Jenkins says, “Do the math: If he can sustain this kind of play over the next five or six years, he could hold 20 majors.”  That’s a bit unrealistic.  Five to six years?  But three to four is certainly feasible.  Do the math.

Part of this public oversight of Novak Djokovic is the immense love for Federer and Nadal (don’t forget about Rafa).  Djokovic has had to overcome those personalities and games.  He is doing just that.  Look what he did to Rafa on the clay at Roland Garros this year (all for naught we might say) and Roger (again) on the grass.  Give it time, folks.

We will be discussing Roger’s legacy in the coming days.  Something we will certainly touch-on is how a field or even a draw affects a champion’s journey.  Djokovic (as I just said) has had to define himself in this age of the Big Four.  All of his Major finals’ victories have been against Murray, Federer or Nadal (although he did vanquish Tsonga in his first Australian Open). Think Djokovic has had to face much pressure on the court?

This concentration of talent (and greatness – two of the GOATs) has to add to Djokovic’s legacy, especially if he continues to build this historically significant resume.  Indeed, we will give it time.

But it’s better to get out in front of these stories, instead of waiting to be surprised and left looking like some kind of sophomoric passenger on whatever bandwagon is rolling into town. That’s why we need to be bold, ask questions, fire-off theories and make informed conjecture based on our passion and diligent study and instinct for the sport.

As I said in my last post: “it’s the Djokovic era.”  Enjoy!

Wimbledon Men’s Final and Serena Follow-up

The men’s final today was fantastic, for two sets at least.  Indeed, we were graced with another Wimbledon men’s final that captured much of the beauty and competitive history of that grand major championship (for instance, seeing past champions dressed to the nines, aging splendidly, is always a treat).  Despite the dramatics of the first two sets, however, the final outcome seemed almost certain by the seventh game of the first set.  Federer is serving at 4-2 to consolidate his break of serve and quickly and convincingly snatch the first set from, what would’ve been, a fairly stunned Djokovic.  The power and control of Roger’s semi-final victory over Murray was on display early in this first set.  Be that as it may, characteristically, the Serb immediately broke back in this seventh game to put the match back on serve; and that pretty much sealed the deal (even though Roger had two break points/set points later in this first set leading 6-5).

Having watched so much Federer tennis over the years (many years), one can see the body language, the more frequent unforced errors, etc., that have come to define the veteran Swiss’ game when he seems to realize he’s met his match. The likes of Djokovic and Nadal have posed these kinds of challenges to Federer over the years and one can see him begin to struggle in these situations.  It’s pretty definitive if you ask me.

Djokovic won a first set tie-break as a matter of fact and the second set went to tie-break, as well, which Roger won in dramatic fashion, 12-10.  The tennis was very high level, did not disappoint.  Pretty amazing tennis through two sets, the top two players in the world even at 1 set a piece; but, again, the die had been cast, so-to-speak, in that seventh game of the first set.  At nearly 34 years of age, he absolutely needed that first set in that particular way: an artistic 6-3, thank you very much, welcome to the celebration of my 8th Wimbledon title.  Tennis fans and historians could only dream of such a procession (funny to watch the camera pan the crowd following a Federer point in that first set – the sheer joy and anticipation of another jewel to rest on Roger Federer’s crown!).

This was instead yet another reminder of the current tennis era in which we live: Djokovic.  My disappointment at his loss at the French concerns the meaning (the possibilities) of this Djokovic era.  A Roland Garros win would have complimented the two 2015 majors he has now, naturally setting-up an historic U.S. Open for the calendar GS (not to mention he would have his career GS, entering that elite club).  I say this not because I am some kind of fanboy.  I say this as a long-time fan of the game, dating back to the late 70s.  Djokovic is one of the greats.  I already knew that.  Grabbing the French would have set-up a huge 2015, perhaps finishing the year with 11 majors; of course, he can still finish the year with 10!  This is his time.  Time to make a run, Nole!  He has a ton of game, enough juice to put this kind of historical pressure on the eyes of tennis.  I was a little harsh (disappointed) with the French outcome even though I am a big fan of Wawrinka.  Tennis is in a great place right now.  But, again, it’s the Djokovic era.

Today’s win got his train back on track.  It’s on to the hard courts, destination New York City!

One last note on his significance in the bigger picture.  If we do a little deductive reasoning, most would agree with my premise that Roger and Rafa are two of the greatest of all time.  Right?  Novak has proven his ability to secure several big wins against these huge tennis institutions.  He put a bullet in the Nadal campaign that was ready to destroy the record books.  He has had to overcome Roger on several occasions.  Of course there are other great players, but one can’t say he was dominated by a particular foe (as in the Roger/Rafa debate).  You logically follow my train of thought (yeah, same train).  Djokovic has made quite a statement against some all-time greats.  If Djokovic can threaten Nadal’s 14 majors, we have another interesting discussion of tennis greatness on our hands.

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So, my article on the Serena era got a little bit of attention, thank you primarily to my fellow former-Fedfan-now-Djokovic-curator Ru-an who published my article about Serena.  He has a great site resplendent with big-time tennis intelligence.  I’m so stoked to have met-up with this authority on the game.  We both seem interested in the idea that we all need to have better historical perspective while watching this great game.  In the case of that article, we’re both interested in a little insight on how she has completely decimated the WTA.  However you look at that tour, it’s a joke.  Please read the Ultimate Tennis Blog.

There were some great posts that responded favorably to my main point: why isn’t anyone wondering how a 33 year-old (turns 34 in September) is winning a Grand Slam?

As a culture, we are PRISONERS OF THE MOMENT.  This is disturbing.  We all do it.  In some cases, what is happening right now is indeed historical, unprecedented, etc.

However, we have also come to understand that this premature ejaculation, er, I mean grandiosity has later been met with shocking realizations that the athlete/phenomenon is a fraud or we have simply overestimated the whole ordeal.

My concern with Serena was first and foremost a reaction to listening to all of the “intelligent” talking heads shower GOAT on Serena ad nauseam.  First of all, better look at the record books for some perspective on that.  Look at the numbers, look at the fields in which players played.  Get beyond the moment.  Come on.  This should be obvious stuff.  There are other great players; Serena definitely has no business bulldozing these other legacies with out some consideration.  There’s not enough evidence to suggest this foregone conclusion.

I read a few comments from people (a couple of interesting discussion boards actually) that left me a bit disappointed in the apparent tennis audience.  Naturally, there was the racism response: I am racist. Red herring, ad hominem, etc.  That’s weak.  I mentioned in the article that I’m a fan of Venus; she’s a major class act.  Watching on occasion Arthur Ashe’s beatdown of Conners at Wimbledon 1975 brings tears to my eyes. The race card here is the idiot card.

The next great move was the comparison to Federer.  If I am critical of Serena winning so extensively at the age of 34, why am I not critical too of Roger, threatening to win Wimbledon at the age of 34?  Hahahahahahahah.  You idiots.  He’s aspiring on his favorite surface.  He’s making a run at Wimbledon.  He’s won seven already.  Is it beyond one’s comprehension/imagination to conceive of a master of the game and that venue to make a run at said Championships at the age of 34?  There have been other maverick runs by great players. Comparing Roger to Serena is an embarrassment.

To the point, she’s undefeated in 2015.  She’s on the verge of winning the last five majors, including a calendar Grand Slam. There’s no comparison to Roger Federer here.

All I want is for people to acknowledge that she seems to be defying massively the process of age.  That’s all.

In the end, Serena is winning her matches. She is executing in a big way.  She is a champion without a doubt.

We’ll leave it at that.  I’m not watching the WTA anytime soon, but she owns it.  Good luck to her in New York and beyond.

Cheers to an unreal Wimbledon Championships; and here’s to a great summer of hard courts competition culminating in a Flushing Meadows tennis war for the ages.

Trouble in Women’s Tennis

I enjoy watching tennis; my mom and grandfather brought me up in the game.  I have enjoyed playing the sport and really enjoy watching the best in the game perform.  The sport, especially singles, pits athletes mano-a-mano where specific skills are needed to overcome an opponent.  We see great feats of power and finesse, supreme strategy and jaw-dropping otherworldly championship clutch.  The game has an inherent complexity at the highest level of performance and history often elevates a tournament’s and match’s drama and meaning.  I would argue to really enjoy the game (like almost anything else in life), one needs context.  To understand the present, one needs to know about the past. This context (awareness) also enables one to predict the future.  Somewhat.

Obviously, Wimbledon is underway, nearing its dramatic conclusions.  The women’s semi-finals are going on now.  In one semi-final is a match-up between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.  These two are pretty much the best in the women’s game today and Serena owns this non-rivalry.  Serena owns everyone right now.  In fact, she is up a set and up a break in the second set (as I write this).  If she wins this championship, she will have completed her second “Serena slam” (in possession of all four majors) and if she also wins the U.S. Open in September, she will have completed the calendar Grand Slam, where a player wins all four majors in the same calendar year (Serena did not win all four majors last year but she did win the U.S. Open; a win here at Wimbledon this week will mean she is in possession of the 2014 Open and the other three consecutive majors of 2015).  Either way, she’s on top of the game right now.

Part of the enjoyment of watching tennis is listening to the commentators (other than the buffoon Chris Fowler of ESPN – he’s their big college football honk, but as the behemoth network gobbles-up more sporting events, naturally they put their staff to work on these events even if they’re clueless about the game.  Fowler is clueless.  I mean, CLUELESS.  But I digress).  Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is waxing on Serena’s historical tennis greatness.  She is being called the greatest women’s player of all time by a lot of these talking heads. Completing a calendar Grand Slam is very difficult.  Obviously.  Only three women have ever completed a Grand Slam: American Maureen Connolly (1953), Australian Margaret Court (1970), and the German Steffi Graf (1988).  That’s pretty elite company.  Most of us tennis fans today are, of course, more familiar with Graf’s accomplishments.  She went on to win 22 majors and has been considered by most, probably, GOAT.  A pretty telling stat of her claim at GOAT, aside from her work in the majors: she was world #1 for a record 186 consecutive weeks, and a record total 377 weeks overall.  That, my friends, is consistent dominance.

As I said, the tennis world is drooling all over Serena, who, by the way, is no where near the class act that is her sister Venus.  Frankly, Serena is a jerk.  Her temper and lack of class precedes her.  She has humiliated (racially) line judges, boycotted tournaments over petty matters.  In other words, we have a kind of Barry Bonds of women’s tennis here.

Well, I’m going to make another suggestion that echoes the life and times of Barry Bonds.  What REALLY bugs me is that no one is asking a very sensible question.  How is Serena Williams on the verge of winning a Grand Slam at the age of 34?  Is the WTA field that shitty?  Is she playing in a very down market right now, an historical low-point of women’s tennis?  Because at 34, this kind of dominance does not generally work. Graf won her Grand Slam at the age of. . . wait for it. . . 19.  Connolly was about the same age, and Court was in her twenties.  But Graf is probably a better comparison.  Winning all four majors is a huge athletic achievement.  If you look at the career arc of other tennis greats (just to keep things close to home here, but you could look at the natural athletic life-span of most athletes in most sports), the “greatness” of this kind (dominating every tournament, the majors, etc.) wanes as one reaches her 30s.  Even Martina Navratilova, whom some accuse of taking PED, won her final major at the age of 31.  Just go look at the life-span of these athletes.  It’s not very difficult to see that Serena Williams is a massive outlier.  She’s playing this kind of tennis at the age of 34.  34!  And she’s untouchable.

If you had a graph (damn, that would be illustrative) to compare these players’ career arcs, you would see a problem with Serena Williams.  We all sat around watching Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and then Barry Bonds do things with the home run in baseball that defied common sense, logic and history.  That’s because those guys were juiced out of their minds on PED.  One’s athletic career doesn’t work that way; the body starts to concede to time and all of the hard work one has already put-in through out his or her career.

At 34, Serena Williams should not be playing this kind of tennis. At least ask the questions, you idiots!  The headline, as I write this line, on the obnoxious ESPN website reads “Serena Crushes Maria to Reach Wimbledon Final.”  Really?  The public made the same naive play on other drugged-up athletes in the moment, only afterwards feeling somehow shocked at the truth.

There are other factors that contribute to this argument that Serena Williams is not clean.  Her inability to stay at the top of the game (world #1) consistently throughout her career speaks to this skepticism.  She has battled injury often (like a Nadal), dominating at times and disappearing for stretches.  The true greats (Roger and Steffi) maintain a consistent dominance, defend titles, create strangleholds on their respective fields IN THEIR PRIMES. Roger is 33.  And sure enough he is struggling to win majors at this point.  Why?  Because winning five set wars with other (younger) great athletes is very difficult.  Again, not to be too controversial here, but when you age, you begin to fade.  Roger is fading.  All athletes fade in their 30s.  Except certain kinds.

Lastly, even Serena’s style gives me pause.  She sits at the baseline and literally HAMMERS her opponents with ground strokes that transcend the women’s game.  I watched her play Azarenka, a big hitter.  Serena toyed with her.  Sure she lost the first set, but the match was never in doubt.  And watching her sit there and out hit another opponent was head scratching and uninspiring.  It’s all power.  The tennis is not beautiful.  I can hear people say Yeah, but she’s had more three set battles in this run than easy, dominating wins.  How many times has she come back after losing the first set?  Watch the matches.  It’s never in doubt.  I haven’t even brought-up her odd-ball antics on the court that paint her as weird drama queen. Read between the lines, people.  At least ask the questions.  34 years-old.  In a global sports culture riddled and jeopardized by the preponderance of PED use and abuse.  Is she simply the great outlier of women’s tennis, of all time?  Explain to me how she is so dominate right now and even more, why no one is asking these questions.

Wimbledon at the Quarters and Mountain Running

Wimbledon

The Championships at Wimbledon are just beyond the half-way point, so we almost have the quarters filled-in and those battles set to go.  Some very intriguing storylines.  In a previous post, I thought Stan Wawrinka might be feeling a bit too much of his French Open hang-over to pose much of a threat on the grass at Wimbledon; he even had an early exit at his warm-up on the lawns at Queens Club.  He has a huge game and has proved he can handle some big spotlights against big opponents.  His two grand slams are vs. Nadal and Djokovic, for instance.  And he overpowered both.  But part of me thought his inability to sustain the 2014 breakthrough, his age (30), etc., meant more subdued expectations.

An interesting thought on his French win last month vs. his 2014 Australian Open is that he might not have felt completely validated in his win over Nadal because the Spaniard was dealing with injury in that 2014 final.  Granted, a win is a win, but there might be some truth to him not gaining as much confidence as one might’ve thought from that first major.  He failed to really capitalize on that big career win, which supports this argument.  Fast forward to the 2015 French.  He destroyed Federer (his royal mentor) in the quarters and bludgeoned Djokovic in the final.  Both Federer and Djokovic have been in fine form, especially the Djoker, clearly the world’s #1.  Apparently, those close to Stan have noticed a different Stan following this win, a much more confident Stan. Stan is into the quarters, playing some tight matches but advancing fairly business-like.  Looking at the draw, we look to have Roger and Murray on a collision course in that one semi-final and Stan looking like he’ll face Djokovic in the other. That’s the top 4 seeds.  So, upsets aside, we have good cooking at The Championships.

The first week had a few surprises, the biggest being that Nadal went down to a wild card German Rastafarian bloke who used to make a living stringing rackets on the tour.  Nadal losing like this is not that shocking if you asked me.  He’s been free-falling.  He’s only 29 years-old.  The whispers of his possible drug use (PED) earlier in his career would help explain this kind of decline.  Granted, he has a very aggressive, physical style of play, but he’s only 29 and has battled injury throughout his career.  A big red flag for drug use is this kind of physical deterioration, of the knees, hips, etc.  It’s not a ankle, or an ACL type of injury that plagues drug users. Rather there seems to be this odd kind of deterioration.  Tiger Woods is having the same kind of end to his career (a known PED user).  Baseball players like Alex Rodriguez, the same. But beyond all of this speculation, Nadal is circling the drain at 29 and this really undermines the arguments that he is the GOAT.  Such claims are hollow when you see this kind of loss this last week to Dustin Brown in the second round.  As I have always said: he is a clay court specialist who did find success at the other majors.  No doubt, he is a great competitor, but the rumors and this kind of inconsistency is tough to ignore.  Of course, the other part of the argument for Nadal his record against Roger.  I will listen to this; I saw all of it with my own eyes.  But Roger at 33 is threatening to win his 8th Wimbledon and 18th overall.  The Swiss bleeds and breaths class.

One final note on the grass: Djokovic fell behind to S.African Kevin Anderson 0-2, but battled back to even it at 2-2 before the match was suspended for darkness.  The huge hitting Anderson was in complete control until the match turned. Early-on, Djokovic looked like the player who got run off the clay by Stan.  Passive, seemingly not completely invested. His game is so balanced at such a high level perhaps he assumes he will find a way – though that seems to include him waiting for opponents to be overwhelmed, make too many mistakes, etc.  There are some really strong players on tour; that strategy is doomed to failure.  If he can win that last set vs. Anderson tomorrow, he has Stan waiting in the semis. That loss at the French is a huge statement of Djokovic’s legacy.  I see the same vulnerability in his play at this tournament.  He could shut me up and win this championship.  He’s #1, which means he should win it.  But I will not be surprised if he does not.

A bit of mountain running

The typical news sources are pretty good at giving us results and all that good stuff.  I mainly want to weigh in on the recent efforts of some US mountain running folk.  I have enjoyed following Peter Maksimow via Instagram.  He was involved in the Team Colorado win at Mt. Washington, along with Andy Wacker, who is achieving some marvelous results himself.  That team consisted of Andy Wacker, Zach Miller, Peter Maksimow, Simon Gutierrez, and Rickey Gates.  Go Team CO!  Legendary manpower.  Maksimow and Wacker were then joined by Mario Mendoza and David Roche who together grabbed a team USA silver at the World Mountain Running Association’s Long Distance Championships in Zermatt, Switzerland.  The Peter Maksimow show has been an entertaining feed – mountain running and beer (along with some solid facial hair) is a glorious marriage; the mountains of Switzerland, mountain running and beer is the great ménage à trois. Serious mountain running personnel, seriously historic races and great results from some American runners.  Have to enjoy it.  The 27 year-old Wacker seems to have a very bright future.  His team silver was added to his individual silver.

Of course, Ricky Gates gave Kilian a run for his money at Mt. Marathon.  Nice to see Ricky Gates continuing to perform in big races with such a big resume already in tow.  The accessibility of these “stars” who kick ass and seem to still enjoy themselves, not taking themselves too seriously, makes this sport of the mountain so much fun to follow.  I recall being a lot more in tune with this more styled and focused mountain running, especially that of the European genre – steep and technical slopes with very competitive mountain goats – a few years ago when I followed and wrote regularly about many of those historic and dramatic races.  I look forward to getting back in-touch with the races, which only inspires my own taste of the mountains and beer, here in So Cal.

Speaking of some of those older battles I used to cover weekly, nice to see Marco de Gaspari grab the FKT of a crazy steep high point in the Eastern Italian Alps (Ortles -12,812 ft).  Pretty inspiring stuff. Especially, the crew he had, including aerial coverage and ice cold champagne to celebrate the achievement.  Great stuff.

Lastly, also nice to see we have more high-end mountain running on the horizon to determine the personnel to represent the US at even more high-end mountain running. From the site: “Nike Trail Running will sponsor the USA Mountain Running Championships coming up in Bend, Oregon on July 25. As the sole selection race for the US Mountain Running Team, this event has become the premier sub-ultra distance trail race in the United States and historically features the fastest trail runners in the nation.” 

You go, Nike!  Isn’t there a future that has our world governed by Nike, Apple, Google and Stone Brewing (the evil craft beer giant)?  Facebook, by the way, jumps the shark in about ten years and sinks to the bottom of the world.

Max King apparently designed the national championships course.  Given Max’s pedigree, the recent successes of Joe Gray and Andy Wacker, the field will certainly be stacked.  Of course, the results of this July 25th race will determine the team to represent the US at the world championships to be held in the Snowdonia region of Wales in September.  Can’t wait for that Selection Saturday.

PS If Kilian doesn’t destroy the counter clock-wise CR at HR100 next weekend, everyone pray for some sort of explanation.  Granted, we shouldn’t be too surprised by anything, other than no surprises, but I can’t imagine he’s anything but completely rested and reaching great form for that adventure.

The 100: A Personal Poem II

I clarified my full appreciation of the display put on by Mr. Krar at WS100 last weekend, of the state of elite 21st century 100 mile mountain racing.  Wow.  Hence, my subtle comparison of that experience to some classy beers.  I charted my thought process and came to, what I believe, is a much more mature and fully developed reaction to that 14:48 and change.  I think Krar has within his grasp the wherewithal to take that CR, but perhaps he knows too well how that fine-line, what it would have meant to dig that much deeper for the CR, has potentially devastating consequences.

As Running On Empty makes the rounds, people have to be more concerned.  My concern for this trend in 100 mile racing goes way back.  Tim and I (Tim of 100 mile distance fame) talked about the unsustainability of the distance almost five years ago.  I’m repeating myself here, I know.  One can’t ignore the evidence.  That article comes clean on Kyle Skaggs, among others.  These athletes didn’t simply tire of the ultra life and decide to farm organics in the mountains, ala Skaggs.  The Krupicka/Skaggs/Roes/Wolfe/Olson narratives chart like the elevation profiles of some of the mountainous courses they dominated, with a mammoth decent towards “the finish.”  This is sad.  What a waste of mountainous athletic talent.  The culprit has two faces: we’ve argued that the distance kills, but what clarifies this argument is the speed at the front of the race.  These elites are stronger, faster, commit to the sport more fully.  And RACING 100 miles at that kind of speed, in those kinds of conditions (heat, elevation, etc.), simply doesn’t work for long.  The development of the sport is not the issue.  Sponsorships and advanced training and gear and trail access are fantastic examples of the evolution we know and love.

What motivates my clarion call has been the uninhibited ignorance of this reality.  Those championing this pathology are relentless and unashamed.  Folks, this is a problem.

Tim and I started Elevation Trail, following our work at the notorious Inside Trail, with a few podcasts that focused on the lack of structure in the “sport.”  Following a series of odd-ball casts, we humorously threw our hands in the air like we just don’t care and announced, it’s not even a sport: it’s a picnic.  This lack of competitive structure (lack of leadership) is the broken home in which the culprit (distance and speed) lives.  Leadership and structure would help athletes negotiate these issues.  Instead, athletes wearing cool new gear and, ironically, pitching their healthy oils and recovery drinks are running amok, seemingly only finding genuine ultra credibility in the much longer versions of the sport.  In other words, the 50s (kilometers and miles) and 100 kilometer races should be enough to float your boat.  A bucket list kind of adventure could define a 100 miler.  But as the nuts and bolts, the mainstream of a competitive racing season?  Get outta here.

This all brings us back to the 100 as a personal poem.  That’s one way of looking at it.  Krar wrote a beauty last weekend.  A masterpiece.  I needed a couple of beers and a jog to reach that conclusion.  He nailed it.

Poetry, indeed, has structure, but we’re using here the connotation that prevails in much of our understanding of the genre.  It’s romantic, whimsical, can move us to reminisce, fall in love, become motivated to act, sing, take off fall of our clothes and jump into the pounding surf.

These athletes that take to the 100 with daunting CRs in sight and fans cheering them from the rafters are walking a very tight rope that straddles a very deep drop.

Rob Krar is riding a brilliant wave of ultra running success.  As I’ve said, I think his pre-100 racing was even more brilliant than his latest chapter that develops a focus on the 100 miler; it’s at least more sustainable and in many cases includes more competitive fields.  He’s got UTMB on the 2015 calendar and perhaps even UTMF.  He might have the aesthetics to write a brilliant and powerful closing stanza to his incredible ultra career, which hopefully lasts for years.  His 2015 WS100 might be a fine template with which to compose this poetic journey.  We’ll have to wait and see.