From my column on AOL Fanhouse
MELBOURNE, Australia — The best transitions in sports happen naturally, and by process. A star player gets old, and the next guy slowly overtakes him and becomes the top dog. It happens with teams, too.
And fans have a chance to adjust, get used to the new order.
Tennis is in a transition stage, too. But on Wednesday, it wasn’t. Things are happening a little too fast for tennis’ own good.
“From a personal point of view,” Andy Murray said, “I would rather be in the final than watching Roger and Rafa at home, playing again.”
Roger and Rafa — Federer and Nadal — is your regularly scheduled program for major finals. At least one of them, anyway. And this is part of the change.
Just 48 hours ago, the Federer-Nadal rivalry was as solid as ever. Federer had re-established himself over the past few months on that top tier. Nadal was going for the Rafa Slam, winning all four majors in a row.
On the women’s side, while we wait for Serena Williams to recover, Kim Clijsters was dominating the tour. Justine Henin, one of the all-time greats, was struggling some in her comeback with a sore elbow.
It’s all different. Federer lost to Djokovic and now hasn’t been to a major final in a year. Nadal’s body broke down yet again, leaving questions about his longterm fitness.
Henin retired again, saying her elbow hurt too much.
Clisters, who’s from Belgium, said she was shocked Thursday morning to hear the news about Henin, her countrywoman.
“I was like, ‘OK, focus on your match,'” she said. “My same daily routine had to go on as usual …
“For me, I’m here playing. I didn’t want to let it influence or affect my daily schedule.”
OK, then. Hang on to that. Clijsters is playing. She is here. She’ll play Li Na in the final on Saturday.
“I know this is probably going to be my last full season on the tour,” Clijsters said. “And then we’ll see.”
Clijsters is going too.
That was a harsh 48 hours for tennis. When it’s nice and smooth, they call it transition. Too abrupt, and it’s a crisis point.
Finals weekend at a major is supposed to be a celebration time. But maybe this is a better time for tennis to panic?
Come to think of it, where is Serena, anyway? She had said her foot surgery was just an elective thing to avoid having a drooping toe after she cut a tendon. But she has been gone for nearly seven months.
And Venus Williams is 30, and her body keeps breaking down. She has played just two tournaments in the past six months.
Andy Roddick? He has lost his fastball on his forehand and, at this point, is not a factor to win majors.
Djokovic said it’s good for the sport to have some players who can win majors other than Federer and Nadal. But that rivalry would seem to be the prime selling point for the game.
In the U.S., anyway, Federer-Nadal, and maybe Federer-Roddick in majors, are possibly the only two matchups that draw casual sports fans.
Will you be watching Djokovic-Murray?
I asked Murray if, other than the fact he doesn’t have to watch the final on TV, he really thinks this is good for tennis.
“I don’t know if it’s better for the game or not,” he said. “Those two have been great for the sport, and I’m sure they’ll continue to be for the next six, seven years — however long they’re both playing.”
In seven years, Federer will be 36. He is not going to last that long. Nadal will be 31. He’s also not likely to last that long. After going through bad knees, torn abdominal and now, apparently, a torn hamstring, his extreme style makes his body completely unreliable for the rest of his career.
“These things are changing a little bit,” Djokovic said. “From that perspective, it’s good for the sport.'”
Well, Federer, defending himself, said it is too soon to consider this a sea change. Talk again in six months, he said.
Maybe so. But replacements might be needed, and they don’t seem quite ready.
No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, just 20, is theoretically going to be the face of the sport. But so far, she is not cutting it. She is a great fighter, but has no weapons, plays too defensively, and has nothing to hurt an opponent with.
Djokovic is ready, maybe. He seems to be the only one, and he does have personality with jokes and funny player-impressions.
Young players such as Bernard Tomic of Australia and colorful Alexandr Dolgopolov of the Ukraine showed real promise here. But they aren’t ready to be stars.
And the sport has been waiting for Murray to elevate to superstardom for years now. He is still too defensive.
On Friday, he moped around for nearly two full sets, losing his concentration. He had the body language of someone whose mother told him he had to go to his room right after the match.
He finally did wake up, and Ferrer got nervous.
So maybe this is how it’s done. Djokovic plays Murray, and the winner takes the first steps of transition. On the women’s side, Clijsters is going to leave soon enough, and Li Na, in her first major final, is already 28.
But maybe Serena comes back and Nadal’s body holds up, maybe Federer goes on for a while. But the calm in this sport has disappeared. Things just aren’t the same as they were way back in the old days, on Wednesday.
Follow me on Twitter @gregcouch