At some point, routines just become ruts. And while watching Andy Roddick in the first round of the French Open Sunday, you might have gotten annoyed at him. Irritated. Frustrated. You were in the rut.
It has been years of feeling that way about Roddick, especially at Roland Garros. But the truth is, it’s time to get off Andy Roddick’s back.
He’s not the present anymore. He’s the past. And it’s not his fault that no other American player has been good enough to move into the present and take the torch of U.S. tennis from him. Roddick, aging, stands there holding it, judged by it.
He lost 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 to Nicolas Mahut, the guy known for losing the marathon 2010 Wimbledon match to John Isner, 70-68 in the fifth set. Mahut is 30, and a journeyman. Before Sunday, in his long career, he had won just one match in the main draw of the French Open.
Great sports arguments work backward through history, step by step, impossible to resolve.
Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus? Jack Nicklaus or Ben Hogan? Muhammad Ali or Joe Louis? Joe Louis or Jack Dempsey? John Elway or Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas?
Somehow, we’ve all been convinced by opinion makers and SportsCenter, who can only sell the Greatest Of All-Time (GOAT), that what we’re seeing now is better than what we saw before. The only way to prove it, of course, would be to get those people through history together in their prime.
That’s what’s different about the place men’s tennis is in now.
“A very special time,’’ Roger Federer said.
Unless opinion-makers are just at it again, working their magic, this might be the moment when the three all-time best meet. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer go into the French Open this weekend aiming for a different and defining spot in history.
Every athlete needs a signature moment to make history. Titles and championships and stats are needed too, of course. Something has to fill the record books. But the moment adds pictures and memories and oohs and aahs to the words and numbers.
Muhammad Ali had the Thrilla in Manilla, and another one in Zaire. John Elway had The Drive, and Joe Montana The Catch, and Willie Mays the over-the-shoulder nab. Babe Ruth pointed (supposedly) to the bleachers. Michael Jordan? Well, he had a bunch of them.
So after Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in 5 hours, 53 minutes in the final of the Australian Open Sunday, he took the microphone and told Nadal over the PA system: “We made history tonight.’’ He was talking about it being the longest major final ever.
The truth is, Djokovic moved into history because of the match itself.
A classic. An epic. It might have been the greatest match ever played, though I’m still putting Nadal’s moment – the win over Roger Federer at Wimbledon – ahead of it, as well as at least one of the Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe Wimbledon finals.
But this was the greatest example of two athletes reaching their absolute physical, mental and emotional limits, giving every last drop.
Take all the people who watched Game 5 of the NBA Finals with LeBron and Dwyane and Dirk, and add to that the people who watched the NCAA Championship Game between Butler and UConn.
From there, add everyone who watched The Decision. Plus Kobe Bryant and the Lakers playing Game 7 in the NBA Finals last year against Boston. Plus all of the first four games in the Stanley Cup finals this year. Heck, throw in everyone who watched the American Idol finale.
You know what it adds up to? (Warning: This will not connect well with the American sports psyche.)
It adds up to fewer people than watched the French Open women’s singles tennis final last Saturday.
No, not in the U.S., where just under two million watched the match. In China, 116 million people watched Li Na become the first Chinese major singles champ, beating Francesca Schiavone. But this isn’t to report the ratings, which came out a week ago. Instead it’s about what these numbers mean to American sensibilities. Be honest: We think of ourselves as the center of the sports world.
But Game 5 of this year’s NBA Finals drew 12.9 million viewers. Nine times that many people watched Li in China.
Doesn’t a sport have to do well in the U.S. to be popular and healthy? Honestly, I sort of think it does. How many Americans know that soccer is popular everywhere else, but won’t really make it big until it makes it in the U.S.? There is just too much money here, and such a celebrity culture. Continue reading
We are so used to Roger Federer’s greatness going on and on and on that we forget how quickly things can just go poof in tennis and disappear. I’m not talking about a Bjorn Borg-like disappearance, when he decided one day that it was time to go. More like Pete Sampras, who was great, was great, was great and then one day you looked up and didn’t realize how far he had dropped. Of course, then, at 31, he emerged from nowhere to win another U.S. Open. Then, he really did disappear.
The point is this: I wonder if we’ve seen the last of the great Rafael Nadal-Federer matches.
Maybe Nadal’s 7-5, 7-6 (7-3), 5-7, 6-1 win over Federer Sunday at the French Open will be the last time they’ll meet in a major final. Federer’s age, Nadal’s knees and the fantastic state of the top of men’s tennis make that a very real possibility.
Buzz Bissinger wrote today in the Daily Beast that Nadal vs. Federer “has become the Ali-Frazier of modern-day sports. And it is terribly needed. . .Every match they play, and they have fought it out 25 times, sizzles with that electric wattage that something incredible is about to happen.’’
Their contrasts have a way of attacking all senses. Lefty vs. righty. Classic vs. modern. Floating vs. storming. Rock vs. classic. It is the best individual rivalry in sports, which might explain why NBC’s overnight rating for the French final was up 63 percent in the U.S. over last year’s final.
Nadal is only 25, but has put hard miles on those knees with his style. He has missed long stretches because of them, undergone blood-spinning treatments. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic has climbed to Federer’s and Nadal’s level. Juan Martin del Potro, who beat Nadal and Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open, has just about fully recovered, and found his conditioning, after wrist surgeries. Andy Murray is lurking.
Without Nadal and Federer at No. 1 and No. 2, you can’t even count on them being on opposite sides of the draw, allowing them to meet in the final.
Already it had been more than two years since the last time they met in a major final. Two-plus more years and Federer will be pushing 32.
I have been chasing a Federer-Nadal match for a few years, with comically bad results. Incredibly, I’ve never seen them play each other live. The gods are conspiring against me.
This is the look of dominance. Roger Federer is not the best anymore. Novak Djokovic is not the best today. Juan Martin del Potro might be the best later. They are all great, but keep your focus on the right place and the right time.
Rafael Nadal beat Federer Sunday 7-5, 7-6 (7-3), 5-7, 6-1 to win the French Open. His sixth French Open title, tying Bjorn Borg’s record. Nadal holds on to his No. 1 ranking, goes into Wimbledon as the defending champ and favorite.
And, oh yeah, he also validated himself. Huh?
Two weeks ago, Sports Illustrated proclaimed Djokovic “The Most Dominant Athlete in the World.’’ Four days ago, Nadal previewed the Federer-Djokovic semifinal by calling it the greatest player of all time vs. the greatest player of today. Nobody blinked. On Sunday, Nadal won his fourth major in the past 12 months. He has won four of the past five majors.
Best today? Yes.
Best ever? “No. For sure, no,’’ he said. “What Roger did is almost impossible to improve. He is best player in history in my opinion. I am 25; this victory is very important for this year in my career.’’
Nadal has won 10 majors now, to Federer’s 16. But he has beaten Federer in 17 of their 25 matchups.
To me, Nadal is the best ever, as things stand. His best is better than Federer’s. But Nadal’s story is nowhere near fully played out. Federer’s greatness lasted much, much longer than Nadal’s has. Nadal has owned Federer, but what if, say, del Potro owns Nadal over the next four years? Or what if Djokovic does? Continue reading
I don’t know what got into Roger Federer. It was beautiful. He was more aggressive against Novak Djokovic than he has been in years. He was less afraid. For any strategy plans or details, or fired up serves or mixed up paces, that’s really what it came down to.
Now, Federer, having beaten the unbeatable Djokovic, is in the final of the French Open Sunday against Rafael Nadal. And one truth of sports is this: You cannot stop the momentum of true greatness.
So I’m struggling here with a prediction. I’ll be honest. Because I don’t see how Federer can lose this match, but I also know that Nadal is an anti-Federer machine playing on a court and a surface that he owns. Nadal also has owned Federer in this rivalry.
I’m not in the business, or habit, of flipping coins or calling for a tie or saying that it’s a shame someone has to lose. It is never a shame. So here it is.
Li Na becomes China's first tennis champ, wins French Open
Just change it, Nike. Change it right now, or add it as a new campaign for Li Na. Li won the French Open Saturday, beating Francesca Schiavone 6-4, 7-6 (7-0) to become the first Chinese tennis player to win a major singles championship. It was thrilling, it was fascinating. Have you finished enjoying the moment, tennis?
Too bad. Time to get to work. You had better have a massive marketing campaign in mind. Li has already invented one, if accidentally by a slight language barrier.
“Just before the start (of the) French Open, I mean, Nike China, they do a T-shirt for me,’’ she said. “They have (in) Chinese, `Be yourself.’ So they asked me, “Is (it) OK to wear this shirt?’ I say, `Of course. Why not?’ They only make the T‑shirt for ‑‑ 30 T‑shirt(s) (for) all of China. I think now they should make more.’’
Oh. My. Are you listening Nike? Are you listening tennis? She has just handed you a masterpiece. Li was likely talking about the Nike Campaign “Make yourself.’’ The company has hired famed photographer Annie Leibovitz to help. And maybe that will be a great campaign. Nike’s usually are.
But how about using her words? Li Na, and “Be Yourself’’ in Chinese. Think: Tennis, much like golf and plenty of other businesses, sees China as the great under-tapped market. It has put tournaments there, but the stands are half empty. Now, China has its first tennis star, a 29-year old who broke from the Chinese tennis federation a few years ago, broke from the state run system, and developed herself. She has a funny personality. She has tattoos. And she can appeal to the young generation, which is trying to break, in some ways, from traditional Chinese culture.
Roger Federer beats Novak Djokovic at the French Open
There are moments in a sport’s history when everything turns and you can see it right in front of you. It’s a long process, really, but things build up into a moment that’s as finite as a baton being passed in a track relay. Sure, a lot of work led up to that pass, but the moment defined it or solidified it or something.
That’s what Novak Djokovic was doing at the French Open, looking to take the baton from both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, to become the best. Instead, the page of history refused to turn. Federer beat Djokovic 7-6 (7-5), 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5) Friday in the semifinals in one of those classic matches that leaves fans jittery throughout. Both players held their nerve, for the most part, and by the end, they were playing in the dark like kids who won’t go home until the score is settled.
It ended with Federer serving an ace, and then holding up his index finger, shaking it and smiling as if to say, “Don’t write me off just yet.’’ And what do we get in Sunday’s final? Federer-Nadal, of course. Enjoy it. History’s pages will turn soon.
“I haven’t disappeared. . .’’ Federer said. “I wasn’t lying on the beach.’’
The loss ended Djokovic’s 43-match win streak, 41 to start this year. Both marks fell just short of records. Djokovic described it as the best five months of his life: “It had to end sometime. Unfortunately, it came in a bad moment. This is sport. I will keep working hard.’’
He will be fine. This match meant much more to Federer. It was a special moment for him, on this side of his career arc. Some analysts are already asking if this is Federer’s biggest win outside of major finals. I’ll say this: It’s bigger than some of his championships, because it served to discover and to prove something. Continue reading
Roger Federer is going to beat Novak Djokovic Friday in the French Open semifinals.
The washed-up old guy is going to end the never-ending streak, beat the unbeatable player. He is going to ruin the coronation that everyone thought this tournament was all about, and remind people that he’s still here, still on the mountaintop.
This is Fab Friday at Roland Garros, as the world’s top four men’s players are meeting up. First, it’s Rafael Nadal against Andy Murray. Murray has been playing on a sore ankle, and Nadal finally found his mojo in the quarterfinals. I’ll take Nadal.
But why Federer, when Djokovic has surpassed him and keeps looking stronger and stronger while Federer is starting to show age? Well, to me, everything is lining up perfectly for Federer. Every Federer flaw is negated, every strength enhanced. The predicted heavy winds, the new Babolat ball, the buildup, the slow clay. It all adds up on Federer’s side. Plus, Djokovic has to lose sometime. Plus, Federer has won the French before. Plus. . .
There is still the chance that Djokovic will simply power Federer off the court, push him backward. I just don’t think that’s going to happen. Here are four reasons why: Continue reading
Greg Couch is an award-winning sports columnist based in Chicago. He covers college football for BleacherReport.com, NFL for RollingStone.com and freelances at several other places, including The New York Times. Lots of tennis, mostly here. He has traveled the world covering tennis and is a member of the International Tennis Writers Association. A former sports columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, his tennis writing has been in the book "The Best American Sportswriting."