09 February 2008


'This is not a love Tsonga!'*

So the first major tennis tournament of the year has been and gone and I was quite taken back by the drama it contained. While it was quite something to see neither Federer nor Nadal in the final, in hindsight (and at the time really) it should not have been too much of a shock. For those unaware, both were eliminated in the semi-finals: Nadal was blasted off the court in straight sets by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, while Federer suffered something of a melt-down in his straight-sets loss to Novak Djokovic.

While I appreciate everyone is in love with Nadal, and there is a lot in his game to love, it is not as though his experience in the Australian Open has been especially amazing. In fact his semi-final placement this year was his best; he was eliminated by another relatively unsung player in the quarters in 2007, in the shape of one Fernando Gonzalez (remember him? No? OK). In that match, as with the Tsonga one, Nadal was faced with a very strong player who had been blessed with an insane forehand and he lost to the eventual losing finalist. Before that, his best was fourth round in 2005. So while Nadal owns the clay courts internationally, and came on in leaps and bounds on grass last year, those facts do not necessarily mean he is a lock for every major tournament final. (He was of course eliminated in the fourth round of the U.S. Open late last season.)

In terms of Federer’s performance, the man himself put it best: ‘I've created a monster, so I know I need to always win every tournament’. Of course Federer is the number one-ranked player in the world, and has been for years; that does not necessarily mean he is guaranteed to star in every final of a major tournament. Granted, before this one he had been in ten consecutive Grand Slam finals (I think), so I wonder how many more people expected. The last time he wasn’t in the final of a Grand Slam tournament before this was actually in the 2005 instalment of this very competition, when he lost to Marat Safin, the eventual winner.

What we have established thus far is that, no matter the quality of any given player, that player will at some point lose. If that player has never been beyond a quarter final of a particular tournament, it is not a disappointment when that player is eliminated in the semi-final of said tournament. Similarly, it is not the end of the world for the #1-ranked player to lose a tennis match to the #3; the latter player is ranked so highly for a reason. And when that player is the now-Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic, it is less the end of the world than it is simply a soon-to-be great player on his way to greatness.

It was naturally a (pleasant) shock to see Federer taken eighteen games into the fifth set by a player I had heretofore never heard of (Janko Tipsarevic) – Federer fears Serbians! – but when young Tipsarevic has a Dostoyevsky quotation tattooed on an arm I won’t grudge him any achievement. It does ask a question of Federer, one I cannot resist despite my seeming coolness above: is he slipping?

The last time we asked that was in the early goings of the U.S. Open, a tourney he started very slowly. But then he picked up his game and flattened Andy Roddick in an outrageous display of skill on his way to the ostensibly inevitable win. The third round drama he encountered in Melbourne seemed merely a precursor to the problems he would have against Djokovic. And they were his problems: while Nadal was battered off the court by Tsonga, Federer seemed to unravel as he hit ball after ball into the net. This is not to say Djokovic isn’t great; he was great enough to pounce on that display of weakness and take the win.

After those semis, the final seemed almost an anti-climax. It was really good, though, and should be remembered as both a partly amazing match (the first set especially) and also the moment Djokovic’s greatness was given official confirmation. One hopes this is not the end of Tsonga, as I look eagerly forward to his coming season. Indeed, his combination of aggression, Nadal-nemesism and Frenchness would theoretically bode well for Roland Garros this summer.

A quick note to those Murray fans who kept banging on about ‘if Andy beat Tsonga, he could have won the tournament!’: no. No. Seriously. The course of the tournament suggested in no uncertain terms that Tsonga was beyond Murray and their hypothetical is just sad. Also, I doubt Murray would have beaten Gasquet or Youzhny, let alone Nadal, so that’s a lot of wishful thinking.

And finally to the ladies. They always get the short shrift, don’t they? Well I have to admit to really enjoying this tournament, as the Williams sisters and Justine Henin got murked before the final, so anything after that was gravy. Sharapova finally looked like the killer we thought would never materialise (and how nice to have a female tennis pin-up who can actually play, dark days of Kournikova finally banished), the delectable Ana Ivanovic proved once again that she is very, very good… and my girl Makiri didn’t do particularly well. Again.

* Psst!

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