Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Watching an Incredible Night of Tennis



Nights like Tuesday night are why we watch tennis. Face it, to be a real tennis fan you have to put up with a lot of nonsense. There is the oddity of the ATP and WTA Tours, which put on only a handful of tournaments every year that are attended by all the top players, making statistics like "titles" somewhat meaningless without an understanding of the field of any given tournament. There are the brutal early tournament matches (especially at the non-Grand Slams), in which the difference between the two players' talent or caring level can be at such a high discrepancy that the scene becomes virtually unwatchable. And there are the attitudes and entourages of some (although not all) of the players that make rooting for them a bit like cheering for the Omega Theta Pi chapter in "Animal House."

Nevertheless, we put up with all of those problems for one reason...nights like Tuesday night in Melbourne. If you sat back, took a 5 Hour Energy Drink and watched the entirety of the two men's quarterfinal matches, you saw not only great tennis, but compelling human drama of the highest degree. Tennis at its best produces some of the most exciting moments in sports, and I couldn't help but be mesmerized by the two spectacles on my television (late) on Tuesday night. Clearly the competitive play was a big part of what made it so entertaining, but each match also had great storylines as well:

Nadal/Dimitrov

Coming into the Tournament, the narrative was repeated that Rafa Nadal had been given the "Draw of Death" and would face as tough a road as humanly possible to a second Australian Open title. That narrative however collapsed quickly as upsets and poor play by his opponents made Nadal's path much easier, even as he personally truggled to gain his footing. But on Tuesday, he got all he wanted and more from Grigor Dimitrov, who used the occasion to announce that maybe, just maybe, he is now finally ready to make the much-predicted breakthrough to the top levels of the sport a reality.

The contrast of the two players made the on-court action (which was of the highest level) even more thrilling. On the one hand we had Nadal, who the more I watch, the more I find myself mesmerized by his every quirk. His running forehand is an absolute thing of beauty and he unleashed it countless times on Dimitrov with such a fury that the Bulgarian simply had to applaud in admiration. But while his play can be breathtaking, his mannerisms and oddities continue to be even more captivating. Against Grigor, I counted almost 23 wedgie tugs in just one game...and while I understand that it isn't healthy for a man to spend so much time counting another man's tug at his backside, I simply can't comprehend or ignore it. His drinking of his water in a very proscribed (and neurotic) way, the tug of the hair, the serving snarl and even the open sore blisters on his hand make Nadal a fascinating figure for reasons that are very difficult to articulate. Its like at any given moment, he may hit the best shot you have ever seen, or slowly pick his nose in front of the camera, oblivious to being watched by the entire world.

Then on the other side, you have tennis's answer to Julio Iglesias. I knew little about Dimitrov's game coming into the match (besides his heavy serve and explosive talent), and I came away impressed with his overall skills and future. But for me, every Grigor match is about the exact same question. How in the world did this cat get Serena and Sharapova to fall so madly in love with him that they can't help but express their contempt for each other publicly? 22 year old Bulgarians rarely have that kind of pull, but Grigor does and thus I spend the match looking for clues as to how he became such a ladies man. It may be that they see his enormous potential on the court. Or maybe it is that they feel the pain when he blows his chance for glory, as he did when he missed a wide open court forehand on set point in the third, a miss that probably cost him the match. But whatever it is, Grigor has more game (both on and off the court) than the sporting public at large gives him credit for.

The match's third set tiebreak was the battle's highlight and was one for the ages, an emotional roller coaster that featured tremendous passing shots, between the legs lobs and a couple of huge missed opportunities. Nadal won, let out a primitive scream that reverberated across Rod Laver Arena and then carried that momentum to a fourth clinching set. The entire proceeding felt like a match that was on the precipice of being remembered as "the moment we knew" Dimitrov would become a star. But Nadal did just enough to not let it happen, thus preventing the same shocking result that befell Djokovic the night before and likely setting up his best chance in years to win that second Australian Open title.

Federer/Murray

No offense to Andy Murray. He is a marketable tennis star, his run over the last two years has been remarkable and his comeback from injury is an important storyline over the next couple of months. But this match had very little to do with him. For nearly everyone watching, Federer-Murray was about one thing...trying to ascertain if Federer could still be Federer. As all Roger fans try to forget 2013, the early signs of a rejuvenated Federer, equipped with a larger racket and a new youthful energy, looked promising. But it wouldn't be a real success until he did something he hadn't done since mid-2012...beat another member of the "Big Four."

After looking uncharacteristically nervous early, Roger not only got the victory, but he did so rather convincingly. He won the first two sets with relative ease and then fought back from a very disappointing third set defeat (blowing two match points on his serve), to regroup and win the fourth and get to yet another Grand Slam semifinal. As with Nadal/Dimitrov, the third set was the most memorable. Murray postponed the Federer celebration by fighting back from down a break twice, and leftopen the very real possibility that Roger could suffer an epic defeat from which it might be impossible to come back. The tiebreak included five straight Murray points and the energy of those moments had the Melbourne crowd almost giddy with enthusiasm. But Federer was able to rebound, controlled the fourth set as he had the first two and set up a second dream match between legends, this time opposite Nadal, for those of us ready to have little sleep again late on Thursday night/Friday morning.

It is a shame that the Australian Open comes on so late at night, as virtually all Americans miss some of the best evenings tennis has to offer. Tuesday night would have been a great introduction to the sport for many fans who have never followed the game, or lost interest during the less compelling moments of the past decade. The tennis played on Tuesday night was of the quality and the personalities of the stature, that it could bring in these casual fans to get swept up in the emotion of a Grand Slam quarterfinal and hopefully have them stick around for more matches in the future. Alas, that did not happen. But for those of us with the time, energy and jobs to allow us to stay up into the night and watch the action, it was one for the books. Let's hope Thursday's play can strive to compete.