Ulysses at Dusk, Federer Facing '09:
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
And oh yeah, the defending champion and World Number 1 is OUT OF WIMBLEDON. That's Rafa, if you are just coming to the sport due to love of this blog.
PART ONE: The Widening Gyre
The tennis world slowed down from 2004 to 2008. In the past, the tour was a wild and woolly place where new contenders sprang up at each grand slam, and sometimes with great showings at the Masters tournaments.
Then came Fed, and from 2004 to 2008, there were only 2 storylines: First, Would Federer continue his dominance? And then, starting in 2005, would Nadal catch up to Fed? Somehow, the answer to both was yes. Fed maintained, winning multiple Slams each year until '08, all the while Nadal slowly cutting into the awesome lead Fed had created in the rankings. Then it happened in '08, that Fed somehow maintained dominance over the Rest while being caught by Nadal who had a Federeresque year: while Fed finalled in ALL FOUR Grand Slams, winning the U.S. Open, Rafa took an accountants trick: he didn't start '08 in January as the rest of us do, but in the spring clay court season. Not a fiscal '08, but a Nadal '08, reeling off clay Masters titles, demolishing Roger at the French, winning Wimbledon in the Greatest Match Ever Played, Olympic Gold, summer hard court Masters shields (including Toronto, where I watched in person as he demolished still-rising Andy Murray in the quarters) and then a semifinal exit in the semis at the US. The Nadal '08 of course continued in '09 with his January Australian Open title.
So it was.
And in January, as Nadal's '08 was not quite done, the rest of us pondered, after four years, new storylines:
Now, could Nadal maintain dominance? Was Federer's time at the pinnacle done, would retirement follow soon? Could Nole and Murray compete with Nadal, for the top, and would Fed stay in that mix?
Then, another new story. As Nadal's 08 came to a close, with a 5th set breakdown by Federer to allow Nadal the Australian crown, with similar breakdowns against Nole and Murray in other tournaments through February and March, and, as the clay season dawned, we wondered not whether Federer could regain the top spot, but whether he could stay in the top three at all?
Now how quickly things have changed!
With Nadal's French Open exit, Federer's clay crown at long last, and decidedly-not-number-one showings from Nole and Murray, we are already onto a new set of storylines. Think of it: the tour was a settled place from 04-08. 08 Saw Nadal replace Federer in the dominator role, but not much else changed. Now in 09, things have happened fast:
*Nadal was an all-conquering force, until he was not, and now we wonder if he ever will be again. Chatter over the last weeks has been whether his knee injury was for real, or whether Rafa was simply emotionally battered by his wild ride and French devastation. Now the truth is known. The Wimbledon champion has withdrawn to heal.
*Just weeks ago, Fed was a spent force, a conquered hero, ready to retire with new bride and babe on the way. But like Ulysses, this hero refused to sail meekly into the night:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
*Murray and Nole were crown princes, the Top Four was a sacrosanct circle admitting no other pretenders as contenders. Now, the gates lie open and there is no such neat distinction between these two and the field.
Part Two: The French and Wimbledon
I go along with the group-mind on what the French means for Federer: a last monkey off his back, I believe Federer will be as strong mentally as ever.
What no one seems to be paying attention to, though, is his actual tennis. Tennis is not Vulcan chess. It does require some body. And Fed's has returned. We saw it first in Madrid with his easy championship over a beaten-down Nadal, and it was confirmed in Paris. While Federer may never regain quite the form of '04-'07, the inconsistent, safe-hitting, second-serving Federer of '08 is gone. In the Paris finals, Federer made it through a second set tiebreak hitting only aces. Federer is drop-shotting, going for lines, attacking the net. This is the Federer he needs to be to beat Nadal at his peak.
But will we ever again see Nadal at his peak? I wrote after Madrid that Nadal no longer looked invulnerable. Like a dictatorship that opens a slight window of freedom for its people, this crack of light is all it takes for a starved mob to crash through. After 5 years in darkness, the ATP mob is ready to party. Robin Soderling showed it in Paris. Now, going into Wimbledon, Nadal faces yet more serious problems. Chronic knee tendonitis threatens not just his title defense (and thus the Number One ranking), but his career. How sad for tennis would it be if Nadal could never regain that form? If the epic Nadal-Fed finals were indeed in the past, as many thought, but it was FED who carried on?
Nole meanwhile has shown that his semifinal loss to Nadal in Madrid still weighs on him. If he can't recover mentally from that one match, top players will feast on him.
Murray had a strong showing at the French, and a win at the Queen's grass court tune-up event. He is telling everyone who listens that he can win Wimbledon, and perhaps he can, but, even if Nole looks weak, there are many other contenders looking strong: Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Roddick are knocking on the Big Four's door. Old warriors Haas and Safin, whose careers have never lived up to their potential due to injuries of the body and mind, now remind us of what was once seen in them. Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga threaten, and of course, we all want to know if RObin Soderling can continue his awesome new form. All of these players bear close watching in the two weeks to come.
Nadal is out, Nole is questionable, and Murray is surrounded by other barking dogs. But Federer, like the Dude, abides.
This we know. The rest we guess.
In the draw, Roddick has espcaped Federer's half. I expect a very strong showing from him. On grass, he is more than capable of taking down Nole and Murray.
We are set for Roddick/Murray in one semi, and Fed/Djoker in the other, if Nole should make it that far.
I will predict a Fed/Roddick third final, a third triumph, 6th Wimbledon and 15th Slam for Roger.
As for the women: Due to vicious seeding, Venus Williams, defending champion and 5 time Wimbledon winner, is in the 3rd hole. Serena, 2 time Wimbledon champ, is #2. French Open choker, 0 SLam winner, Dinara Safina is #1.
BUT, Venus and Serena are on opposite halves! My prediction: Venus over Dinara in one semis, and someone other than Serena representing the other half.
Some early matches to look out for:
Santoro vs Kiefer, a first round battle of aging wizards. Should be great fun.
Second round: del Potro vs Hewitt
Andy Murray vs Ernests Gulbis
A third aging wiz, Ferrero vs the winner of Santoro/Kiefer
Dr. Ivo vs Canuck Frankie Dancevic
Let's go enjoy some grass!
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