1. Delayed postmortem (I’ve been away…luckily, I’ve dutifully preserved all my post-loss melancholy and discontent and will unload it now!): Rafa’s loss to Kyrgios in the fourth round is one that seems both infinitely worse and largely irrelevant in retrospect. Worse, because: Kyrgios is 19; he’s not that good; he should have/almost lost to Gasquet; he lost to/was broken easily by Raonic in the next round (yes, in part because Rafa tired him out, but still–Raonic broke him. Multiple times. And, he even won a higher percentage of Kyrgios’ second serve points than did Rafa, which is where Rafa lost the match. As Isner, Karlovic, et al. have shown over the years with their lack of big tournament wins and in fact frequent early exits at said big tournaments, aces/unreturnable first serves alone are not enough. Second serve points are where it’s at (I got two turn tables and a microphone), and Rafa allowed Kyrgios to win over 50% of those, which can’t happen against a player who is also winning 80%+ of first service points, unless Rafa is winning like 70% of his own second serve points, which he wasn’t.), who is not that good; there is a .1-.9% chance that Murray, Djokovic, or Federer would have even remotely struggled with him and as much as I try to not compare because Rafa is his own special snowflake and he can do lots of things they can’t do and vice versa, etc. as it typically is with snowflakes, it’s impossible to not, occasionally, compare snowflakes, and in this instance, I don’t think the other snowflakes would have melted, even under the Australian heat that is Nick Kyrigos. Irrelevant, because: he lost, just as he’s lost early the last two years, and that’s just how it is/might always be from here on out at Wimbledon and that’s fine and he’s done fine elsewhere despite it and (still somewhat to my chagrin and yet realistically), Rafa can’t win them all, and if he’s going to have a bad surface, it might as well be the one that the tour only spends about a month on. He’s getting older and his success on the grass, as Rafa himself often brings up, was always tenuous, and with age, those tenuous wins often transition into tenuous, or even not-so-tenuous, losses.
2. Hunger Games: Rafa didn’t sound particularly hungry in his post-match presser. This is what I maybe picked up on and what bothered me a little bit about the loss to Brown in Halle a few weeks back–Rafa’s attitude was not, this is what I did wrong, this is what I need to do better, it was, I tried, shrug, I lost, shrug (and by the way, this was a waste of time). It was easy to justify/rationalize then, because Rafa was coming off of an incredibly intense and successful couple of weeks in Roland Garros, and it was small warm-up tournament, and a tough draw. But, it still just seemed uncharacteristic for him to attach such little worth to a tournament result, even if it was negative and didn’t go the way he wanted it to, and I didn’t like it.
Flash forward to Wimbledon, and it seemed like, at least for the first two rounds, the desire, and intensity, was back, even if the tennis itself wasn’t stellar. But then there was the third round against Kukushkin, in which Rafa, inexplicably to my eyes, didn’t really show up for the first set–he was flat, he seemed annoyed and distracted and unhappy, and he didn’t do anything particularly special, or even all that well, on the court. He turned it up thereafter, clearly, but going to four against a player who doesn’t have an unbreakable serve, is not known for his comfort on grass, and who doesn’t typically perform well against top players, wasn’t a good sign. Then he lost to Kyrgios and his post-match presser–while very informative and lucid and balanced and insightful and oh so slightly, heartrendingly wistful (vis-à-vis his reflections on playing young and free)–once again displayed that resigned/satisfied attitude–I tried, I lost, shrug. On the one hand, it’s great, and healthy, that he doesn’t dwell on losses, and I certainly wouldn’t want or expect him to. And I know he tried his best in the moment. On the other hand, I think there is a fine line between accepting a loss and being a little too casual/indifferent about it. On some level, and as much as I hate to quote Chris Evert but I’m inadvertently going to do so now because she said the same thing after Bouchard lost and I don’t want to not acknowledge that I did in fact hear her say that because I did, but I’m not copying because I would have said this anyway and it’s not like it’s the most original thought to begin with anyway–it should hurt. It didn’t seem to hurt for Rafa. This worries me.
Back to my hands, on the one hand, he’s not Bouchard, i.e. he’s not 20, he’s already accomplished essentially all there is to accomplish in tennis and in fact invented new things to accomplish after he accomplished all the things to accomplish, and so he’s not going to have that same kind of raw desire a younger player is going to have to win tournaments. He’s just not. On the other hand, though, there does need to be some desire, some hunger, some special motivation, and really not even some, but a lot. He didn’t have it for Wimbledon this year. Again, as I mentioned in #1, that’s fine, it really is. Roland Garros #9 was a huge triumph for him, and him being exhausted from that effort and not doing that well at Wimbledon is normal; him doing so well all those other years was the crazy part, but as he’s apt to do, he made crazy stuff seem normal because he was doing it all the time. At the same time, look who won Wimbledon–someone who played just as many matches as Rafa did at Roland Garros, felt a great deal of pressure himself, and, who walked away the loser no less. One could argue that made him hungrier for Wimbledon, I suppose, and one might be right. (I don’t know, I’ve got my hands full monitoring Rafa’s hunger, so I can’t really be bothered to monitor Djokovic’s.) The point is: I hope Rafa regains the hunger after this July hiatus and comes back refreshed and renewed and rejuvenated and other facial cream commercial adjectives, as well as sharp and eager and focused and motivated, for the American hard court season, just like he did last year. Wanting it doesn’t equate winning it, but it does help.
3. Bad habits: Still on the hunger theme, another related concern is that the kinds of matches Rafa played and ultimately lost at Wimbledon, and the kind of shrug attitude that followed, can become habits. And in fact, the match thing–i.e. starting flat and losing the first set and being in an uncomfortable deficit from the beginning–kind of has become a habit this year, with Rafa dropping the first set in 19 of his 52 matches so far. Rafa also has seemingly struggled with motivation on and off throughout the season (the (in)famous “lack of spark”), at times in part due to injury, at times in part due to the loss in Australia and its aftermath, and at times in part due to cumulative exhaustion/general humanness and/or other unknown factors.
While I’m on the topic, another really bad habit lately is losing tiebreaks. Rafa is an underwhelming to put it generously 3-8 in tiebreaks since Indian Wells, and only 11-10 on the year. (he won five alone in Australia, which has buoyed the stat.) That’s really got to change.
4. Obviously what I’m talking about in #1-3 above but am kind of talking around because it hurts to talk about directly is, you know, time and age and mutability and youth and beauty and the fleetingness therein and all of those big life themes that somehow get compressed and concentrated and put on display in professional tennis players aged 18-35, where 18 is 18 and 35 is 90. Rafa’s not going to last forever and as he gets older and as the time he has left as a pro becomes smaller and smaller, particularly as compared to the time he’s already spent as a pro, it’s hard not to think about that fact and wonder how many more opportunities he has left and how long he’s going to want to keep going and how successful he can be during the latter stages of his career. When Rafa was 23, 24, 25, 26, I scoffed and rolled my eyes, and rightly so, clearly, at the questions and speculations about how long he would last, have we seen his best stuff, blah blah blah. Now that’s he 28, it’s a little bit different, and random losses are a little bit tougher to take, and the questions about his future a little bit harder to reasonably keep at bay. Then again, Rafa’s career has always been peppered with random losses; it’s part of his snowflakeness. Then again, the inexorable march of time. Then again.
5. Murray–I was extremely surprised with how many people were predicting Murray to make the final and/or win the title again this year at Wimbledon. I wondered if I was missing something and/or there was something I didn’t know–e.g. Murray was secretly practicing at a level of tennis previously unseen on planet Earth–or, if it was just the typical mostly irrational Murray Mania thing that occurs prior to Wimbledon. I was somewhat reassured to have the latter confirmed, not because I wish ill on Murray, but once again, because I found the hype and expectations for him confusing. (I also found them extremely confusing, even moreso really, at the French Open when people were saying he had a good chance to beat Rafa in the semis. Yes, he obviously played Rafa close in Rome, but still, that was a bit of a leap.) Murray has been struggling all year and it seemed vaguely crazy to expect him to come out of nowhere and be able to beat top players in high-pressure situations when he hasn’t even come close to doing that lately, and in fact has been losing to less than top-ranked players in low or at least lower pressure situations all year. There are not a lot of miracles in tennis, and the best predictor of future form is typically recent past form. (Rafa’s Wimbledon results notwithstanding, since that is such a specialty surface, and that’s what I’ve decided.)
6. My prediction for the final was Djokovic in four, which it really should have been, so I was basically right. This wasn’t exactly rocket science, and I’m guessing most people predicted the same, unless they got caught up in the sentimentalism of Federer’s back on top at age 32!, which is quite possible, and not wholly un-understandable, because it obviously would have been quite a story. But alas, much as with the women’s final, the media didn’t get the story they so wanted and instead had to settle for, you know, pesky reality and facts and truths and stuff. Of course, being the nimble narrative weavers they are, they’ve already weaved narratives out of the non-narratives (e.g. re-purposing The Return of the King into The Return of the King (for a Set or Two; Still Totally Counts, Right?); Djokovic’s rocky and ill-tempered road to the title is him putting his GS demons to bed/the beginning of his ascent back into the realm of the unbeatable instead of further evidence that he remains extremely vulnerable to players who play well) because nothing happens if it’s not a narrative (preferably narrated by Tom Rinaldi in his Hush, I’m narrating a narrative voice). Federer is still good enough to win one, maybe even two sets off of Djokovic and Rafa, but there’s no evidence to support the idea that he can, at this point in time, win three, because eventually the match is going to become about rallies, and eventually his forehand and/or backhand is going to break down, because eventually his first serve is going to stop going in, and even if it does go in, Djokovic is going to do a spider splay and get back in play at some seemingly impossible angle/depth, or Rafa is going to anticipate exactly where it’s going and be waiting and bunt it back, and then Federer is going to hit the next shot authoritatively, elegantly…into the net.
Obviously, Djokovic almost choked away the match, but, even given that, he really wasn’t ever losing the match after the second set (and really after the first set, even, considering that he lost it in TB–yes, he lost, but he knew that was basically just because of his own mistakes and he wasn’t being comprehensively outplayed, or anything close to it) despite the fact that he wasn’t playing all that well, and therein was Federer’s problem: Djokovic was often quite average, and despite that, Federer could only manage to, at best, stay just even with him. That can’t happen if one wants to beat Djokovic, as Rafa has demonstrated in his last four GS meetings with Djokovic. When Djokovic’s level drops, one must pounce, immediately, and when it comes back up, one must try to match him, win the important points, etc., and if he’s still too good, wait, and if he’s still too good, well, then too good. Djokovic can play suffocating tennis; he didn’t yesterday. Federer couldn’t take advantage, though, because he’s not as good as he used to be, and, somewhat relatedly, Djokovic is better. As the kids say, end of.
7. My preference for the winner was Rufus the Hawk. I really thought he could stage the upset, what with his wings and all, but the opposable thumb issue struck again. Other than that, in a way, I wanted Federer to win, since he already has a lot of Wimbledon titles and why not just throw another one in there, not like he’d have nine or anything (*smug smile*), but in a way I wanted Djokovic to win because I thought that would prevent the The King Returns narratives (that was a futile wish) plus it did seem like he was kind of “due” given all the finals he’s made and why not fulfill that “dueness” when Rafa is conveniently not across the net, plus
Federer Chuckles burned whatever good will I was feeling toward him following his amusingly cut the BS/matter-of-fact declaration to the bumbling press that Rafa was the RG favorite, which was, even at the time, I realized, more motivated by ego than anything else (a guy beats me five times at a tournament, he’s the favorite) with his petty and passive-aggressive needling of Rafa over the time between points issue, delivered with the perpetually unchallenged subtext that whatever he thinks is right and how things should be. So in the end, I was back for Rufus.
And, in a way, Rufus did win, didn’t he? He did.