Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Handful Of Points, A Truckload Of Angles, And The Noble Loss

What is the enduring truism attached to top-level tennis matches? It is that these boxing matches without the blood come down to a few points, and that the better player will win that handful of points (or that the inferior player will lose them). Yet, as the 2012 Australian Open recedes into history and Novak Djokovic undeniably cements his place in the top echelon of all-time tennis greats - alongside Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer - one can't help but marvel at the larger reality of the three men's careers and how they're more alike than ever before. The growing similarities uniting these three kings of a golden era in men's tennis lead to a discussion that is at once definable and elusive. Winning or losing two points here or one point there does so much to rewrite the history books, and with them, the way whole careers are perceived. Yet, as Rafael Nadal's five-hour, 53-minute loss to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final shows, the notion of assigning such weight and glory to the winner while giving bread crumbs to the loser is one of the ways in which modern sporting culture (not just tennis, but encompassing all sports under the sun) falls short.

Yes, many writers have given Nadal's loss the praise it deserves. Brian Phillips of Grantland gives expression to these ideas with more clarity and directness than anyone else has in the aftermath of Sunday's (genuine) epic. When he notes that Nadal's runner-up finish in Melbourne is worth more than a major title won in pedestrian fashion, he sees beyond the closed and contained math that is governed by "that handful of points" and the numbers that flow from them.

Numbers, after all, lie on some occasions. Hence the expression "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics." When numbers don't lie, they still fail to tell the whole story as often as they reflect truth. This is where a comparison of the careers of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer becomes infinitely more fascinating and complex.

What Sunday's Nadal-Djokovic final did was flip some historical scripts in ways that have brought Djokovic into the highest circles of tennis greatness, but which have also made Nadal the co-owner - with Federer - of the kind of loss which endures not for its failures, but for its most gallant and uplifting dimensions. Moreover, Sunday's "loss" (it was frankly a triumph for Nadal in every sense but the scoreboard) neatly underscores the painful and viciously cruel truth of tennis: Two, three, four points - that nasty little handful - carry a weight that would make Atlas take notice.

The Djokovic-Nadal final at Rod Laver Arena has naturally given rise to comparisons with Nadal's win over Federer three years prior in Melbourne. It's plainly obvious that Djokovic's 10 sets of tennis in 10 hours and 43 minutes offered a 2012 equivalent to Nadal's 10 sets in 9 hours and 37 minutes when he beat Fernando Verdasco (semifinals) and Federer (final) to win the 2009 Australian Open. However, the nature of Nadal's loss is worth exploring in greater detail. This match bore a very strong resemblance - not in style of play or the exact order of sets won, but in terms of the larger narrative arc - to the 2008 Wimbledon final, in which Nadal beat Federer in a titanic fifth set that was played on the razor's edge until the very end.

Do recall that the 2008 Wimbledon final - in the middle of the third set - was fully controlled by Nadal. Remember that in the fourth set, Federer was doing all he could to stay in the arena and prolong the battle. In the fourth set, Nadal had the clear advantage, only to surrender it with a nervous mistake. In the fifth set, Federer - though never able to break Nadal (a clear difference from the 2012 Aussie final) - was the first man to sniff victory (with Nadal serving at 4-5, 30-all) before Nadal found a way to turn the tide. In looking at Nadal-Djokovic, one can see how the roles were reversed. Djokovic was the ascendant player in the middle of the third set. Nadal hung on by his fingernails in the fourth. Djokovic owned the flow of the fourth-set tiebreaker but then sprayed a few shocking errors when the finish line beckoned. Nadal had his path to victory at 4-2, 30-15, but then lost it on that one down-the-line miss which gave his opponent the motivational fuel needed for one last finishing kick.

Let's be clear, then: The comparison between Nadal's loss two days ago in Melbourne and Federer's loss to Rafa three and a half years ago at Wimbledon is not just a matter of losing a long, close match in five sets. It's more than that. Nadal fought an uphill battle against an opponent who enjoyed a defined tactical/matchup advantage and the mental comfort zone which comes with it. He persevered to an extent that he had never quite persevered before (he ran out of steam in the fourth set of the 2011 U.S. Open final in what was a remarkably physical fistfight with Djokovic, a match that taxed both men for the remainder of the 2011 tennis season). Yet, he still lost in spite of his massive expenditure of effort. THAT is the key takeaway from the Nadal loss this past Sunday, and from Federer's loss to Rafa in 2008 on the lawns of the All-England Club: They went above and beyond relative to the trajectory of their careers, which had been so regularly transcendent to that point in time, accessing new wells of competitive determination and passion... and still not gaining the victor's crown on that handful of points.

Perhaps the tennis world appreciates this point already, but I'm not sure it does: You can reach higher, dig deeper, and find more fire inside your heart than you ever knew you had; you can pour out your soul in ways you never thought you could... and still come up short. There's no way to measure that with "Federer leads Nadal, 16 major titles to 10, or Nadal leads Djokovic 10 majors to 5." Numbers are at once the defining measure of historical greatness - the man who has closed the sale 16 times at majors is supposed to be seen in a better light than anyone else; why shouldn't it be so? - and yet a substantially empty way of measuring the entirety of men and the careers they forge. Seeing Djokovic - who entered Sunday's match with six fewer majors than Nadal - eclipse his rival three days after Nadal beat Federer (who has six more majors than the Spaniard) shows that there are limits to the notion of measuring greatness only in terms of wins. It is in many ways the losses that magnify greatness on an all-time scale, and there are ways of doing this for Nadal, Federer and Djokovic as their careers can be seen in a fuller light.

Nadal's losses to Djokovic - especially at the 2011 U.S. Open and even more so in Melbourne this past weekend - were the textbook embodiment of "noble losses," defeats that enhance a reputation more than diminish it. Nadal has conquered the five-set crucible on several occasions - beating John Isner in the first round of the 2011 French Open; stopping Robin Haase and Philip Petzschner in five-setters during his 2010 Wimbledon title run; eclipsing Federer in memorable encounters, of course; and fighting off Robin Soderling in that infamously contentious match from the first week of the 2007 Wimbledon championship - but even when Nadal loses, he loses not with timidity, but a mighty show of resistance.

Djokovic - 14 months ago, in December of 2010 - was sitting on just one major title, but it's worth remembering that the Serbian superstar came so close to making main-event matches his own. He held five set points in the opening stanza of the 2007 U.S. Open final against Federer before losing in a tiebreak. He held two points in the second set of that same match, but simply couldn't finish. He engaged Nadal in a couple of French Open semifinals and competed on very even terms in the opening sets, failing only on those occasions when he really needed to deliver the goods. He didn't lose five-set epics in 2007, 2008 and 2009, but he lost so many 7-5 and 7-6 sets that, if different, would have added to his trophy case to the point that he, and not Nadal, would be in prime position to overtake Federer's 16 majors. The fact that Djokovic is now regularly able to win matches 7-5 in the fifth set (2010 U.S. Open semifinals against Federer; 2011 U.S. Open semifinals against Federer; 2012 Australian Open semifinals against Murray; 2012 Australian Open final against Nadal; he also won that first-set tiebreak against Federer in the 2011 Aussie semifinals, the tiebreak that set the tone for his dominant run from January through mid-September, the greatest eight-month stretch in tennis history after Laver's two calendar Grand Slams in 1962 and '69) shows how much those 7-6, 7-5, 7-6 losses to Federer taught him. Lesser men - men with names such as Tomas Berdych or David Nalbandian - would allow close losses to hijack their careers. Novak Djokovic used his close losses to transform himself into a man who is now likely to win at least 10 majors, and quite possibly a few more.

And then there's this Federer guy. Much as I find that Nadal's lack of a major title at the 2012 Australian Open is simply not an accurate reflection of his performance or worth, so it also is that the 16 major titles don't measure Federer in full as well. Nadal's ability to play so well on hardcourts, his worst surface, makes Rafa a more impressive figure than Federer, whose stature would REALLY be enhanced if he could lose to Nadal on clay (in Paris) the way Rafa lost to Djokovic on Australian plexicushion. Relative to their respective talents, Nadal has made more of his career than Federer has. Mind you, that should not be seen as a way of minimizing what Federer has done, but of magnifying what Nadal has done. Federer's gifts have always been so blindingly evident that the challenge for Roger was always about getting out of his own way and simply allowing that talent to flourish. Nadal, though, has had to push himself to find new ways of winning, new areas of improvement that could add to his tried-and-true formula of defensive retrieving backed by that point-resetting topspin forehand. Because Nadal has played his career uphill - even when standing on top of the hill - he has done something Federer hasn't. Roger won't attain the one remaining transformative moment of his career until he beats Nadal at the French; without that, there will be - in a narrow (not total) sense - a career arc in which Nadal will have left less on the table than Federer has. It is counterintuitive, but it's true.

In the wake of Nadal's heroic loss to Djokovic in Australia - which magnifies how Djokovic has himself undergone a transformation from "close loser" to "regular survivor" in big-stage matches - the aspect of Federer's career that becomes so much more impressive to me is how many times he has come so close to winning. The 16 majors are fabulous, but at a time when the brave, extended "noble loss" in tennis is being given fresh attention, it's worth pointing out that - but for that handful of points he has won more often than lost - Federer would be sitting at 20 majors right now.

He had match point against Marat Safin in the 2005 Australian Open semifinals, and lost two more major semifinals in which he had match points (against Djokovic in New York in both 2010 and 2011).

He was two points away against Rafa at Wimbledon in 2008. He was two points away from a two-set lead and almost-certain victory against Juan Martin del Potro in the 2009 U.S. Open final. In the 2006 French Open final, he lost a fourth-set tiebreak to Nadal. In 2011, he lost a set point in the opening stanza and dropped a second-set tiebreak. In Australia this past Thursday, he lost a third-set tiebreak, 7-5.

The man acclaimed as the best golfer of all time is not Federer's buddy, Tiger Woods, but Jack Nicklaus. Sure, Nicklaus owns 18 major titles, four more than Tiger's 14, but what people forget about the Golden Bear is that he finished second or third in 19 other major tournaments. No man has come remotely close to competing for championships in 37 major tournaments in golf, winning a fair share while also coming really close on so many other occasions. In tennis, Jimmy Connors owns 31 semifinal appearances at the majors and Ivan Lendl reached 19 major finals. Federer's 16 majors are double Connors's and Lendl's eight championships, but Federer's consistency - in addition to the major-tournament trophies - truly elevate him above Jimbo and Ivan and 99 percent of other tennis greats. It's Federer's close losses - just as much as the wins - which magnify what he has achieved. It is similar for Nadal right now, and tennis will - in four years or so - recognize the same thing in Djokovic.

Yes, winning is the focus of our sporting culture and the comparisons that inevitably flow from it. However, after the 2012 Australian Open final, there should be greater appreciation than ever for the noble loss and how it magnifies the career of the man who "loses" only in that most narrow, numerical sense. Rafael Nadal's career just looks better and better in comparison to Roger Federer's after his "loss," and what keeps Fed ahead of Nadal by the slightest of margins is - ironically - the number of times he has reached a major final - especially in Paris - only to not win, either.

The handful of points that decide tennis matches at the highest level have value even when they're NOT won... as long as "not winning them" does not remain a permanent and prominent feature of a career. Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have all lost that handful of points on plenty of occasions. It is that dimension of their careers which makes their periods of ascendance - Federer in the past, Nadal in an unexpected fashion, and Djokovic in his glorious moment of unquestioned triumph - so real and utterly magnificent.