When it comes to actually watching tennis, I tend to become restless, because during every serve and back and forth, there’s always the anticipation of the moment when someone drops the ball, when you let out the breath you’ve been holding, like you just did after reading this terrible run-on sentence. However, when it comes to tennis stars, I’m always biased towards Andy Murray because he won the gold medal in London 2012. Also, a little girl I interviewed said her favorite Olympic athlete was, “the swimmer, Andy Murray.”
Unlike a sport such as football or soccer, big tennis matches are not lead-ins to a grand finale. Each one is a grand finale in its own right — specifically, the Australian Open, US Open, Wimbledon (the fancy name the Europeans call their tournament), and the French Open are all considered “Grand Slams.” That means tennis is not about winning that one tournament, but winning as many as you can. The New York Times rounds up this year’s tennis narrative:
Nadal was both the player of the year and comeback player of the year, brimming with urgency and accuracy after serious knee problems and winning 10 titles — six on clay and four on outdoor hardcourts — while compiling a 75-7 record.
Murray secured himself a permanent place of privilege in his class-conscious island nation by beating Djokovic to become the first British man in 77 years to win Wimbledon (his book “Seventy-Seven” is now available for purchase).
Lately I’ve been fascinated by the meta-narrative between tennis’s biggest stars.
Especially how their individual narratives weave into the phenomenon examined by Nick Paumgarten in the New Yorker during the US Open regarding Federer’s GOAT status:
Arguments about athletic excellence have become a staple of the sport in recent years, in light of Federer’s brilliance and consequent coronation as Greatest of All Time, or GOAT. The GOAT debate is never ending, ever evolving, and usually tiresome. Federer earned the designation during a four-year stretch of dominance in the middle of the last decade, during which he won eleven of sixteen Grand Slams. It evolved into a series of statistical recognitions: record stretch of weeks ranked No. 1, record number of Grand Slam titles (seventeen), record number of consecutive semifinal Slam appearances (twenty-three). The last one may have been the most impressive of all, requiring a peerless run of consistency, health, luck, and excellence on all surfaces. But it’s the Slam titles that partisans, and independent auditors, cling to. GOAT’s atomic number is seventeen.
Paumgarten notes that while before the story was all about Nadal and Federer after Federer lost Wimbledon against Nadal in 2008, things have changed:
Nadal matured, and learned to win on grass and hard courts. Djokovic gave up gluten. Murray got tough. A two-man rivalry became the Big Three and then the Big Four.
Tennis at its highest reaches often feels like a zero-sum confidence game, with the stars exchanging the available capital. Djokovic might have felt unstoppable with the boost in belief acquired from completing a career Grand Slam and just might have had the requisite oomph to complete a single-season Grand Slam with the first two legs in his possession after winning in Australia.
Instead it was Nadal, after absorbing the shock of his first-round loss to Steve Darcis at Wimbledon, who became the year’s major player: sweeping all before him in the summer hard-court season and beating Djokovic again in a four-set United States Open final.
Djokovic certainly struck back with conviction, but his sensational run after New York — 24 straight victories, including two over Nadal and 11 more over top-10 opponents — came too late to rewrite the heart of the 2013 narrative.
Djokovic is an interesting character among tennis players, as gleaned from his New Yorker profile by Lauren Collins earlier this year:
He has a goofy sense of humor. A few years ago, he became famous for his imitations—Rafael Nadal picking at his wedgie, Roger Federer prancing swaybacked along the baseline. At an exhibition in Bratislava last year, he stuffed his shirt with sweat towels and hitched up an imaginary skirt. That was Serena Williams. He speaks five languages beautifully. He never met a meme he didn’t like. The other night, after a match, he pulled an Afro wig out of his racket bag and danced to “Get Lucky.”…He is dominant, but he is not universally adored. His showy personality and subtle game are a niche taste. Haters call him Djokobitch. Jerzy Janowicz, the Polish player, said recently that he was “a fake.” But now, with the waning of the Federer-Nadal duopoly, which has fixated tennis for the past decade, the love he craves is within his reach.
Unfortunately, this was plucked as the reason for why he probably lost during the US Open against his last match with Nadal:
The match turned for a moment in the second set, when the lab conditions grew uncertain, and Djokovic, who loves New York, finally got an answer to a question he’s been asking himself for years: What must I do to get this city to love me back? Win a remarkable fifty-four-shot rally, it seems. That point earned Djokovic his first break. He smiled and pumped his arms, the first sign of life, and allowed the crowd to chant his name. This was Djokovic in his element: having fun on the court, embracing the chaos, molding it to his purpose.
But Nadal kept his head down, walking with purpose between points, the better to keep out any potential distractions. He is a test-tube tennis player, cultivated in the isolated island laboratory of Majorca.
In fact, Nadal seems so determined to win that his “willingness to acknowledge that [he] plays a game that is supposed to be fun is almost non-existent.”
Meanwhile, Djokovic is lauded just for representing Serbia in sport while they are unrepresented in almost every other context:
The President of Serbia told “60 Minutes” that he could win the nation’s highest office. At one point, a rumor went around that he had bought up the country’s entire supply of donkey cheese….Djokovic is the most famous person in Serbia; he is also the world’s most famous Serbian.
In comparison, Andy Murray is embroiled in a sense of national pride:
But then Murray, to his full credit, rose to this occasion, much as he had on the same patch of lawn in winning the 2012 Olympic gold medal against Roger Federer. Murray served with authority, broke Djokovic seven times and, as if to emphasize the energy gap on that historic Sunday, chased down drop shot after drop shot down the stretch as he fought through the nerves and three lost match points to finish off Djokovic and that 77-year hex.
“That last game will be the toughest game I’ll play in my career, ever,” Murray said.
It is hard to argue, even if Murray is still just 26 with — spirit and dodgy back willing — many more Wimbledons to come.
These competing narratives — nationalist Murray, immaculate robot Nadal, fallen star Federer, and joker Djokovic — may have finished the 2013 season, but it’ll be fascinating watching their progress in 2014.