Thursday , February 22 2018



Come January each year, arrival of the Australian Open (AO) inaugurates the annual calendar of four Grand Slam tennis tournaments that would terminate come September, BY Sushil Kumar, senior IAS officer.

The testing high temperatures on court truly test the temperament and tennis talent of the players. Sometimes, combined high temperature and temper of tennis player can create a matching combustible contest too that can be too hot to be handled. This year, the fireworks, both figuratively and literally, were expected from Nick Kyrgios but the fireworks were lit by unexpected players like Kyle Edmonds and Caroline Wozniacki.

Of course, the spectacle of grand finale of fireworks and final match was created by one and only – the great Swiss Roger Federer. Federer ended the last year with an enviable of 49:4-win loss record and this year he again came back with equal determination and hunger to go for more and be the Superman to scale another summit.

The way Federer progressed into the final, one anticipated that he was repeating his last year’s Wimbledon feat of winning without losing a set;but Cilic proved a worthy competitor by stretching Federer and forcing latter to unleash his whole repertoire of strokes to win in five sets (6-2,6-7,6-3,3-6 ,6-1). One wonders how naturally ‘gifted’ Federer has been in many ways: sheer abundance of talent in tennis craft; in being a perfect gentleman and a great role model for his conduct, both on and off the court; his articulation to say the right things and for being forever decent and graceful. And just when you thought this was enough, just considering his capacity to communicate through tears when words fail him as they did in this year’s post-match monologue, he did by sobbing inconsolably and yet saying everything he wanted to say. It’s not that he didn’t cry at Australian Open earlier; he did when he lost to Nadal few years ago (2009) and Nadal even put his arms around him and lent supporting shoulders for support but this time in AO, he expressed his entire range, through tennis racquet, through words and through tears. In fact, Federer set the trend really of men champions sobbing on victory when he doubled up and cried after winning Wimbledon years ago. Actually, as they say, when cup of emotion and feelings is full to the brim, there can be only be an overflow and Federer in true mirroring of his flowing strokes, let the tears flow. Contrast this with conquering style of conquistador Nadal who cries rarely but has done so demonstrably in the year 2009 (After winning US Open) -testy year involving separation of his parents after thirty years of togetherness.

Federer losing a set for first time to Cilic stirred the gentle Swiss into a demolition machine, spurring him to press the pedal and step up the gas, shift gears and the way he sailed over Cilic in the next set was truly vintage Federer – super serves, angled returns, lines, retrieving irretrievable balls for victory. Cilic also tried to rise to the newer challenge and suddenly lost fear of going to the net and started going for the lines and angles and won the fourth set. However, the fifth set truly reflected on how champions bounce back immediately after a knock down and that separated Federer and Cilic. In the final set, Federer just ran away with the match as if on a runaway train. It was sheer experience of big match temperament that finally came to rescue for Federer. These big champions know how to handle pent up pressure and how to play big points though one must say that Cilic did give a fight befitting a worthy opponent. Hope the friendly tennis sparring during their run in at Maldives last November during holidays didn’t give away critical clues to Federer to combat Cilic.

Federer would forever remain the first one to break the barrier of 20 singles Grand Slam titles in men tennis (in women Margaret Court holds record of 24/Serena Williams 23/Steffi Graf 22). Just two decades when Pete Sampras was playing almost perfect tennis, and was unmatched in most Majors, it took ages for him to touch 14 (after beating 12 of Roy Emerson) Majors. But when Federer started his forward march and was winning without much contest, his winning 20 or more seemed a foregone conclusion till Nadal, Novak and Murray put spanner in his works. Their appearance has probably led to golden era of tennis and now Grand Slam conquests are somewhat evenly distributed amongst big four. At one stage, Federer’s onward march was matching his friend Tiger Woods similar march to win golf Majors till Tiger’s off course collisions with metals and bodies led him off golf courses and his course of life, unalterably. Mercifully, Federer has stayed on course.

Advancing age has bestowed Federer with wisdom to be realistic and choosing the playing calendar calculating costs on his body and family. His long layoff before the Australian Open and missing the clay court circuit reaped him two major titles last year. He has already done the first part this year by planning and winning AO likewise and possibly will repeat the Wimbledon effort.

Maximizing of his strengths has been key to his success.

Federer’s progress to the final was as smooth as his serve and stroke play and he made his opponents sweat. In fact, rarely one sees him asking for towel from baseline ball boys or girls and contrast this with Nadal who tosses two towels at two corner ends for use in between playing points. In final with Cilic though, Federer finally broke a sweat that was seen sliding from his brow in the final set and seems that it had more to do with the surprised challenge posed by Cilic than by hard work done by him.

He became the oldest player after Ken Rosewall to win a Major and last chapter has still not been written as yet. It seems thirty is the new twenty and if one considers what bio technology has in store, we would surely see players competing in their forties in this century.

Seems like Nadal’s luck reaches its nadir at the Australian Open, whenever he goes there as world number one and a strong favourite to win the title. But he ends up on the losing side – twice due to injury (against Stan Wawrinka and now Cilic) and once to Novak (despite dueling for the longest match in Majors of history). This year was rare as rarely retires hurt in a match (even against Wawrinka he completed the match despite injury). The visual image of Rafa angrily throwing wrist band on his bench this year in frustration said it all. After all, in his mind, he is trying catch up on winning Majors with Federer and latter now winning his twentieth has increased the gap to four putting Rafa in a rush. For Rafa though, the French Open still remains his signature backyard practice tournament. And with Novak now not as good a nagging challenger that he was and Federer again favouring to forgo the Frech Open, Rafa should pick that one up easily. But that will set up a mouth watering probability of Federer winning the Wimbledon and if that happens, their rivalry will achieve far greater legendary status and would go down as greatest in history. But for this one will have to wait till mid-year.

The injury to Nadal again opened up the debate on grinding annual schedule of tournaments. There is some truth in that as Novak and Wawrinka re-joined the tour after injury induced lay off; presently Murray is recovering from hip injury and Nishkori is also nursing his injury.

But this debate is similar to recurring arguments against grinding schedule in golf and football and this debate will continue as long as money and mark-sheets for rankings operate.

After all, it’s the marketing of massive schedule world-wide that brings in the moolah.

Now about others: Seeing Kyle Edmonds play was like seeing virtually a split image of Jim Courier – the body frame, demeanour, gait, gaze, stunning forehand, double handed backhand were uncannily similar except that Kyle wore a combo of pink and black and Courier wore mostly white. He had surprised and stunned both Stan Wawrinka and Dmitirov with his serves and blistering forehands enroute to the semi final. Edmund definitely has a potential but strong service and forehand is not enough to be a major winner and his capacity to grind for rallies and court coverage needs to go a notch higher. His going for lines with strong forehand can’t be his only weapon.

Dmitrov was terrific against Nick Kyrgios and there wasn’t much to separate them and but for a couple of points, the match was decided on the serves. The determination and commitment has finally started showing in ‘baby Fed’s game. His loss to Kyle Edmund was due to small errors on strong shots crossing base line due to slight change in wind. But he has lot of promise and his ranking of world number three would surely go up further, going by the way he is playing. It is unbelievable that Novak within one year is looking a poor pale shadow of a player who hardly lost a match in the beginning of 2016 and had one of the best run of consecutive matches won on men’s tennis circuit.

Cilic showed great temperament in fighting Nadal for the first time and worked on making Nadal run across corners to cover flanks and tried to outflank him on stretch side serves. Cilic not only served well in the finals where he had 77% of first serves in but served well in match against Nadal; Nadal was virtually standing next to the base wall to withstand the onslaught of booming serves of Cilic.

Federer was still to lose a set going into the finals much like what he did in Wimbledon last year and seems his strategy of selective competitions helps him to conserve his energy and motivation. As it is even in the heat and humidity of Melbourne when everyone was wiping sweats from brow and body, Federer hardly broke into a sweat. The efficiency in his movement and energy conservationis worth studying in detail. His early picking of the ball and anticipation is great, as is his reaching for the ball with capacity to keep his head still as the ball is hit –an essential lesson while learning golf swing as per great Jack Nicklaus. No wonder he likes golf and is friends with Tiger Woods.

Federer typifies fluidity, economy and silky smooth movement in motion and his tennis typifies typical of famed precision of Swiss time clocks (no fuss and get on with the job). Combine that with sweetness of Swiss chocolates and you have sweetness personified in person and in speech. And remember Federer is fully determined to distribute more Swiss sweetness in coming years though the same distribution tastes sour if given across the net. Federer is truly FedEx Express and setting benchmarks.

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