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Posts Tagged ‘Novak Djokovic’

Stage Struck

September 12, 2012 | by

Most of what I read about professional tennis, particularly the profiles of the game’s biggest names, appears around the Grand Slams, three of which are played over the summer here in the northern hemisphere. This was the summer of Roger Federer, Andy Murray and his new coach Ivan Lendl, and Venus and Serena Williams. Novak Djokovic, the world’s top men’s player when the summer began, had had his moment in Vogue in May 2011, during a season when, at one point, he’d string together forty-three straight victories and lose only six matches.

Near the end of that season, about a month after Djokovic saved two match points against Federer’s serve to win their U.S. Open semifinal, the New York Times Magazine ran an essay by Adam Sternbergh called “The Thrill of Defeat.” The occasion for the piece was the “278 million to 1” odds against the Boston Red Sox’s “epic” collapse during the 2011 pennant race. To a Federer fan looking back to the Open, though, those odds seemed about right. What also seemed right were Sternbergh’s thoughts about the basic absurdity of sports and, my affinity for Bart Giamatti notwithstanding, the “terrible sportswriters” who “argue that sports are a grand metaphor, a stage on which we witness essential narratives about determination, bravery and heart.” Read More »

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It Never Gets Old

June 6, 2011 | by

Photograph by Alex Livesey.

When an athlete grows old, when she slips and starts making errors, you say that her body betrays her. What you mean is that she betrays you. A superhuman should not age. So you punish her with your attention, with your nostalgia and condescension, and also with your neglect. You turn your gaze to the young.

For the first two weeks of this year’s French Open, that’s what happened. Sure, younger players had earned the spotlight. Novak Djokovic was in the middle of one of the longest win streaks in the history of tennis. If he made the French Open final, he would become number one. For his part, Rafa Nadal was looking to equal Björn Borg’s record of six French Open titles. No one expected much of Roger Federer. Even Anna Wintour, who sat in Federer’s box in Paris, had more or less conceded Djokovic’s dominance, featuring the Serb in tiny swimming briefs in the pages of Vogue, where once Roger had been king. Federer is twenty-nine years old.

On the women’s side, the favorite was a beautiful blonde Dane, Caroline Wozniacki, twenty years old. She had never won a major, but never mind. The defending champion, Francesca Schiavone, who has hollow cheeks and a habit of kissing the dirt, wasn’t given a chance. Some thought her win last year—she had been seeded seventeenth—was a fluke, and besides she is ancient, nearly thirty-one. But Wozniacki lost in the third round, and when the finals arrived Schiavone was there again, and this time playing the twenty-nine-year-old Li Na, best known for being Asian and having a tattoo.

“With a combined age of sixty years seventy-nine days, Li and Schiavone make up the oldest French Open final pairing since 1986,” said The New York Times. Li and Schiavone were pressed to explain their advanced ages. “Is like the wine,” Schiavone said. “Stay in the bottle more is much, much better.”

“I’m not old,” Li Na insisted. “Why do you think I’m old?”

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An Honor to Watch

September 14, 2010 | by

Last night, Rafael Nadal became the seventh man to win a career grand slam. He's 24. Photography by Michelle V. Agins.

Sunday mornings can be such a bummer, time for reflection and for regret. So it was the morning after Roger Federer’s loss to Novak Djokovic in the men’s semifinal. New York was chilly and soaking—weather for brooding, not for tennis. Who was in the mood for tennis, anyway? There would be no Federer-Nadal final. The match so much desired, so long expected, would not happen.

Djokovic had outplayed Federer. And it was thrilling. I couldn’t help it, at times I was thrilled. Facing two match points in the fifth set, Djokovic saved the first with a gutsy swinging volley. He saved the second with a forehand walloped into the corner—an astonishing shot. Reader, I gasped with joy. I didn’t mean to cheer for Djokovic, a man who smashes his racket against his head to pump himself up. I didn’t want to cheer against Federer. Federer is the player I enjoy watching more than any other, the most beautiful player of the most beautiful game. After the match, I felt empty and a little guilty. On Sunday, I felt even worse. (That the women’s final was so lame didn’t help—hadn’t I, on some level, asked for Vera Zvonareva’s mental collapse? Forgive! And congrats to Kim Clijsters!)

On Monday, though, things looked up. The sun was out and Nadal still playing. Rafa, always reason for cheer! Against Djokovic, Nadal easily won the first set. But during the second, Djokovic came to life, zooming around the court, skinny limbs flying. He went for the lines and hit the corners. Djokovic is not a man who immediately inspires. His haircut is bad, his temper idiotic, his style slightly spasmodic. But he’s daring and quick, gentle at net and fierce in the backcourt, and his defensive play is unreal. When he broke Nadal’s serve twice in the second set, I felt, again, spontaneous pleasure. It would have been impossible to suppress it. Not just impossible: I think it would have been wrong to try.

But he couldn't keep it up, and Nadal ... Nadal is something else. Even when he stumbles, as he did a few times last night. He sprinted to every ungettable shot and moved the ball in unbelievable ways, knifing his volleys and spinning those forehands. Until the last set, when Djokovic simply faded, the Serb gave Nadal a good match. But I wanted Nadal to beat him. I wanted to see him yank Djokovic like a yoyo with his magnificent groundstrokes; I wanted to see him rip up the ball. I wanted him to win so badly that I felt slightly sick. And Nadal did. When he won the 2010 U.S. Open, he became the seventh man to win the career grand slam. He’s 24 years old. He is as great as can be imagined. Greater, maybe.

It's tempting to call tennis an art, and a lot of people do. It’s graceful and intuitive, and one responds to it as one responds to something beautiful, with the desire to describe it and remember it, and to applaud those who made it. But its value is not symbolic, though it lends itself to metaphor. It works in other ways. A single shot is so fast, the physics so complex, that it’s hard to picture, even when you’re watching it live. It can't be aestheticized or really captured. Instead it captures you, the watcher, in wonder. At least, it captures me.

There's something incredible about all those straight lines and arcs and angles, the speed and the spins, the strength, and the drama of two people, alone, facing each other. I don't know what it all adds up to, exactly, or why I care so much. It should be silly, a game with a bouncy, fuzzy yellow ball. But it isn't. It's awesome, and sometimes it's an honor to watch. It was an honor to watch Nadal last night.

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