On the 2017 Australian Open.
It’s slightly past dawn and I’m up. The sky is a dull, file-cabinet gray, the thick cold scouring down on the thin morning light. A few people hurry by under umbrellas, a few others loiter on corners up and down the street, bareheaded, waiting for a car or a bus, newspapers tucked under their arms. Listen closely and you can hear Manhattan’s equivalent to cricket song: the floating sound of traffic when there’s no traffic in sight. It’s that time of year when winter is stretched so thin it becomes sheer, translucent, you can almost see through it. It’s January and already 2017 is weird and tragic and beautiful. The book 1984 is flying off shelves, real and virtual. American politics has taken the form of prime-time programming, trolling for clicks, vituperative heat checks on Twitter …
And here I am, groggy as hell, keeping up with news about tennis from sixteen hours in the future.
I’m talking about the sweet middle-of-the-night siren song that is the Australian Open. During this long winter of discontent, I’ve found it especially difficult to turn away from it. Nine at night. Eleven at night. Three in the morning. While avid viewers of the World Cup or the Olympics spend a couple of weeks every four years craning their necks around some godforsaken hour to catch a glimpse of their sport of choice, tennis fans have an annual rite of passage in this Open, the first major tournament of the year. The new season clears its throat in Brisbane and then sets right off at full throttle. When you miss live, competitive tennis enough to watch the matches as they happen, the time difference becomes a minor obstacle.
Tennis is the game I inherited from my father. I’m old enough to have played with a wooden racquet, but not old enough to have played seriously with a wooden racquet. I’m also the age of perhaps the last generation of teenage champions. When I was a kid, seeing another kid win Wimbledon or the French Open was a big deal, but not unfathomable; difficult but not unthinkable; far from the earth-shattering spectacle it would be today, when players in their midtwenties are considered up-and-coming. In retrospect, I was part of a generation of latchkey kids whose favorite tennis players were teenagers, favorite rappers were teenagers, favorite doctor was a teenager (Doogie Howser, MD, of course). Tennis, in other words, fit seamlessly into my vision of the world as being low-hanging fruit for youth. And while Monica Seles lost some prime seasons because of having been literally stabbed in the back, and Michael Chang never again won a major after winning one at seventeen; while Steffi Graf retired at twenty-nine because she’d already done everything she wanted, and Boris Becker played in a style that eventually drained every ounce of champion vigor his younger self had brimmed with; while Jennifer Capriati—a pro at thirteen and a French Open semifinalist at fifteen—learned to love the game after losing her way, what didn’t change was the ode to youth that tennis proved to be. When you’re in your teens, words like resilience, endurance, and perspective aren’t real. Sure, you know how to use them, but you’re not quite sure what they would look like if you saw them in practice. Around 2000, when I’d become invested in those words, I began to look at tennis differently. Sure, Becker was gone by then and Chang was a nonevent, but Seles and Capriati were back and almost as good as ever. And the very back end of the last great teen generation—Venus Williams, Serena Williams, and Roger Federer—well, they were doing okay.
Among the men and women, three of the four singles finalists of the Australian Open went pro before the turn of the millennium. Another semifinalist—Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who was defeated by Serena—won the Australian Open women’s double title at fifteen, in 1998. She was a Wimbledon semifinalist at nineteen. When Lucic-Baroni won her quarterfinal match and walked out to center court for a postmatch interview, her interlocutor, Rennae Stubbs, reminded her that she’d won her first-ever match at the Australian Open against Stubbs herself, nineteen years ago. The story behind Lucic-Baroni’s long journey back to the upper echelon of women’s tennis has yet to be told in full, but the roots of it—a difficult, damaging father—are more a tennis archetype than the coverage would lead one to believe. Her resilience has become the best representation of a kind of antiaging trend at this tournament: a Federer final, a Williams-sister final, a rejuvenated Rafa, the Lucic-Baroni renaissance.
The other men’s semifinalist, the swashbuckling Grigor Dimitrov, seems to have freed himself from the yoke of expectations, to say nothing of the daunting moniker that follows him around: Baby Fed. He lost this morning, over five hours and five set—the margin between victory and defeat membrane-thin. Federer himself is 11–23 in his career against Nadal, and the style of Baby Fed’s defeat must have seemed familiar to those who have watched some of those thirty-four matches. Nadal, as is his nature, ground down Dimitrov over long points and across long hours, until in the final deciding moments he was there to take the spoils. We’re witnessing a seasoned winter vintage of Nadal: his stylish, belligerent game is like a long con. Even as you see it coming, you can’t avoid getting snared in it.
Before this month, the last time Roger Federer was seen in a competitive singles match, he was exiting center court at Wimbledon, having lost the semifinal in five sets, a victim of an uncooperative knee and midthirties-ness. Easily the most nimble-footed player to ever play the game, Federer slipped on the grass in a decisive moment in the fifth set of that match: a slow death-of-the-idol-before-our-eyes event that recalled the forty-year-old Willie Mays playing outfield for the Mets. Federer took the next six months off to recover; his ranking dropped to seventeenth in the world. Now, playing as the seventeenth seed, he’s resurgent in Melbourne.
It’s not merely the results, it’s the sheer quality of his play. Federer has had to plow his way through the top half of the field. Each opponent, from Noah Rubin to Tomas Berdych to Kei Nishikori to Mischa Zverev to his good friend and fellow Swiss Stan Wawrinka, has presented a different set of challenges. Even the twenty-year-old Rubin, a Long Island native ranked two-hundredth in the world, is the type of fit, speedy counterpunching early-round opponent who could have taken the spring out of Federer’s thirty-five-year-old step. Berdych and Nishikori are regular top-ten players; Zverev, not content with being merely a crafty lefty, has molded himself into a crafty serve-and-volley lefty, having dusted off the dark art of net play in this era of monochromatic exchanges along the baseline. The novelty of Zverev’s old-school game left current world number-one, Andy Murray, so bewildered and without recourse that he ended up capitulating without much of a fight; Zverez would rush to the net and Murray would take on the horrified look of sketch being erased at the legs by some unseen author. But Federer, of an age to have grown up emulating the serve and volley game, sucked in Zverev like an ocean accepting a raindrop. Then there was the estimable Wawrinka, a three-time major champion and the author of the heaviest ground strokes on the men’s tour. For all of Wawrinka’s skill and prowess, though, Federer remains the big brother he can’t beat. The semifinal marks the nineteenth time in twenty-two matches that he’s lost to Federer, who was hardly the better player, although certainly the most opportunistic one.
And this is what’s been most eye-catching about Venus, Serena, Roger, Rafa: their ruthless opportunism. If you’ve been following the Australian Open, even casually, you’ve no doubt heard the expression “Cinderella Story” used quite a bit. If Cinderella carried a shiv in her sock, this would be accurate. The elegance of the very best players distracts from the brutal simplicity on which many of these matches turn. These matches exemplify the hottest currency in professional tennis today: experienced experience. And hope.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of The Ground and Heaven. He is currently writing a book about tennis, The Circuit, which will be published in 2018.