Were a screenwriter to have mapped out the first half of the 2017 men’s tennis year the way it’s gone, the treatment would have been considered too hokey to be plausible.
A year ago the picture was quite different for Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Prior to his third round match at Roland Garros, Nadal had withdrawn with a wrist injury, soon enough also pulling out of Wimbledon. Federer, recovering from knee surgery, hadn’t even played in Paris. And while he’d reached the semis at Wimbledon, he’d tumbled badly in that match – to the point where Federer opted to curtail his 2016 tennis year. Each player’s year-end ranking: Nadal at #9, Federer at #16.
Here now, a lightly pedantic but emphatic explanation of how journalism works. The journalist’s job is not to, as the terms go, “build someone up” or “write someone off.” The journalist’s job is to engage with what’s occurred and offer insights into what could occur. Predictions? Mere outcome-based thinking, scarcely raising anyone’s conscious, treating athletes as if they were stocks or commodities. Yuck. Analysis? That’s the job – careful study of matches, insights from experts, historical comparisons. Until this year’s Australian Open, for more than four years, I was asked repeatedly if Federer could win another major. The better question: What needs to happen for him to win a major?
So instead what happened has been a remarkable symmetry, downright to the month. The first quarter of 2017 belonged to Federer, the refreshed Swiss once again dazzling the world with his elegant movement, crisp strokes and, even at age 35, a bold new backhand. Those tools helped take him to three big titles – the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami. Each of them was also highlighted by wins over Nadal. Keenly attuned to his health, Federer then skipped the entire clay court season.
Nadal, already resurgent with runs to the finals in Melbourne and Miami, kicked it into high gear on the dirt. From the start of it all, in Monte Carlo, Nadal was a fire-breathing dragon, his competitive fury at fever pitch all spring. The Nadal comeback campaign culminated with victory at Roland Garros, earned without the loss of a set. Nadal has now joined Ken Rosewall and Pete Sampras as the only men to have won Grand Slam titles in their teens, 20s and 30s. Considering the physical ups and downs that have plagued Nadal his entire career, this speaks volumes to his exceptional tenacity.
When assessing athletes – particularly the greats – it is tempting to see them as chiseled icons, firmly established, in possession of all of their luminous assets. But that notion implies a static quality, as if all Federer and Nadal had to do to once again garner big titles was play as well as they always had. That’s not what’s happened this year.
Each, now past age 30, has made subtle adjustments that have triggered significant improvements. For Federer, of course, it’s been the backhand, if not necessarily technical, then certainly tactical, most notably with a commitment to both more dynamic returns and rally shots (all of this aided by a larger racquet head size). For Nadal, the enhancement has been to slightly alter where he aims his serve – in this case, going more at times to his opponent’s forehand. So effective was Nadal at Roland Garros that over the course of the tournament he won a higher percentage of his second serve points than first serve points. Winning is a desired outcome that can’t always be controlled. But as Federer and Nadal have shown, improvement is a process that anyone – even an all-time great – can always engage in.