Over the years, we’ve gushed over the balletic beauty of your movement, the regal grace of your stroke-making and your astounding ability to adapt. But let’s talk endurance for a moment. Your greatest rival retired in his quarter-final and has fought injuries throughout his career. Your semi-final opponent, a sprightly South Korean who was five years old when you were already good enough to beat Pete Sampras at Wimbledon, couldn’t last a full two sets against you. And yet, you came out unscathed against a seasoned battler like Cilic, falling back on that trusted combination of deft power and satiny touch. The big Croat, I’m sure, is growing sick of you.
In the early years of your dominance, you were so ludicrously good that you often went into big matches with no real game plan. Your startling talent and quality on the ball mostly proved enough, no matter what was thrown at you from the other side of the net. It’s evident that with diminishing consistency that accompanies age, you’ve started to prepare more — and better. Against Hyeon Chung, for instance, you played to the middle of the court, often almost floating the ball back in play. Chung, who relishes pace on the ball for his own shot-making, was clearly thrown off by your tactics. It was almost like when you first played Andy Roddick all those years ago. “I thought he’d hit the ball harder,” remarked the American. Well, maybe the ball wasn’t exactly fizzing off your racquet back then, but you still managed to beat Roddick 21 times. Not bad.
Those who rave about your never-seen-before genius often forget how extraordinary your tennis acumen is: that match awareness, that unreal anticipation, that instinct to be at the right place at the right time; things that just can’t be taught. In the first game of the final against Cilic, when he was facing a break point, you deliberately hit a ball on the run that was so high that your opponent missed his overhead. Most other players would have attempted the pass and missed.
Robbie Koenig, former South African player and one of the sharpest tennis brains around, reckons your serve is second only to Sampras in the history of the men’s game. I believe otherwise; the accuracy and variety you are able to generate on your second makes your serve the most formidable I’ve ever seen. How do you do that, anyway? With that wand of a racquet of yours, you place the ball wherever you like, often finding preposterous angles, and all with an identical ball toss. It’s almost like watching Galina Ulanova — the legendary 20th-century ballerina — playing tennis for a refreshing change.
Ever since your renaissance, the serve has been almost as enjoyable as your forehand down the years. As for the backhand, I wish you had perfected the art of cutting off angles and taking the ball early sooner — those anguished times against Nadal that were witness to one chastening defeat after another could’ve perhaps been averted. Oh, wait. But that would’ve left with you 24, maybe 25 Slams? And that, even by your absurd standards, would’ve been beyond all limits of reasonableness.
While we, as spectators, marvel at your artistry from a distance, I’m sure that being on the same tennis court as you must be the most deflating experience for a player. I sometimes wonder how differently things would’ve turned out had younger players stood up to you more, like Grigor Dimitrov at Wimbledon last year, or even Cilic at the Australian Open. But in some ways, their inadequacies are a part of your greatness. You’ve often been able to get the better of these guys — all of them vastly talented — despite being nowhere close to your best. And while we’ve rued their insipidity in crunch matches, we sometimes forget that it is you, with all your boundless sorcerous powers, who makes them look so unexceptional. And if it were not for you, we’d be witness to — in addition to half-filled stadiums — an irksome merry-go-round of results where we’d have a new tournament winner every week. Fans enjoy consistency; more important, they like consistency that ensures that you mostly win.
I see that with more silverware in the trophy cabinet, your performance off the court has improved, too. Your conversations with Jim Courier — what a terrific interviewer he is — were every bit as pleasant as your tennis in Melbourne. Everything you’ve said in the past few months, from wanting to teach your kids a double-handed backhand to Nadal’s sleeveless shirt, once again exhibits the amiable character that makes your virtuosity so rare. In fact, your interview with Courier and Hamish McLachlan after the final was so effortlessly cool that I wish we’d been introduced to more of this candour before.
So what’s next? The world number one ranking is in sight, again. You’ve been there for 302 weeks already, but I’m sure it’ll be extra special this time around. A ninth Wimbledon crown would seem like a sensible expectation, too. You’re in such imperious touch right now that you might even be thinking of giving Roland-Garros another go. Who knows?
But no matter what happens from here, you must remember a few things. Many years from now, when you’re long gone and the sport of tennis ceases to be what it is today, they’ll still remember you. They’ll recall your name with profound affection and wonderment, the kind perhaps no sportsperson succeeding you will ever be able to evoke. I don’t know how much more your body can take, but go on for as long as you can. After all, your greatness makes so many people’s lives worthwhile.
An Indebted Fan