What the Australian Open Means For...
What you accomplished this weekend was simply extraordinary.
You defeated Fernando Verdasco in the longest match in AO history. After that, had you been too fatigued to put up a fight in the final, it would’ve been understandable, and he’d have already created a lasting memory for Australian fans. Instead, you backed it up with a four-hour finals triumph over Federer, the most dominant player of the last four decades.
Much has, and still will be made of the fact that Federer had a pair of 0-40 games on your serve in the third set, both of which he could not cash in on. Had he won them, and then the set, the outcome may have changed entirely.
Even so, it’s quite apparent now that you have acquired a skill for escape, if in fact you were not born with it. Remembering the two match points Fed had against you in Rome 2006, the leads he had in both sets last year in Monte Carlo, and the break advantage in the second set of last year’s Wimbledon is painful for Federer’s fans, but it’s also instructive.
Some choose to lament Federer’s missed opportunities in these cases, but I choose to laud you for being evidence that the old cliché; you know, of never being beaten until you lose match point. Your place as one of the game’s great competitors is already cemented: One day players like Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi (each has only two more majors than your total) may consider it an honor to be compared to you.
However history remembers you, I’m proud that I can watch you play now.
Can you play your best against Nadal? The Spaniard is the player against whom you’re losing the most second serve points, as getting into a protracted rally with Nadal is a shaky proposition for any pro.
It is not coincidental, then, that your first serve percentage was much lower against Nadal than against Andy Roddick, or even against Tomas Berdych. I’ve played enough tennis in my time to understand that, when you know missing your first serve is highly detrimental to your chances, it does little to help you get the first serve in.
I feel for you, though as it’s been an awfully rapid turnabout since last week: After your quarterfinal domination of Juan Martin del Potro, 2008 looked like an anomaly and Nadal’s ascent to No. 1 appeared short-lived. Now I’m hearing some wonder aloud if you’ll ever hold the top spot again.
A lot depends on how Nadal’s overtaxed physique holds out in the second half of the year: Typically, it has begun to wear down by September, leaving you with little competition at the U.S. Open.
Even if (and this is far from certain) you’re denied the top spot from here on, it is wholly within your capabilities to break the Grand Slam record just by dominating in New York as Pete Sampras did in London. Even if you’re not the best this year, you still have plenty of chances to be the best ever.
I know you’ll capitalize.
Unlike previous AO dark horses Fernando Gonzalez, Marcos Baghdatis and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, you did not reach the final in Oz. You also differ from them, however, in that you put a serious scare into the eventual champion. Lacking Baghdatis’ fitness issues, Tsonga’s recurring injuries and Gonzo’s mercurial nature, there’s no reason why you can’t be a consistent presence in the second week of majors.
Now that your serve, forehand and fitness have brought you to the top 10, I expect you to stay there throughout 2009.
Sometimes giving your all is its own reward. Hopefully that’s how you’ll look at it; your victory over Novak Djokovic was your biggest at a major in two and a half years, but nothing positive had developed in your mismatch with Federer. Can you be content with reaching the second week of majors consistently, making a good living and leading the U.S. Davis Cup team?
Hopefully you can, because the gap between you and the game’s top players is still a wide one.
You have more reasons than ever to rue your missed opportunities against Verdasco in round four. At the time it was considered a shocking indictment of how unprepared you were for Grand Slam glory, but you were just a little short of beating Verdasco, who fell just short of Nadal who … you get the idea. These are the kind of matches you’ll have to win in order to triumph in majors, but you’re not as far off as a fourth-round loss indicates.
A few of us have defended you despite your withdrawals, but even our patience is limited. Please stop sooner, not later. A U.S. Open withdrawal would complete a Grand Slam of lameness, and that’s not how you want to be remembered.
Juan Martin del Potro
How does your seat feel now? At this point you must believe you’re the anti-Nadal, because Federer really loves your game! Fortunately, you don’t have to play him in every match. Just keep in mind, Nadal suffered one of worse losses of his career at the 2008 AO, and then had his best year on tour (so far). It pays to persevere.
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