Federer Again?! Thoughts on the Australian Open

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Federer Again?! Thoughts on the Australian Open
Mark Dadswell/Getty Images
Before it all began, as tennis experts weighed in with their predictions as to who would win the Australian Open, it seemed the future was now. 
The names of Djokovic, Murray, Nadal, and Davydenko frequently came up, with surprisingly little mention of Roger Federer, his No. 1 ranking seemingly an accident of the times. 
But in defense of the prognosticators, it hardly appears all knowing to predict that the top seed will win, and secondly a new generation was rising, and the turn of the decade seemed as good a time as any for one of them to leap towards the top.
If all goes well, the first week of a major tournament should be all about the lesser lights, and into the welcome void created by top seeds advancing stepped two men who cast great shadows upon the game, if only in a literal sense. The works of Ivo Karlovic and John Isner must never be confused with art, but their games fascinate not so much by what they do, but what their towering serves force others to do. 
In defeating John Isner, Andy Murray provided a study in how defense is a most effective form of offense, while the spectacular game of Rafael Nadal had to exercise much patience in seeing off Ivo Karlovic over four awkward sets.
And that brought about the second week, headlined by the first marquee matchup, a quarterfinal featuring both Murray and Nadal. 
Up to this point, the knock on the Scotsman was a passive approach that smothered the talent beneath. Against Nadal he was at his finest, along with his brilliant movement, he added agression, net play, and a sense of urgency that saw him break back whenever his serve was broken. 
The level of play was perhaps the highest of the tournament, only to be over before it began as Rafa's body seemingly hiccuped while changing direction. Once again, it was the knee, and once again, the question of whether this is the beginning of the end has come up. Such questions were asked of Federer at the end of last year's tournament.  Tennis can only hope that hints of Nadal's demise are just as premature.
On the other side of the draw, the other pseudo final was Davydenko and Federer, and for a set and a half we were treated to scenes of the incredible as Federer was made to appear slow and clueless, but then came the backhand miss that cost the Russian a double break, a set, and likely the match.  
From that point forward, it was just a shell of the man going through the motions, and though one can only imagine the scenes of insanity reeling through Davydenko's mind, the change from sun into shadow of Rod Laver Arena cannot be overstated. Like no one else, Roger Federer makes good use of sighting the ball. 
He was a touch hard hearted to note that over the course of 5 sets, part of Davydenko would just go away, but it was true nonetheless, and true of his rivals as well.  Roddick succumed to shoulder troubles, and the semi-finals was about as far as Marin Cilic's game was going to break out.  
A seemingly inevitable reprise of the 2008 semifinal was derailed when Novak Djokovic suddenly and literally lost his guts, and the immediate benefactor Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has a game for the ages but not the body for consecutive five-set matches. 
Federer's newfound penchant for calling them as he sees them came to a head as he delivered his uncharitable pre-match pep talk to Murray via the press: he wouldn't be the one dealing with the lion's share of pressure, and no three sets has ever been the match of a five-set final.
The final was a tense affair, literally.  ou wonder what  Murray could be capable if he was born elsewhere. If it was America that was waiting 74 years for a major tennis champion, the story would be buried beneath the hype of the Super Bowl, vying for column inches with the likes of NASCAR restrictor plates. 
As it was, if you were to sum the wait of each and every British tennis fan, Federer's exaggeration of 150,000 years has the ring of truth, and it certainly appeared so as it wasn't until the third set that Murray began to find his legs and swing the racquet with any sense of intention. 
But by then it was too late. In spite of a tiebreaker for the ages, there was a sense of inevitability when on championship point Murray's backhand fell beneath the weight of it all right into the net.
We have known for the most part the youthful side of Federer's greatness, a talent so large and unrestrained that his moments of genius almost seem accidental.  But with age has come the wisdom that it's possible to win without meeting strength with strength. 
Where before he would have tried to outdo Davydenko for pace and for angle, now we've seen him neutralize the Russian's feet by hitting right at him. Where before he would have taken some chances as Murray incessantly pounded his backhand, now he was content to let the point play until his forehand could create just the right angle that would end the point, yet not embolden an opponent who lives so much on speed.  
In Australia, everyone of his major opponents, it seemed, took some sort of step backwards. Federer? He took a different step forwards.  He hung tough when he needed to. He showed a tactical flexibility when he needed it. And he won.
Whether this points to a monster 2010 is hard to say, there are simply too many good players on the kind side of the aging curve, but his intent to remain a factor is something tennis can look forward to.

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