The 2014 Australian Open Men’s Quarterfinals, and Other Observations
Tomas Berdych  def. David Ferrer  6-1, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4
Stanislas Wawrinka  def. Novak Djokovic  2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7
Rafael Nadal  def. Grigor Dimitrov  6-3, 7-6(3), 7-6(7), 6-2
Roger Federer  def. Andy Murray  6-3, 6-4, 6-7(7), 6-3
Speaking from the expertise of over week’s worth of days in south Australia, I can say there are a lot of great things about Australians, not least of which is a penchant for friendly abbreviations. Here, on this vaster than vast continent, language lovers can discover more diminutives than Merriam and Webster ever imagined possible. Chocolate becomes ‘choco’ or even ‘choc,’ special becomes ‘spesh,’ documentaries are ‘docos,’ a renovation is a ‘reno,’ mosquitos are ‘mozzies,’ Stanislas Wawrinka is, well, ‘Stanimal,’ and the 2014 Australian Open becomes, simply, ‘The Tennis.’
Television announcers tell you “the Channel 7 News will be aired following the tennis.” The gate staff at Melbourne Park will tell you to “have a great day at the tennis!” And if you clap your hands very, very loudly when Mikhail Youzhny wins a point in men’s doubles, the elderly lady next to you will whisper to her husband in an tolerant, amused tone, “She really enjoys the tennis, doesn’t she?” ‘The tennis’ is endowed with such easy intimacy, and it’s wonderfully, unabashedly tennisy. “Are you going to the tennis today?” is a question I’ve been asked by everyone from friends, to fellow tram passengers, to complete strangers. Even the Uniqlo brand-representative standing outside the Uniqlo pop-up store hopes I’ve been enjoying my time at the tennis.
Uniqlo is newly arrived in Melbourne, and the line outside this particular location—on bustling Swanston Street, not far from Federation Square—zigged and zagged across the wide sidewalk so many times I was all but sure I’d find Novak Djokovic perched at its end, signing autographs, or maybe doing his best Boris Becker impersonation. When I asked the Uniqlo representative where they’d put Novak, he explained that the long line had less to do with the tennis than it had to do with free underwear. In honor of the brand’s entrance to the Melbourne market, Uniqlo was giving away underclothes to all comers. And not just any underclothes, “AIRism” undershirts. Equally as philosophical as it is sartorial, the entire AIRism line is hand-woven from molecules of pure, organic oxygen. “No matter what you wear it under, the AIRism will keep you cool,” the Uniqlo representative told me with a friendly smile. (The AIRism is also worn by Novak Djokovic, on the rare occasion when his opponents require him to sweat.)
If I’d waited in line I could’ve tested that theory, because the temperature rose into well into the 40s (approximately 2,012 F) before lunchtime on that day. But I didn’t wait in line, because it’s nonsense to wait in a 40-minute line in the 40-degree heat for what is essentially a white tank top. Besides, I was on my way to the tennis. Since arriving in Australia I’ve done all sorts of southern-hemisphere type activities. I’ve gone swimming in the South Sea, kangaroo spotting on a suburban golf course, to the Queen Victoria Market to ogle barrels of ground spices and buy myself one of those hats with the corks hanging off the brim to keep the mozzies away. But most of all, I’ve gone to the tennis.
And not unlike the hours spent frolicking in the ocean waves, the tennis has been an immersive experience. To keep on with the elemental metaphors, my Australian Open experience reminds me of going to the Musée de l’Orangerie—which I did for the first time years ago, on an August day in Paris hot enough to melt my unfashionable American tennis shoes— and standing very, very close to Monet’s water lilies to admire the rainbow of color on the surface of all that blue water. Looking at a Monet up that close is a textural and evocative experience, the brush strokes brim with feeling, but it’s damn near impossible to distinguish anything like structure or form, let alone plants, in all that scribbled mess.
That’s what the first week at the Australian Open was like for me. I was submerged in the experience of colorfully garbed athletes—Adidas blues, Lacoste sea foam green, Asics pink, Nike teal, and shades of Uniqlo sand—skittering across a sea of blue concrete. But, unlike trying to discern les nymphéas at close range, if you stay at a tennis tournament long enough, allowing your gaze to soften and the pace of your thoughts to slow until it matches the rhythmic chanting of Bulgarian tennis enthusiasts, you will begin to discover the lilies. And one of those lilies will have a gilded backhand, and his Aussie name will be Stanimal.
Stanislas Wawrinka’s surprising upset of the Australian Open defending champion, and the champion of defending, Uniqlo’s Novak Djokovic, was far and away the best match of the tournament, and will likely feature as one of the best of 2014. And I was there. And I did not take a single bathroom break. Granted, it was a relatively quick five-setter, for all that the score was 9-7 in the final set. The first set went by all too quickly for those of us hoping Wawrinka would put up the kind of fight that gave us their tremendous five-set, five-hour encounter in the 2013 Australian Open fourth round. I confess to being one of those tennis fans who thought this year’s sequel would fail to live up to the hype. (I felt the same about the second edition of Sloane Stephens vs. Victoria Azarenka, especially because that matchup wasn’t even particularly close last year, just controversial.) Imagine how elated I was to be wrong.
Throughout the first set, and for a good portion of the second, I mostly marveled at what seemed like the sheer impossibility of hitting a tennis ball to a place on the court not occupied by the World No. 2. Djokovic’s defense is uncanny, for its impenetrability, but also for its strategy. He has a habit of accelerating into his forehand when least expected, and the placement on his return is downright cruel. If Wawrinka landed a competent first serve, the Swiss was likely to find the ball bouncing off his shoelaces a second later, or buried into the farthest corner of the court. Wawrinka’s response to the confidence-killing Djokovic return seemed to be to avoid serving the ball anywhere near the service box. Likewise, the Swiss response to the Serb’s forward-moving, attacking defense was to retreat well beyond the baseline and try (and fail) to fire winners from behind the Melbourne sign.
But, as the second set wore on, Wawrinka kept forcing himself back up to the baseline, willing himself to try again, to fail better. Being there, I could imagine that I, too, felt the depth of his effort. I suspect many others in the crowd would agree with me, because the stadium was enthusiastically, warm-heartedly behind the scruffy, barrel-chested No. 8 seed. Objectively speaking, the second set featured some of the best tennis of the match, as the upward arc of Wawrinka’s tennis intersected with the vaguely downward trajectory of Djokovic’s game. But it was the fifth set that was most thrilling.
After Wawrinka somehow won the second and then the third sets, my spectating companion—a fellow tennis-writer whose humor plays equally as well live as it does on the page—remarked that now we were at least guaranteed five sets. And Djokovic did win the fourth, though he didn’t run away with it as I’d thought he might. There was also a moment in the fourth, somewhere nearer the end of the set than the beginning—one of the things about getting caught up in the creative flow of live tennis is that, for me, time loses some of its linearity—when Wawrinka left a ball he should have hit, thinking it would float wide. It was a decision clouded by hope, and the Swiss looked utterly deflated afterward. It was one of those moments that could have marked a turning point in the match. Indeed, I noted it with an eye toward mentioning it here, as evidence of the difference between the unwavering concentration of tennis’s demi-gods and the emotional force that rules the lives of mere mortals.
But as the fifth set opened, Djokovic’s nerves were every bit as jangled as Wawrinka’s, and the set was a wild ride. As they had been in the second set, the rallies in the fifth were sometimes stunning, and stunningly long, with booming backhands from both men, and those wonderful, dramatically angled flat forehands from Stan. But there were also plenty of cautious, tentative rallies, with both players trying to wait out the other. Wawrinka’s serve came in and out of focus, as did Djokovic’s forehand wing, which often flapped fitfully at his side, all out of sync with the rest of his body. The Serb’s primal scream, however, remained as richly articulated as ever. I wish I could tell you exactly how the final two games unfolded, but the details are lost in the massive emotional wave that crashed through Rod Laver Arena after Djokovic’s attempt to serve and volley away match point went quietly, strangely awry. Even the AIRism underclothes weren’t enough to keep Novak’s head cool in the moment, and he pushed a relatively routine forehand volley wide.
I can tell you that by the time we got to 5-5 in the fifth I was feeling intensely for both men, who were so clearly giving the match their all. The stakes felt sky high. There was a moment—again, I’m not sure when it was, maybe in the 7-7 game—wherein Wawrinka landed an excellent first serve, and saw it come back to him made even more dangerous by the Serb’s return. For few points before this one, Wawrinka had been playing tight, tentative tennis. But as the defending champion’s service return came flying back at his feet it seemed as if something clicked inside the Swiss. He went after the ball, really went after it, as if he finally realized he could only win if he put his whole heart into it. And he won the point, and then, miraculously, the match. Afterward, he said he felt really, really, really happy. It showed.
None of the other quarterfinals were near the quality of this one, though they were all exciting in their way. I somehow found myself watching most of Berdych’s upset of Ferrer on a muted television screen under Rod Laver Arena in the players’ cafe, surrounded by tennis people who all seemed to agree that Ferrer was out of form. They also agreed that while Berdych’s serve might often rise to the level of unplayable, his T-shirt is downright unwearable.
Federer’s four set win over Andy Murray, which I did not see live, should have been over in three. As Federer told Courier afterward, he knows he’s better at earning break points than converting them. And as high as the stakes felt for Djokovic and Wawrinka, the Federer-Murray encounter was relatively tensionless (unless you count the tension Murray managed to work into his grimaces, which was, as per usual, tremendous). It is good to have the Scot back on tour after his back surgery, but it was also evident that he’s not yet fully returned to form. As a spectator, and a Jo sympathizer, I preferred Federer’s fourth round win over Tsonga. It was a sumptuous match, and so easy to admire for the beauty of the brushstrokes. Sure, there was never much sense that the Frenchman might win a set, let alone the match, but there were so many points to be enjoyed as stand-alone creations, like the public art that decorates the urban landscape here in Melbourne.
As a Rafael Nadal fan, and one who would also be pleased to see the Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov take up residence somewhere nearer the Top 10, I’d hoped to enjoy their quarterfinal match more than I actually did. Maybe it was the fact that my seat was positioned in the midst of twenty or so spectators who’d disembarked from a cruise ship that morning and felt compelled to compare notes on the wall décor in their various cabins (very similar, it turns out). Or maybe it was that Dimitrov’s serves were either astonishing or terrible. Or that Nadal’s forehand was like Dimitrov’s serve, and that the Bulgarian’s return of serve was nearly non-existent. Maybe it was because I was aware Mikhail Youzhny and Max Mirnyi were losing their doubles match out on Court 2. Or—and, this is just a guess—it might be that I’d already watched 20 hours of tennis in the past two days.
As close as Nadal came to not winning the two tiebreak sets, I didn’t worry much that he’d fail to win the entire match. His champions’ fire was too well lit. And, as Rafa said when it was all over, he also got very, very lucky. Taken together, the No. 1 and 2 seed’s quarterfinal matches reinforced both sides of an essential, conflicting reality: Most of the time, the better player wins the match, especially when the better player is one of the Big Four. But, it’s tennis, which also means anything can happen, anything can be. Call it an elemental truth, call it a TRUEism if you like—or just call it another great day at the tennis.