The Australian Open 2014 Men’s Semifinals
The redback spider, Latrodectus hasselti, is a species of venomous spider indigenous to Australia. By way of dinner preparation, the redback uses her fangs to inject a neurotoxin into the vulnerable flesh of her prey, liquefying its insides before binding it thoroughly in silk and sautéing it lightly under the hot Australian sun. Lucky for me, I was able to see a redback—at delightfully close range— on my very first evening in Australia, right about dinnertime, in fact. There she was: sleek and elegant, with a bright red stripe running down her back, and lethal as hell. My Australian hosts took no small pleasure in explaining that recent research indicates the people who’ve been killed by a redback bite actually died from the pain, not the venom. But not to worry, they cheerfully reassured me, should I be bitten by a redback, I’d simply be rushed to hospital, injected with an anti-venom serum, and then pumped full of morphine for a few days to prevent pain-induced organ failure. Easy.
Now, I won’t go so far as to compare World No. 1 Rafael Nadal to the Latrodectus hasselti, but I will go so far as to say that beating him at tennis isn’t easy, and losing to him looks like it hurts. Both these points were amply demonstrated by Grigor Dimitrov in his 6-3, 6-7(3), 6-7(7), 2-6 quarterfinal loss to the Spaniard. The Bulgarian shed tears after the match. But, at 22 years-of-age, Dimitrov is still very much a player in-process. The 32-year-old Roger Federer, on the other hand, has been declared dead, buried, and resurrected at least a dozen times by now. He already is who he will be, at least on the tennis court. (But after he retires, Federer might want to consider a second career in necromancy.) Maybe this is why it can be so painful to watch the Swiss superstar lose, yet again, to Nadal. There is a sense that instead of getting closer to deciphering the trick to making Rafa’s forehand disappear, Federer’s chances are getting ever more remote.
This is not to say that Federer will never beat Nadal again. He probably will, possibly soon. But he will never discover the magic serum that allows him to avoid the pain of fending off a fusillade of Rafa forehands—all exploding into his backhand corner like hollow-point bullets—with only one hand on his tennis racquet. (And he will especially not discover the special serum if he persists on approaching into Nadal’s lethal side.) Roger Federer will never gain anything like ownership over their head-to-head, which Nadal now leads 23-10.
There is not much new to say about this latest encounter, which was a comprehensive and familiar-feeling victory for the Spaniard, though it was Nadal’s first win in straight sets at a major since the French Open in 2008. As anticipated, Nadal arrived with almost none of the unsettled confusion he showed against Dimitrov two days earlier. From his serve, to his forehand, to his clenched jaw, Rafa looked muscular in his determination. Yes, he was blistered, but he was also callous. [Sorry, couldn’t help it.] There are those of us who imagine it causes Rafael Nadal some degree of internal pain to pummel the great Roger Federer. But that doesn’t stop him from doing it. And, really, those forehands are so much fun to see.
Watching Federer, I wasn’t quite sure what I felt. Wabi-sabi comes to mind, The Japanese aesthetic wherein impermanence, incompleteness, and imperfection are prized. The flaw highlights the beauty, and objects become more treasured as they become more worn. Besides, he’ll always have those 17 Major titles, 300-odd weeks at No. 1, and et cetera, et cetera on which to rest his weary, single-handed laurels.
Watching the other Swiss semifinalist, the new Swiss No. 1, I knew exactly how I felt: “really happy,” just as Stanislas Wawrinka described himself. Considering this was the first Australian Open semifinal for either Wawrinka or the Czech seventh-seed Tomas Berdych, and that three of their four sets were decided by tiebreakers, the match was oddly flat. This might have had something to do with the fact that while Berdych and Wawrinka own no major titles, the players in the other semifinal have thirty between them. It might also have something to do with the fact that Wawrinka and Berdych took turns tightening up abysmally in the breakers. Stan went first, losing all but one point of the second set tiebreak. Then it was Berdych’s turn, and he double-faulted left and right in the second set breaker, which could be seen as ironic, since his tremendous serve was the whole reason the set had reached a tiebreak in the first place.
But the real problems started for Berdych when he failed to remember, at the very end of the fourth set—which turned out to be the end of the match— that it was meant to be Wawrinka’s turn to screw up the tiebreak. So, after selfishly mishitting the same volley twice, Berdych went on to miss some more serves, make a few errors off the ground, and before we knew it—but not before three-and-a-half hours had elapsed—the match was over. Stanislas Wawrinka had done what no ATP player has done since Tomas Berdych did it at Wimbledon in 2010. He’d earned himself a spot in a slam final while seeded outside the top four. In fact, Wawrinka became the first No. 8 seed to reach the Australian Open final since Brian Teacher did it 34 years ago, which was so long ago, even Roger Federer wasn’t born.
I don’t want to give the impression that this semifinal, which almost felt like an undercard show compared with the hype surrounding Fedal XXXIII, wasn’t a quality match. It was, and one aggressively played; it just wasn’t a great one. The contest had its moments: Wawrinka hit approximately twelve dozen exciting forehand winners, and exactly two even-more-exciting backhand winners down the line (or possibly three, stats is not my strong suit). Berdych did serve exceptionally, except for when it counted most. And, beginning in the second set, Wawrinka also developed an interesting, slightly frustrating habit of ceding the first 15 points of his service games to his opponent. So, his games were infused with a little extra tension, thus giving the crowd more reason cry out Stanimal! in loving, pleading tones.
But the real outpouring of emotion came directly after match point was won. The stadium went all warm and loudly fuzzy with joy. Wawrinka earned the affection of the Australian crowd last year, with his valiant five-set loss to the 2013 champion, Novak Djokovic. He doubled that affection by beating Djokovic in five in the quarterfinals this week. The Swiss also happens to be modest, open-hearted, and articulate in his interviews. In the on-court interview after Thursday’s match, Jim Courier asked Wawrinka if Stan’s young daughter understands what her father does for a living. Wawrinka replied she only understands that if he loses, she gets to see him sooner. Then he apologized to her, on camera, that he wouldn’t be home for another couple days yet. He was brimming over with emotion, and I admit, when he said the bit about his daughter, I got a little teary, too.
Rafael Nadal defeated a series of one-handed backhands—Philipp Kohlschreiber, Tommy Robredo, and Richard Gasquet—to reach the most recent major final, the 2013 US Open. Now, in 2014, he’s already defeated Dimitrov and Federer, and will get a shot at a third one-handed backhand and a second Australian Open title on Sunday. It’s likely he’ll win it. But, I hope, not too easily.