The final of the 2013 Australian Open featured pretty much everything we are gradually coming to expect from an encounter between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray: jaw-dropping athleticism, explosive power, relentless defense and indefatigable spirit. When you stack those particular ingredients against each other, the victor cannot necessarily be considered the better player but merely the one able to outlast the other on the given day.
Novak Djokovic is a formidable world number one and last night’s final was a testament to his superior endurance, patience and conviction.
But was the final also a testament to his superior skill? In the context of the Djokovic – Murray rivalry, not really.
Realistically, there is nothing much that separates the two players given that their make-up and strengths virtually mirror each other, as does the manner in which they execute their game-plans. Accordingly, with no impartial metric, it is impossible to gauge the superiority of one player relative to the other. As Murray improves further, the few lingering differences between the two will be completely expunged, particularly once Andy’s self-belief (already riding an all-time high) reaches Novak-ian proportions.
And I guess that’s my primary gripe when their contests are held to constitute the next legendary rivalry in men’s tennis, or, if you are to believe the emcee at the Australian Open post match awards ceremony, already one of our “greatest rivalries”.
You can’t blame the commentators and the announcers for pitching Djokovic/Murray as the spiritual successor to Nadal/Federer, Samprass/Agassi, McEnroe/Borg; it’s their job to sell the sport. However, it takes much more to create a truly great rivalry than simply the presence of two great players (and harbor no doubt, these two are great) who constitute the opposing forces.
A hallmark of any great rivalry has to be the battle of contrasts between the adversaries. While consistency has its undeniable virtues, there is an inherent blandness when harmony is elevated to an adversarial congruence. There is no drama in watching mirror images jockeying for position because our minds are attuned to think that only within incompatibility lies true antagonism.
In tennis we have had the privilege to witness historic rivalries built on this very antagonistic dynamic – where the clash of personalities or playing styles have drawn us deeper into the narrative scripted by the unique adversaries. McEnroe-Borg threw up the obnoxious serve-and-volleyer versus the cool-as-ice baseliner. In Sampras-Agassi we had the humble, metronomic all-courter with the unfaltering serve against the brash showman with his instinctive service return and deadly ground-strokes. In many ways, these rivalries reached their apotheosis in Federer and Nadal: the Professor and the Jock. Style v. Substance. Blue Blood v. Blue Collar. A study of these rivalries warrant books unto themselves, of which there are some fine ones written, but suffice to say that it is a clash of styles rather than a meeting of alike minds which hold the key to an enduring and gripping rivalry.
The Djokovic-Murray “rivalry” suffers from this lack of contrast, a fatal dearth of discordance.
Their games are cut from the same cloth: both have an exceptional serve; hit a heavy forehand (which can generate copious topsin); possess a potent double-handed backhand which they can use to switch defense to offense (particularly when they go down the line); are excellent scramblers; maintain a low percentage of unforced errors; have an unbelievable defensive game; and, are two of the best service-returners (probably ever). Novak’s self-belief used to set him apart but, under Ivan Lendl and after a stellar 2012, Murray is catching up fast in this department and his new-found willingness to kill short balls has brought his game even closer to Novak’s.
To compound the stark uniformity, they are close friends off-court. They both even have dogs with their own friggin’ twitter pages. Hell, just so there would be no confusion, they even wore virtually the same clothes in the final and each sported a matching yellow wristband. Come on!
This unity of style (and, consequently, strategy) gives rise to contests which are more prone to being grinding battles of attrition rather than fluid examinations of skill. The resultant tennis is not boring or lackluster per se, and, indeed, there is a market for slog-fests consisting of two guys duking it out, double-handed backhand to double-handed backhand, until one or the other yields. However, it is highly dubious whether such a debilitating grind has a place in the aesthetics which characterize a true rivalry
My use of “aesthetics” in understanding the limitations of the Djokovic-Murray rivalry should not be misinterpreted as being a reference to stylishness of technique or strategy. It’s no secret that Murray and Djokovic are lacking in style and finesse – something perhaps either player would readily admit to. But the aesthetics of a good match (and, hence, a good rivalry) do not revolve around such stylistic parameters. There is more to compelling, competitive drama than an abundance of acutely angled inside-out forehands or delicate drop volleys.
Rather, the key aesthetical deficiency arising from the Djokovic-Murray rivalry is the lack of any meaningful narrative within their matches.
A Djokovic-Murray match which goes the distance is a virtual certainty given their reciprocal skills. More often than not, the longevity of their matches is attributable to their analogous playing styles cancelling each other out rather than any significant variation of strategy or superiority of tactics.
Yet, this very sameness of play inhibits us from ever extracting any sense of an intriguing narrative from the 5 and a half hours of play clocked up. Sure, a narrative of two athletes testing each other’s endurance does exist but surely there has to be more to a compelling rivalry than a study of who gets tired faster or whose forehand passing shot on the run is a touch better on the day than the other guy’s forehand passing shot on the run (as we witnessed in the final, two great service-returners unable to break the other’s serve until Murray finally tired).
More complex and nuanced narratives are usually borne out within rivalries which work as studies of contrasts – where one player pits his unique attributes against the other. Such matches are as much a battle of wits as they are a physical contest. The drama unfolds as a function of the inequalities between the rivals rather than as a product of their strengths.
Take for example the most recent great rivalry. Federer’s normally precise single-handed backhand, usually a weapon, is rendered a liability by Nadal’s use of topspin and their encounters revolved around Federer attempting to (unsuccessfully, more often than not) adjust his game-plan to counter Nadal’s. Nadal, in turn, countered Federer’s game-plan of running around his backhand by utilizing his superhuman speed to chase down Federer’s angled forehands. Federer presumably would have adjusted his strategy by shortening the points, utilizing the drop shot or perhaps coming to the net more often, a strategy he adopted after the 2009 Australian Open but never got the chance to consistently implement against Nadal.
This constant tactical back and forth is something the Djokovic-Murray rivalry sorely lacks though it is through no fault of their own. Unfortunately, as a pair, they are just too good at the same things and thereby render tactics irrelevant. Indeed, while it is incredible that Murray and Djokovic have no significant weaknesses in their game (except perhaps Djokovic’s relative awkwardness in the forecourt), this aspect also works to the detriment of the aesthetic appeal of their rivalry. An imbalance is an underestimated feature of a great rivalries and it is the presence of a discernible imbalance of skill or ability which lends a match or rivalry its own unique character and storyline.
Once you layer such imbalances and inequalities with the respective personas of each player, that is when compelling theatre is produced. The moment when two guys swooshing a stick at a green ball become actors in a higher drama. They inhabit roles within their self-generated narrative and the rivalry blossoms as the viewer is able to identify with the underdog or the dictator; the risk-taker or the pragmatician. Djokovic and Murray’s barely distinguishable styles are compounded by their barely recognizable personalities. There is no tactically or emotionally resonant attribute which could tether our interest in either protagonist and so, inevitably, it comes down to waiting to see who blinks first.
Djokovic and Murray will go on to play countless matches which will easily be termed “epics” given their duration and physical toll. It’s a sad reality that the intensity of their contests are a result of the collective homogeneity of their various (and considerable) individual strengths which work to create a fairly one-dimensional narrative, pretty much the equivalent of one long arm-wrestling match.
We are in the golden age of tennis, for sure, and Murray and Djokovic are important drivers of the game. It’s just a shame from an aesthetical standpoint that their careers had to intersect so closely because, as Federer fades and Nadal’s legs deteriorate, we may be witnessing the end of a golden age of tennis rivalries.
Women on top: After years of disorder, randomness and anonymity, the women’s game is finally showing signs of a discernible and compelling narrative. While the majority of the field is largely unreliable, the top tier of women have distinguished themselves by their consistency and professionalism. Azarenka has brought some much needed order and respectability to the no.1 ranking which chicks like Dinara Safina, Caroline Wozniaki and Jelena Jankovic had done their best to stomp into the mud. I still can’t tell the difference between an Angelique Kerber and an Agnieszka Radwanska, but Azarenka, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova have imbued the women’s tour with purpose and direction and for the first Grand Slam in a while I was thoroughly fascinated by the second week of the women’s side of the draw. Li Na is a welcome addition to the upper tier and, IMO, the most stylish shot-maker/baseliner of the four. The overall style of play itself remains pretty one-dimensional but the appeal lies in a stable set of protagonists with unique temperaments and distinguishable personalities which, as discussed above, give rise to more absorbing narratives and rivalries.
Always the bridesmaid: Man I am pretty sick of David Ferrer – he really sucks. Look, he might be an incredibly hard-working, honorable, sweet-as-hell guy who extracts optimum value from his limited skills but it doesn’t change the fact that he is the equivalent of a “pass-go-collect-200” for whichever top seed is lucky enough to be on his side of the draw. He has zero self-belief against the big guns and, even if he did, he doesn’t have the tools to act on it. Some find his consistency impressive. Personally, I’m tired of him showing up in semi after semi just so he can usher his opponent to the final. I’d much rather see a Del Potro, Tsonga, Berdych, or even a Tipsarevic up there. On their good days, they are much more capable of causing a stir than that nimrod Ferrer.
Party-crashers: The dominance of the top 4 is unquestioned, but I am continually amazed by the startling depth of the ATP roster. I’ve always enjoyed watching Stanislas Wawrinka play and his fourth round duel with Djokovic (best match of the Open for me) was a vindication of his talent. It doesn’t end there. Tsonga is an incredible showman, Gasquet sometimes rivals Federer in elegance and shot-making, Delpo looks like he is going to break into the top 4 any second and Berdych looks like he is one final ingredient away from cracking the secret recipe. It’s not just the golden age because we’ve got 4 of the greatest players ever at the helm. There is also a very talented supporting cast keeping them honest and who are more than capable of shaking them up in the latter stages of Slams if David Ferrer will just piss off.
Roger Federer v.2: Federer is by no means the best player in the world at the moment and will have to settle with being out-muscled by the likes of Murray and Djokovic until he calls time on the greatest career ever. However, it is fascinating to watch Federer come to terms with the realities of this stage of his career and see the adjustments he makes to remain competitive. His match against Murray was a prime example of how two unequal players (Murray easily the stronger and faster one) with disparate attributes can produce a more compelling narrative than two evenly matched superior players. It’s telling that Murray had to play his best ever tennis and sustain a phenomenal service game to beat Federer and its even more telling that Federer stretched Murray to 5 sets despite having a poor service game of his own. Federer will probably be playing catch-up for the rest of his career and I for one am utterly intrigued to see how he manages to keep up. Federer-the-force-of-nature is all but done. Federer-the-scrappy-underdog has arrived and makes for brilliant viewing. It might even compensate for the lack of true theatre provided by the twins at the top.