Legends never die

For as long as they have existed in their current form, tennis’ four Grand Slam tournaments have served as the most reliable proving ground to determine which players have the staying power to expand the frontiers of achievement within the sport. This rule of thumb holds durably true for Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal who, by evenly splitting the majors in 2017, have brought the Big Four’s major tally up to a stonking 50 and their personal counts to 19 and 16, respectively. Who could argue against the notion that the reinstitution of their Grand Slam duopoly has been the most comfortingly familiar aspect of this jarringly unpredictable tennis season? The way things are, Federer and Nadal’s ability to turn back the clock has been the only thing keeping tennis out of the doldrums of late.

Almost as prolifically as the two greatest players of all time have swatted aside their competition this year, Tennis-Pulse.com has provided in-depth coverage of the slams with a bevy of post-match recap and live commentary articles. If you made it through all of those, well done to you- that’s a great many words to read. For the sake of convenience, even the most omnivorous of our readers would benefit from a recapitulation of how Federer and Nadal swept the Grand Slams this year. So, here it is.

 

Australian Open               

Champion: R. Federer                 

Runner Up: R. Nadal

When then 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer returned to competitive action in January, he sought more than anything else to play tennis again pain-free. He confirmed that he was on the mend by playing (and losing) an intensely gripping three tie-break slugfest against young Sascha Zverev at the Hopman Cup, and made us all doubly sure by disposing of Jurgen Melzer and Noah Rubin in the first two rounds of the Australian Open. It wouldn’t be all bad, then, if he were to lose to Tomas Berdych in round 3. Except he didn’t. Federer dropped only 10 games in the process of straight-setting Berdych, then found himself drawn against Kei Nishikori in the round of 16. In the first of three five set matches he was to play at this year’s Aussie Open, Federer outlasted the fifth-seed after losing the first four games (and set) of the match.

As Federer surged through the draw, Novak Djokovic’s title defence came to an unforeseeably abrupt end at the hands of Denis Istomin in the second round. Andy Murray, who was expected to pick up the Serb’s slack, was ousted in the fourth round by Mischa Zverev (who Federer subsequently beat in the quarters). The only other former slam champions still alive in the tournament were Rafael Nadal and Stanislas Wawrinka. Wawrinka overcame a slow start to the first week to set up an all-Swiss semi-final showdown with Federer. Nadal survived Sascha Zverev’s groundstroke artillery in the third round and his next two wins eventuated in a last-four clash against a Grigor Dimitrov fully awoken from his 2016 slumber.

The two semi-finals went to five sets; Federer won his, Nadal did the same. The final these two men produced was nothing less than an elixir for the game of tennis, and perfect does not even begin to describe it. If you need any reminding of who won you might be on the wrong website…

The King kneels in homage to the sport

 

French Open                   

Champion: R. Nadal                   

Runner Up: S. Wawrinka

The conjunction of Nadal rediscovering his most formidable clay-court form and Federer deciding to completely forgo match play on the dirt this year made for a French Open soaked in both expectancy and disappointment. This is because Nadal was overwhelmingly tipped to win an unprecedented 10th trophy at his pet slam, but at the same time the world was deprived of seeing how Federer’s retooled baseline game would fare against his nemesis’ inexhaustible retrieving skills on the slowest of all surfaces.

In the end, it mattered not who Nadal found himself up against. Federer or no Federer, Nadal emitted clear signals that he was back to his relentless best in April by capturing trophies at the Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell (winning both for the tenth time). For Nadal to complete the trio of ‘decimas’ at Roland Garros became even more of an inevitability once he clinched his 30th Masters 1000 title in Madrid soon after.

Destiny beckoned in Paris, and Nadal answered its call. Frenchman Benoit Paire was the first of his opponents to be on the receiving end of a swift and unceremonious thrashing; Robin Haase, Nikoloz Basilashvili and Roberto Bautista Agut got theirs in the space of another five days. Of the other top players competing in the tournament, only four- Djokovic, Thiem, Murray and Wawrinka- were in with anything like realistic a chance of denying the king of clay a return to his throne as week two of the tournament dawned.

Four soon became three when Djokovic went into a tailspin during his quarter-final match against Thiem, losing it 7-6(5), 6-3, 6-0. Two days later, Thiem looked equally as listless in his last-four encounter with Nadal, whom he had sprung a surprise win against in Rome. Nadal secured his place in the final with a third set bagel of his own. The first semi-final, contested between Murray and Wawrinka, was decided by a one-sided fifth set which the 2015 French Open titlist took 6-1.

Nadal and Wawrinka each had to put their respective spotless records on the line in the French Open final. 125 minutes into proceedings, it turned out that it was Wawrinka’s unbeaten streak in Grand Slam finals that was to end at three, as opposed to Nadal’s unbroken winning run in French Open finals collapsing at nine. Nadal’s 6–2, 6–3, 6–1 victory over Wawrinka indeed brought him a 10th French Open crown, his first since 2014, and a 53rd clay court title in aggregate. Some sporting records are meant to last forever and a day; those that Nadal has set on clay might make up a good chunk of the eternally untouchable ones in tennis.

From Paris with love

 

The Championships, Wimbledon             

Winner: R. Federer                 

Runner Up: M. Cilic                       

After Nadal’s near flawless Springtime stretch ran its course, Roger Federer once again became the cynosure of the tennis world as the grass-court season commenced. Initially, Federer seized up under the spotlight, losing to Tommy Haas in the first match he played at the MercedesCup. Federer’s anti-climactic return to competition in Stuttgart was immediately mitigated by a storming run in Halle, where he picked up his 9th Gerry Weber Open title. He won all ten sets he played that week, which put him in good stead heading into Wimbledon.

At SW19, Federer quickly established dominion over his competition with crushing wins over Alexandr Dolgopolov, Dusan Lajović and Mischa Zverev. Not that his fellow title contenders didn’t play well themselves during the first week- Djokovic, Cilic and Nadal were all at full strength in the opening three rounds- but Federer was just a class apart in the way he dispatched his opponents in the early stages of the tournament.

Beginning with ‘Manic Monday’ and concluding with Day 9, 72 hours radically altered the nature of a draw that had originally promised the prospect of Nadal, Murray, Federer and Djokovic squaring off against each other in the last four. No dice. Nadal was knocked out by Giles Muller in round four, the two-time Wimbledon champion going down 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 15-13 in a four hour, 47 minute tussle of wills.

Murray was next to go two days later, becoming the second world No.1 and defending champion in successive years to lose to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon. Although he was operating well below full physical capacity, Murray made a good scrap of it and stayed the course of the whole five sets, the last two of which he lost 6-1.

Novak Djokovic, who was forced to play on the Tuesday because the Nadal-Muller epic threw the match scheduling on Court One out of whack, was in a less-than-ideal headspace going into his quarter-final with Tomas Berdych. His problems multiplied when Berdych won the first set in a tiebreak, and compounded further when the Czech took a 2-0 lead in the second. Not another game was played, for Djokovic decided an elbow injury was too much of a hindrance to allow him to continue.

Upon seeing his proximate rivals crash out of the tournament earlier than expected, Federer could’ve relaxed in the knowledge than an eighth Wimbledon title was likely going to be in his possession in a matter of days. After defeating both Grigor Dimitrov and 2016 finalist Milos Raonic in three sets, Federer took on Berdych for a place in his third Wimbledon final in four years. Berdych played about as well as he had in a Grand Slam since the 2015 Australian Open, but was left questioning whether the aging process affects Federer the way it does everyone else after suffering a 7-6(4), 7-6(4), 6-4 loss to the Swiss. Marin Cilic beat Sam Querrey in the other semi-final to set up a rematch of last year’s titanic quarter-final.

Tennis-Pulse was right on the money in predicting a Federer-Cilic final, but it’s fair to say we didn’t expect one that turned out like this one did. Following a bright start to the match from Cilic, Federer turned on the style after saving a break point in his second service game. A heavy fall in the fourth game seemed to unnerve Cilic, who began leaking errors for the remainder of the set.

Sometime between the midway point of the first set and the beginning of the second, Cilic also aggravated a foot blister which severely compromised his movement. From this setback he never quite recovered, or rather Federer did not allow him to; the match was over before it even started to get competitive. It was uncomfortable to watch and difficult to discern what was going on with Cilic besides his physical issues. Nerves can do strange things to a man, and they did a number on him that day.

Letting it all sink in

 

US Open                   

Winner: R. Nadal                     

Runner-Up: K. Anderson

Flushing Meadows has played host to some of the biggest shocks in tennis over the past ten years: Del Potro, Murray and Cilic’s maiden Grand Slam wins in 2009, 2012 and 2014 respectively, the greatest of Djokovic’s escapist feats in 2010 and 2011 and Wawrinka’s unlikely run to the title last year. With a depleted field caused by an uncommon amount of injured top players, another surprising story looked likely to be on the cards in 2017. It was anyone’s guess, however, as to who would be its protagonist.

In the first seven days of the tournament, no one made a bigger impression on tennis fans than Denis Shapovalov. Already one of the most talked about prospects in the sport as a result of his reaching the semi-finals at the Rogers Cup in August, the buzz surrounding the Canadian teenager reached fever pitch when he beat Medvedev, Edmund and Tsonga to become the youngest player to earn a spot in the US Open round of sixteen since a fresh-faced Michael Chang did so in 1989. Shapovalov’s euphoria was cut short at that point by Pablo Carreño Busta, who himself emerged as one of the unexpectedly impressive performers of the fortnight.

Federer and Nadal were deemed co-favourites for the title before a single ball was hit, though the faith underwriting this assumption was shaken by the former struggling immensely in the first two rounds against Francis Tiafoe and Mikhail Youzhny. Federer came into the event with a back injury that visibly restricted the fluidity of his serve and backhand; it was his resilient mentality more than anything that carried him through these matches and a much-improved level of play that sealed him wins over Feliciano Lopez and Philip Kolschreiber in the next two.

Nadal started to gain momentum in the second week after dropping sets in two of his first three matches. Like Federer, he wasn’t at his best although at no point did he find himself on the cusp of elimination. After sailing past Alexandr Dolgopolov in round four and Andrey Rublev in the quarter-finals, he would’ve fully expected Federer to come through against Juan Martin Del Potro and to have the chance to face the world No.2 at the US Open for the first time. Federer failed to uphold his end of the bargain, losing instead to the Argentine in four sets. Del Potro put in an immense effort to get to the semis, as he survived two match points and a two sets to love deficit against Thiem in round four.

The bottom half of the draw was practically devoid of any notable names, a situation which worsened when these few well-recognized players all lost early. Zverev, Cilic, Tsonga and Isner were beaten by lower ranked players, opening up a route to the latter stages of the tournament for players ranked outside the top 15. In the end, Carreño Busta capitalized on the carnage to book his place in the semi-finals, as did Kevin Anderson.

Even though the two semi-finals gave rise to distinctly different matchups, they both ended up paralleling each other. The winner of the first set went on to lose the match- Carreño Busta lost 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 and Del Potro 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2. Anderson and Nadal played for the title two days later. It wasn’t much of a contest, but was anyone expecting it to be close? One participant was happy just to be a part of it, the other intent on chasing history. A collision between serendipity and an insatiable appetite for record chasing could only produce one outcome. Nadal in three for his third US Open trophy.

16 Grand Slams on, lifting silverware never gets any less sweet

Which major tournament matches stood out to you most this year? We welcome all readers to leave a comment!