Travis stumbles upon a classic Roger Federer match, and finally begins to appreciate the Australian Open
While I realize that the present calendar year has already included such great episodes as the Sabres-Penguins and Packers-Seahawks snow games, and the coolest NBA moment I’ve ever seen in person in LeBron James’ 24-point 4 th quarter against the Raptors (yes, I’m still convinced that Cleveland will somehow win the East), last night’s Federer-Tipsarevic third round Australian Open match is the clubhouse leader for best sporting event I’ve watched this year. To be fair, by some accounts, it might not have been one of the top three matches in the men’s third round in Melbourne (some accounts had the Roddick-Kohlschreiber, Hewitt-Baghdatis, and Blake-Grosjean matches as even better), but the brilliance of Federer-Tipsarevic came in the simple reminder it served of an all-time favourite tennis match.
I’ll admit immediately that I’m not a huge tennis fan. The first men’s player I ever heard of was Pete Sampras and, due to the fact that he appeared to be a likeable enough guy, he became my favourite. This was a good choice. The guy never seemed to lose anywhere but the French Open. In 2000, his decline began. In 2001, with his time certainly winding down, I selected who, in my mind, would be his successor.
It was a classic case of the torch being passed. Even though Sampras obviously wasn’t the player he used to be, at Wimbledon he still carried something of an aura, having won the tournament four years in a row. After winning his first three matches in 2001, giving him 31 straight match wins at the All England Club, he faced off against an up-and-coming 19 year-old named Roger Federer, who had only accrued his first career tournament win five months prior. In that match, Federer’s talent was clearly evident, as was the fact that he was probably the better player on the court. But, of all tournaments, it was quite obvious that Wimbledon was the one that Sampras wasn’t quite willing to let his dominance slip at. I don’t remember many details, least of all how long the match actually took. I just remember being glued to my couch for the duration of the match until Federer dropped to his knees when it was all over, as overwhelmed as all the fans were by an instant classic match. I knew right then that when Sampras finally called it a career, I’d be a full-fledged Roger Federer fan.
Shockingly, Sampras still had one Grand Slam win left in him, winning the next year’s US Open, beating long-time rival Andre Agassi in the final. He retired shortly after. Though Federer went home from the 2001 Wimbledon tournament in his next match, he picked up his first career Grand Slam win on the very same All England Club court two years later and never looked back. Today, he is mentioned alongside Sampras, among others, in the debate over who is the greatest tennis player of all-time.
Shortly into Federer’s dominance, it was realized that he and Sampras shared each other’s only major flaw: Difficulty winning on the clay courts of Paris. Between the two, the Coupe des Mosquetaires has been raised a grand total of zero times. As for the other three major tennis tourneys, both have absolutely dominated them. Though Federer will also most likely predominantly be known for his multiple championships at Wimbledon, he’s just as good at the Australian Open, where the largest upset loss of his career just about happened last night.
Call me a frontrunner, much like you could have as I cheered for Sampras in that 2001 Wimbledon classic, but I did not want to see that upset happen. Even when he plays much lesser players in early-tournament matchups, Federer never mails it in. Every time out, he’s still giving 100%. If you look at any of the top players of today or yesteryear, their shocking early losses undoubtedly outnumber those of Federer. Yesterday’s bout was simply a case of Federer having a rough day. Had he been taking it easy, he undoubtedly would’ve permanently woken up at some point, and he didn’t. Tipsarevic matched him play for play, with the exception of the fourth set, which the Serbian seemingly took off, already being up 2-1 after Federer, whose serve was unstoppable all night, took a break point that he appeared completely unprepared to relinquish back.
The two major differences between Federer’s tilt with Tipsarevic and with his name-making 2001 win: This time out, the favourite wasn’t on the decline and the favourite still pulled out the win.
I also learned something last night: I shouldn’t have been underappreciating and only half-heartedly paying attention to the Australian Open for all these years. First of all, how many other sports hold a huge event in what should be the middle of the off-season? Not many. Though they pretty much have to play the Australian at this time of year due to simple geography, it would seemingly be brutal on players who don’t really feel like interrupting their winter vacations. Federer, in fact, started the Melbourne tournament without having played an official match for more than two months. Additionally, due to a sixteen-hour time difference, the Australian Open provides us something else that we don’t nearly get enough of in the Eastern time zone: Major sporting events after 1AM! I don’t even wanna remember what time I went to sleep last night, as I was devoted to seeing Federer do what all the greats do: Pull out a seemingly easy match with all sorts of difficulty (much like the New England Patriots had to do in those games against Philadelphia and Baltimore this year).
As for the actual match, the event I’d most like to compare it to would be the Samuel Peter-Jameel McCline fight from this past October, when a perceivably comfortable, entertaining win turns into an absolute nightmare (there was a ten-minute span of that fight where I’m pretty sure I didn’t breathe). I didn’t really begin to fully focus on the match until midway through the 2 nd set, but it was immediately obvious that Federer wasn’t Federer. The possibility of him waking up and taking over undoubtedly showed up late in the second set when he forced the tiebreak and all of a sudden turned into the player we all expected to see, getting to balls that others couldn’t and seemingly hitting shots twice as crisp as those of his opposition. It appeared that Janko Tipsarevic all of a sudden realized who he was playing, and had it dawn upon him that the early lead he got wasn’t gonna come back. Shockingly, that’s when it came back.
After letting Federer score an early break point in the third set, Tipsarevic immediately won it back on Federer’s serve, then won another break while knotted at 5-5. If there was a point in the match where I replicated my breathless reaction from the Peter-McCline duel, that was it. As much of the crowd was now gravitating towards seriously backing the underdog, the first thought surfaced of the great Roger Federer, still very much in his prime, losing in the third round of the Australian Open to a player that a significant chunk of tennis fans hadn’t even heard of.
At that point, Federer finally played a Federer-like set. The announcers had continuously been noting the shocking disparity in total points considering the closeness of the match. The fourth was the one set where that disparity was actually reflected. Federer played as he usually did against perceived gimme opponents, and the subsequent reaction from the ESPN crew once again conceded the match to Federer. He was done receiving scares, and the fifth set would go much like the fourth did, opening up speculation about how Roger would do against somebody like James Blake in the quarterfinals, even before having to face the really big guns like Davydenko, Nadal, and Djokovic. Janko Tipsarevic, however, did not share this opinion.
I’m not sure when it happened in this match, and it very well could have just been fatigue setting in for the players, but it seemed like Tipsarevic realized something in the later stages of the match. Though he obviously wasn’t scared of Federer (and I imagine more are scared of Federer as they take the court than one would think), he knew that he was playing one of the greatest tennis players of all-time. The fact that he was holding his own against the guy was clearly surprising him, hence all the emotion after each point, and the ridiculous energy he let out as the upset came closer and closer to surfacing. During one stalemate in the fifth set, it was noticeable that said emotion was no longer there. Tipsarevic had seemingly realized that he was no fluke. He certainly didn’t appear to be one last night. He played like Roger Federer usually plays, not getting surprised at points, just being business-like and trying to end the match. Around the same time, Federer realized that he was in one of the toughest and most surprising battles of his career. All of a sudden, Federer started showing emotion. As he got closer and closer to finally breaking Tipsarevic in the fifth set, all the while dominating from his own serve, he showed the same excitement and surprise when he finally appeared to be getting to a guy who had given him just as much or more difficulty than he had ever gotten on a hard court surface from Nadal or Djokovic. As the crowd support seemed to sway towards Tipsarevic, the two players switched roles. Tipsarevic became the comfortable one, convinced that he could beat the man he was staring at. Federer turned into the man who knew he had to fight, and showed it when he finally took control.
The fifth set reminded very much of a baseball game for two reasons. With nobody breaking serve as the set and match rolled into extra games, it felt like classic extra inning baseball. Tipsarevic, receiving first serve, played as the home team, did his job by holding serve, then took his shot at the proverbial plate. Federer was the away team. When Tipsarevic held serve, Federer was essentially shut out, and knew that not only did he have to reciprocate, but knew that he’d have to hold serve at least once more after that, should Tipsarevic not end the match. We’ve all cheered for our favourite baseball team on the road in an extra-inning game, and knew when they didn’t score in the top of the 10 th that they would not only have to shut out the home team in the bottom, but hit and pitch again in the 11 th should they still wish to win. That’s what the fifth set felt like in this match, and it was the same uncomfortable feeling as backing that road team. The other baseball parallel took place throughout the match. Federer was the equivalent of a team that puts at least one, maybe two runners in scoring position each and every inning, but just can’t get them across the plate. Tipsarevic was the equivalent of the team that keeps holding on, isn’t getting close to scoring (in this case, breaking Federer’s serve), and was hoping that eventually they could get the job done before the other side completely broke through. As a fan of Federer, there was still confidence there, but as the match went on, there was definitely worry that maybe Tipsarevic wouldn’t break, maybe he’d manage to pull off a break point and end it. The confidence dwindled as the score elevated. In the end, Federer finally took a break point, and cruised through his serve to finally end it.
As the marathon reached its finish, it was a different Federer than what one usually sees after winning a third round match. He showed more excitement, and more relief, than one would ever expect a player with the pedigree of Janko Tipsarevic to do. If there ever is a DVD release of the best of Roger Federer, this match would certainly go on it. It was nowhere near the best Federer has ever played in a match, but it showed how Federer handled pressure at a point where nobody expected it to arrive. It wasn’t Pete Sampras staring across the court, but Federer played like it might as well have been. The all-time great has just added another story to his legend.
All of Travis MacKenzie’s work can be found on his site, Travis Time. He also covers sports for the Brock Press. Any questions or comments directed towards Travis can be placed in comments on Travis Time, on any of his Armchair GM posts, or e-mailed to TravisTime@gmail.com