Wednesday, November 25, 2015


There was something unsettling about the interaction between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in 2015, but it's hard to put my finger on it.  Every double act has a straight man and a comic:  the straight man says, "Go and fetch me the morning paper," and the comic promptly slips on a banana peel on the way, and gets the big laugh.  It works because it's like Japanese pantomime - we all know what's going to happen before the curtain goes up, but (1) we stay for the show from start to finish and (2) take a kind of sadistic pleasure in the exasperation of one and the desperate futility of the other.  We know the names of the ball players are Who, What and I Don't Know, but that leaves us no less capable of resisting the sweet misery of Bud Abbott trying to explain that to the dimwitted and the intellectually fleeced Lou Costello. Along the way, we suspend our disbelief of the absurdity of it, with the inutility of skepticism essential to enjoyment of the ruse.

But the curious case of Nole and Rog in 2015 makes me wonder exactly which one of these two titans in the tennis kingdom of heaven is playing the stooge?

Watching the way, the closest thing Djokovic had to a rivalry this season, played itself out, I am struck by the near certainty with which both players play their part in the intrigue sans script, but no less assuredly than one might expect with one.  Their first encounter in Dubai led some to believe that Federer was on the ascendency, that he had reversed whatever deleterious effect Djokovic's win at Wimbledon may have had on the ethereal realm of his confidence.  But that dissipated so quickly, with his nearly complete and feckless capitulation at Indian Wells, that one couldn't help but wonder if the Djoker had, in fact, left something in the tank in the middle eastern desert, knowing full well that the Californian desert is the only one that really matters in the spring.

They didn't meet again until Wimbledon, and in a rematch of last year's epic final, this year's turned out to be infinitely less dramatic but no less compelling.  Victory seemed certain almost from the first long rally that turned from Federer's favor to the Djoker's.  And that sinking feeling that Fed-fans get when the Serb has decided he'd rather lose to anyone but their immortal beloved, would have moved from a subtle flutter in the stomach to a lead lump in the throat, as General Federer made his last stand in the 4th set at SW19.  Somewhere the ghost of Sitting Bull was having the last laugh all over again.  Though in some ways Roger was playing better than the year before, there was never really a moment in that match where the perception of a momentum change was anything more than wishful thinking.

Then came the revelation of the SABR (Sneak Attack by Roger) in Cincinnati - another of Roger's watering holes that's good for a laugh, particularly at the expense of the vast majority of his contemporaries.  There he humiliated one player after another with not only this cheeky new "weapon", but also a brazen display of genetic superiority to those young affections that gape to be his heir.  Feliciano Lopez profanely played the part of the stupefied stooge, who yet again thought he had a shot at his Bugs Bunny, only to discover that the proverbial rabbit out of the top hat was a combination of the new racquet, the new coach, the new backhand...and the old superiority that once again insisted on imposing itself.  Even the Djoker, who would certainly have been fatigued from all those weeks of rest post Wimbledon - what with changing diapers and posting pics on twitter/facebook/instagram, and any other (wrong) place he might be looking for love - was compelled to succumb to his Hairness.

Though they've seen him do it before, and in all likelihood he'll do it again, the popularity of the most popular girl guy at the ball tournament (and as always, in the world of tennis) engulfed that poor Serbian boy who's allergic to something that everyone's heard of, but nobody really knows what it is, and just once, just once, wants to be revered as something other than the straight man.  But I wonder if he isn't the stooge?  After all the machinations and success, the clothes, the sense of humor, the talk shows, the dancing and the jokes...after all the jokes, for god's sake?  It just takes one Lucy shaped shaped Swiss guy with a little talent and some high class friends, to pull that football away from his oncoming kick, sending him flailing in the air like a rag doll, and make it all for naught.  In the end, in this tennis town (by which I mean planet Earth) there really isn't enough room for anyone not named Roger Federer.  

And yet, like a good stooge, he continues to try...

Nadal sucked the air out of the (newly half-roofed) room at Flushing Meadows, by losing to some crazy Italian bloke, who himself was usurped by his own tender Juliette's unexpected victory and confusing retirement. Though her countrywoman slew the giant with a thousand cuts, she needed a 1,001 to complete the insanely unlikely story, and unfortunately it was one blow more than she had at her disposal.  And while the rest of the tennis universe (and the celebrity one) pined openly for the coronation of a grand queen for the first time in 27 years, poor Nole toiled in near anonymity, bludgeoning and sliding his way through a field of paltry challengers, including the defending champion, who had nothing but the best of intentions and the worst of capacities.  Try as they may, the immovable object had already met the irresistible force, and combined to form the 2015 Novak Djokovic - the most dominant tennis player in the open era.

Nevertheless, the final was highly anticipated - the one that we came so tantalizingly close to before King (for a day) Kei and (Cheech) Marin Cilic really overstayed their welcomes in last years final installment of the Grand Slam quadrilogy.  Finally, we would have our real drama, with a palpable belief on the part of everyone except the one that needed it the most, that the grey men of the tennisocracy so desperately wanted and needed.  Elmer Federer just may finally catch that rascally rabbit.  And in that duel between the only two men that anyone truly believed had a shot at the title in the first place, we would finally have our unexpected result.

But the pantomime returned, the stooge slipped on the banana peel and the audience went home knowing nothing more than what they did at the start of the fortnight.  The Reign of Terror that is the dominance of Novak Djokovic continues until he no longer possesses the means or the desire to occupy the throne.  Though they bayed for his blood like sanguine plebeians at the Colosseum, the result only made more stark the contrast between good and evil, by the script of this running gag, that the game has been teasing us with for the last two years.  No matter how desperately we want it to be so, nobody is beating Novak Djokovic in 2015 except maybe...well, Novak Djokovic.

Then, like Alexander, he travelled to edge of the known tennis world to that relic of yore in Shanghai, and (once again) conquered his tartan nemesis, leaving no doubt that the future is dark if your hopes for a respite from his tyranny would come in the form of a soft  Glaswegian brogue.  And after an inexplicable capitulation to the wrong Spaniard, Federer regained his composure in his backyard, and proceeded to painstakingly lumber through 3 sets to get the wrong result over the right Spaniard who despite his anno terribilis in 2015, still seemed genuinely convinced that he should have won the match, and was rightfully disappointed that he didn't.  This time, Wily Coyote finally caught the rabbit, and he went (back) to London brimming with all the confidence that his newly expanded bubble reputation could afford.  

There he cashed that Czech who has no business beating him, but seems to do just that with irritating frequency, before proceeding to sadistically set us up one last time.  He beat Djokovic so handily in their round robin match, that the man felt compelled to state the obvious (much to Roger's chagrin) - despite assurances to the contrary, the match had been handed to Federer on a silver platter.  It even smacked of sour grapes to some, but as the wheels started to come loose against a plucky Nishikori, then in a sloppy but tactical win over his countryman, the ugly truth began to take shape.  Still, having experienced the dramatic manner in which Wawrinka bludgeoned his way to within 3 or 4 match points of a well deserved victory last year (ironically spurred on by the unseemly goading of Lady McFederer) this year's victory over his countryman gave us pause.  Could this year's final be the crescendo that everyone expected last year? 

It was anything but.

So there we were, at the World Tour Finals of 2015, expecting once again to be dazzled by the chance of a new generation of this rivalry, one that appeared less as pantomime than genuine drama.  The intrigue ratcheted up by a startling result in the round robin, a catty long distance exchange over perceptions of this result, and on the back of a 3rd victory over the young king (as many as the rest of the world combined), the trap door once again opened at the final step, and enveloped not only Roger Federer, but the hopes of his fans, and any remaining doubt that in this now sad tale:  his only victories are those that count less than the defeats.  Once again, the straight man was set up for a comedic finish that left us crying with laughter, with the coup de grace coming in two uneventful London.

I am reminded of the final scene of "Pulp Fiction" when Jules Winnfield calmly explains to the gentle thief at his disposal, that through the comedy of errors that brought them to the denouement, he realized that his initial interpretation of his own preamble to murder (which is not actually in the bible, by the way) was faulty.  In fact the biblical joke was on him:  he was neither the righteous man navigating the iniquities of the selfish, nor the shepherd of the weak through the valley of darkness...he was in fact the tyranny of evil men.  

I mention this because the entire year, thinking of what passes for a rivalry between Federer and Djokovic, I know it's a damn pantomime, but I've been trying to figure out which one is the stooge?  Is it Federer, who like Indiana Jones, gets his hand on the golden idol, only to have it taken from him by his own personal Belloq?  Or is it poor Nole, who every time he thinks he's going to break through and reach the pantheon of fandom, not only of the tennis world, but of tennis heaven, where he is revered with equally rapturous fervor as his own personal Zeus - only to be kicked down the side of Mount Olympus once again?  

No, like Jules Winnfield, the joke is on us - the vein slapping addicts of sporting drama, desperate to see something other than what we know, in our heart of hearts, is always going to be the same result.  We look around the poker table, trying, in vain, to figure out who the sucker is.

The truth is that as long as Nole wishes it so, it is us.

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