Tuesday, 29 November 2011

ATP WTF: Why we *shouldn’t* [only] be talking about Roger Federer’s longevity


A most satisfactory end to an event I was afraid wouldn’t live up to either hype or expectation. Or is that now treated as one in the same?

Rightly or wrongly, and for reasons best known (and unknown)  to myself, the WTF has become tightly associated in my mind with elemental performances par excellence.

Some of this is undoubtedly to do with the way Federer plays.

Some of it’s to do with the nature of the surface and the type of unforgiving yet strangely tranquil tennis it gives rise to.

Most likely, it’s an irregular fusion of both that’s responsible (usually) for that uniquely hypnotic experience only to be found indoors and at the end of the season - an experience that remains inextricably woven in with either Federer playing tennis that delivers a statement, or someone else playing once-in-a-lifetime tennis that delivers something more akin to a polemic. Yet also an experience it seemed we were to be denied this year until, that is, the final.


I’m not saying the final got it completely right either. And not only because both seemed stuck in that perverse first service purgatory that has successfully demeaned so many a player this year. But after floundering away the week in almost its entirety, it did seem to strike the right balance between daring play on the part of Jo, and Fed imposing the kind of lockouts that had seemed beyond him at some of his most critical moments throughout this year.

Perhaps what’s more interesting than any single match though is all the inevitable talk on Fed’s longevity it’s once again given rise to. All of it quite correct of course, but all of it, also, quite “boilerplate” in nature.

Fed’s turning 30 has undoubtedly imparted a particular resonance to it this time round – tennis twilight for most, when motivation is supposedly dithering even if the body hasn't somehow completely packed up.

Even so, I think we GET that Fed’s mode of play (and I would say genes) confer upon him a longevity that continues to elude other Big Four (or Five or Six) players – not all of whom, by the way, tax themselves the way Nadal does.

You make that longevity a little less amazing each time you recycle and repackage it: I certainly get why people talk about it. I DON’T get why they talk about it to the exclusion of all else.

Doing so seems to me to obscure something that, in my mind, is equally as important and telling.

Could it not simply be that he happens to be an impeccable indoor player? Just like, uh, I dunno, a certain Ivan Lendl, say? It is possible.

I understand why the prevailing theme is longevity – I also understand that 6 WTFs is kind of a big deal. Not all of which can be explained away with lazy allusions to “longevity” (allusions now fast becoming a form of disservice).


Neither can Nalbandian coming back from the brink of death and two sets to love down (2005).

Nor can Kolya’s pwnage of the entire field during the fall of 2009 – pwnage that included all of the top four. Pwnage that also included one Roger Federer.

And I think we might have heard quite enough on fatigue and the length of the season too: Nole played almost EXACTLY as much tennis when he won this event in Shanghai back in 2008 (81 matches) as he did in 2010 (79 matches) We heard next to NOTHING about wear-and-tear back then (an issue of commentary rather than player conduct).

It didn’t appear to affect Murray that year either who saw fit to leave it all out there in his win over Fed during the group stages. Clearly an important enough win for him to sacrifice any chance he might have had of progressing further in that event in what was (then) his strongest year.

Funnily enough it was Fed’s injured back in Paris back then that resulted in, what remains to this day, the only withdrawal of his career.

Point being, fatigue is not nearly as linear and untextured a phenomena as some (most) would have you believe it is. It affects different players (all of whom have different Achilles heels) in different ways, and at different times.

Not to mention the countless inexplicable, unfathomable, but wholly inevitable random seasonal currents, riffs and rhythms of life, all of which conspire together to ensure that no one day on tour is like any other.

And what of Jo? What of Berd? Are we to believe they found the long season taxing too? I mean Jo’s only played Fed, what, all of five times in the seventy-five matches he’s played this season prior to this event.

Neither looked tired, and I’ve heard nary a peep out of either of them on the length of the season. Why would we? It easily ranks as Jo’s best year on tour and the one time we’ve seen what he’s capable of uninjured for more than 2 months at a time.

Funnily enough, I’ve heard precisely ZERO on the speed of the surface from anyone either, except, that is, the usual formulaic rambling on the opening day [*whispers* maybe it’s because neither matters as much as we are told to think it does]

Without wishing to get too cynical (again, as much a problem of commentary as anything else), just when exactly does that critical moment come, I wonder, when it becomes ok to begin talking of fatigue (or strikes and unions, even) and to stop talking about the merits of “good scheduling”? Or, if you prefer it, to begin talk of “productive fitness regimes” and to end all talk on the “lengthy season”? Whenever you feel like it?

It seems ad-hoc at best and worryingly tendentious at worse.

Strange, is it not, how convincing and decisive tennis (like, say, the final) has a tendency to draw focus to what actually matters?

The same can be said of Fed’s staggering title haul of 6 WTFs gained over two successive tennis generations – many of which had nothing in the slightest to do with “longevity”. That’s kind of a “prevailing theme” too.
(Pics: Getty)

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