Men Out of Time: Federer-Djokovic LXVI in Cincinnati

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Time has been on my mind lately. Specificially, time as it relates to tennis. It seems like we are forever improving the sport, so that we can spend less time watching it. Whether it’s the serve clock or tinkering with formats, there’s a collective anxiety that perhaps there is too much time not being put to good enough use.

On the other hand, the aging of the ATP field can’t help but bring home how finite our time is. The resurgence of Federer and Nadal has the feeling of borrowed time. It’s as if, like the patients in the movie Awakenings, Roger and Rafa have only temporary awakened to reclaim their glory and could disappear into the margins at any minute. And yet, even Novak Djokovic, the man who pushed them to the side in the first place, seems like he’s playing extra innings. After about two years on an injury and anxiety filled odyssey, Djokovic has reemerged as a top contender, if not yet the top dog, again.

It’s hard not to dwell on the fact that it was a decade ago that Djokovic won his first Slam, in Australia, dethroning Federer en route, and ushering in what was supposed to be Federer’s decline and Nadal’s dominance. Yet, the injury gods and Federer’s theretofore unrecognized grit flipped the script. Nadal spent some portion of at least six of the next eight seasons absent or affected by injuries (but, in GOAT-like fashion, collected another five French Opens in that time). Federer managed to won another four Slams in the next four years, and, surprising many observers, continued to compete for the next five, reaching another few finals, which he lost to Djokovic. And Djokovic, after a couple of years of adjustment, found the formula to dominance, with a revamped game and a much discussed gluten-free diet.

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Then, in a scene out of Greek mythology, just as we were discussing when Djokovic would reach the all time Slam record, Djokovic’s Icarus-like flight to the top suddenly crashed after he achieved his signature feat of winning four Slams in a row at the 2016 French Open. So began the wilderness years, filled with changing advisors, speculation about Djokovic’s physical and mental state, and a string of surprising losses. After regrouping with his original team and having elbow surgery, however, Djokovic has come full circle — defeating Nadal in an epic semifinal at Wimbledon and capping off the comeback with his Wimbledon title win over Kevin Anderson.

And today in Cincinnati Djokovic added the final piece to his collection — the one trophy he was missing, the Rookwood trophy from Cincinnati. It’s a fitting signature achievement — showing endurance, versatility, and his long fight to supplant the clay and hard court dominance of Nadal and Federer, respectively. Djokovic seemed to turn back time, to May 2016, where he could do no wrong on a tennis court. He looked almost as steady today, breaking Federer’s serve for the first time in Cincinnati early in the first set and never looking back. He also did what he does best to Federer — take away time and space. Already looking a step slower than his absolute best all week, Federer turned in one of his less memorable performances — long on errors and short on magic. Surely there are many reasons for this, but the main one was the man across the net today.

And so we leave Cincinnati wondering — is it Djokvoic’s time again? Is Federer’s time over again? At this point, it hardly makes sense to count time with these guys anymore. The more we think of time, the more we think their chances to win are finite, when all they’ve shown us it that they, collectively and individually, have managed to dilate time, extending their grasp on the top of the game for far longer than anyone could have ever expected 10 or 15 years ago. After all, someday, at last, it will be someone else’s time.