The tennis gods must have a refined sense of irony. Just at the moment where the Davis Cup, perhaps the most tradition bound corner of the tennis world outside Wimbledon, has taken a cleaver to its lengthy competition cycle, the rains outside Cincinnati forced many top players into double duty on Friday. In perhaps a dream scenario for many fans — if not the players, among those who played twice were Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
Djokovic came into Friday tied one set apiece with last year’s Cincinnati champion, Grigor Dimitrov. Starting from 2-1 in the third set, Djokovic was much more focused than he had been on Thursday, and dispatched Dimitrov rather handily. It’s hard not to wonder what these losses do to Dimitrov — but it warrants serious reflection on his part on how to match his obvious talent to the competitive skill required to come up on the winning end of these battles. Then again, if we have learned anything in this age of the Big Four, it is that competitive grit is just as flashy and awe inspiring as fancy shotmaking.
Novak, however, didn’t have time to ponder these existential questions. Instead, while Federer completed his Thursday match, Novak had to prepare to face a rested Milos Raonic just after Federer’s match. The second match of the day proved to be more of a challenge for Djokovic than expected. In some ways, Milos Raonic is exactly the kind of player that Djokovic should defeat handily. The serve is there, to be sure, but Djokovic is the premier returner in today’s ATP game. And, once the return is in play, Raonic’s movement hampers his ability to rally with the likes of Djokovic (or Nadal, or…a lot of top players).
After serving for and losing the first set, Ranoic’s level rose again in the second set. He managed to break Novak’s serve twice, and the manner in which Raonic was able to challenge Djokovic on the baseline was surprising. So often, one can count on one hand the number of rally shots it takes before Raonic makes an error or is beaten. It’s well known that Raonic has left no stone unturned in trying to overcome his relative lack of agility compared to his peers. For the better part of the first two sets on Friday, it looked like it might help him get over the hump.
I’m not sure if grit can be taught. Perhaps it is his humble roots, or the struggles his family faced during the 90s wars in the former Yugoslavia. Maybe it was forged while he hit balls in those empty swimming pools. Or maybe it was always within him. But, with an angry smack of his racquets, Djokovic unleashed that fire that has propelled him all these years and made quick work of Raonic in the third set.
Roger Federer’s challenge on Friday was a step further than Novak Djokovic’s — he didn’t even get to start his match on Thursday. So, he started his day on Friday by taking a quick first set 6-1 from Leo Mayer. It looked very much that the second set would follow suit, as Federer had break points early, but, perhaps in a bit of foreshadowing of his challenges in his night match, was unable to convert. He eventually did take the second set in a tiebreak, and left the court to prepare for his 24th match against Stan Wawrinka.
Wawrinka also had to pull double duty on Friday, first taking out Martin Fucsovics 6-4, 6-3, a significant improvement over his three set, two tiebreak win over the Hungarian in Toronto last week. Before Friday, the last time Federer and Wawrinka met was in the finals of Indian Wells in 2017, but they both arrived on court playing well on Friday. While Federer was perhaps the stronger player for larger stretches of the first set, he never recovered from missing out on two set points on Wawrinka’s serve, and played a poor tiebreak, just as Wawrinka was redlining his shots.
Certainly Federer was well aware that a peak Wawrinka is a world beater. That’s the guy who has won three Slams, defeating either Djokovic or Nadal each time. And, for much of the second set, it was Federer who was hanging in with a strong service performance, while Wawrinka hit scores of beautiful groundstrokes, many of them simply out of Federer’s reach. Whether it was the fatigue of the day, or the challenge of the man across the net, it seemed like Federer’s tournament had a good chance of ending on Friday as well.
But, almost out of nowhere, Federer managed to connect on some service returns, and it was enough to push him out of the dusultory, shank-filled pall that had enveloped him in the second set. In turn, he benefited from a few Wawrinka errors, and took the second set tiebreak rather convincingly. Play had just begun in the third set…
…And then came the lightning. And anyone watching immediately consulted their panoply of weather tracking apps, Doppler radar, and old-fashioned counting of seconds between thunder and lightning to see if this match would finish on Friday, after all. After a relatively short break where the players and crowds were ushered out of the court in case the lightning returned, they started again, this time with Federer serving up 30-0 in the first game of the final set.
But the Wawrinka who had deflated Federer came to the court not quite on the same plane as he had been before. The shots that screamed by Federer as winners in the first two sets were more often going long or wide. And Federer made a workmanlike end of the match. When asked about his unusual day, Federer noted that it “felt like two separate days” but remarked that “it was exciting, you know, to go through something new.”
Perhaps the circumstances were new, but in the end, what won out is the oldest part of the game — the competitive will to win. Before any of the innovations that we now discard as inconsistent with modern sensibilities, the essence of this sport, even with its pretensions towards gentility, is competition. While I wouldn’t “innovate” to fill the tennis schedule with two-a-days, it’s worth noting that the challenges we present to the players are part and parcel of creating the sport’s history. And, those are the parts that transcend the immediate circumstances and become a part of the legend. And perhaps as we innovate to save time in tennis, it’s worth remembering that sometimes time is required to create memorable moments. So, while it’s possible we won’t remember any of Friday’s matches in fine detail down the road, the way in which each of these players rose to the challenge is what will endure.