Tennis legend Roger Federer wasn’t his usual self as he bowed out of the Shanghai Masters quarter-finals.
The last couple of years in men’s Grand Slam tennis has produced some riveting spectacles.
Think Stan Wawrinka’s vanquishing of Novak Djokovic at the French and US Open finals, vintage Roger Federer matches at Wimbledon (against Djokovic, Marin Cilic and Milos Raonic), Djokovic’s love-hate relationship with Paris – culminating in a drought-breaking French Open title – and the resurgence of Juan Martin Del Potro.
All of these moments, however, share one thing in common: they happened in the latter three slams of the year, after predictable and rather unremarkable Australian Opens.
Andy Murray and Djokovic’s rivaly has played out in the last two Australian Open finals, yet lacks the allure of other top rivalries, such as Federer vs Rafael Nadal, or Pete Sampras vs Andre Agassi. In both these examples, the rivals had contrasting styles that dazzled spectators.
Federer was the artist and Nadal was the bruiser, built like a heavyweight boxer – one could hardly look away.
Sampras is arguably the greatest server of all time, with perhaps the best ever returner – a recipe for pulsating matches.
Novak and Andy’s game styles, however, are too similar. Matches seem to be memorable purely for the amount of extremely long rallies, as opposed to any thrilling shot-making.
What has made the Djokivic-Murray matches even more uneventful at the first slam of the year is Novak’s clear dominance. At Wimbledon, the home crowd and conditions tilt the contest toward Murray, making the tussles even. At the US open, the quicker surface makes the rallies more interesting, and allows the slightly larger Murray to hit more clean winners.
However, the pace of the Aussie courts are perfect for Djokovic, and renders any other similar-styled player (a baseline counter-puncher) obsolete.
Hence, I really hope for a different match on the last Sunday of January. Besides the fact that a flashy, shot-making player (like Wawrinka) would fare better against Djokovic, the match would also be much more entertaining.
One would love to see any of Nick Kyrgios, Raonic or Cilic storm through the draw and take out one of the top two seeds en route to the final. If they can’t, the ageing maestro Federer, or the prizefighter past his prime in Nadal, might find the energy to deliver one more gem, and knock either Andy or Novak out in the earlier rounds.
If they can achieve that, they would have done the watchability of the tournament a great service, and would almost be deserving of a statue at Melbourne Park, alongside the newly mounted one of Rod Laver.
The Australian Open was once synonymous with flashy, out-of-left-field underdogs riding a wave of crowd support and making the final. Many of us would love to see a repeat of this.