14 February 2017

Tennis ‘as-good-as-it-gets’

“What if this is as good as it gets?” asks the main protagonist of the movie ‘As good as it gets,’ Melvin Udall (played by Jack Nicholson), an elusive writer suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder..  The question is asked at the end of the movie directed by  James L Brooks and which won a slew of awards including the Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Actress (for Helen Hunter’s portrayal of the waitress Carol Connelly) in 1998. It was an impossible or rather improbable match. Carol is a waitress struggling to make ends meet, a single mother of an asthmatic son and Melvin an obnoxious man, a homophobic and utterly irritable.  

They are not black-white people.  They have their issues, they have their moments and the ‘nice’ doesn’t always coincide.  In fact it’s the exception.  The question, in that context, speaks to what’s absolutely pathetic about the human condition, where people believe or want to believe that the good times are just around the corner and when they come they will stay, and consequently are disappointed at every turn.  

The best, is perhaps consolation, nothing more.  When Sachin Tendulkar played his last test, many would have wanted him to play one more, many would have wanted him to walk off with a century.  Sometimes the last moment is great, like when Murali took his 800th wicket in his last test, but that’s the exception.  We want a last hurrah and if that fails, indulge in fantasies about people coming out of retirement.  They do, sometimes, as Michael Jordan did, returning 3 years after his first retirement to lead the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive NBA championships, but that too is very rare.  For the most part, we live with disappointment.

But what has all this got to do with tennis?

People often wonder how it would have been if the best players of every generation competed in one single grand championship.  It’s the stuff for fiction and people can’t be blamed for refusing point blank to indulge in such fantasies.  We can think of Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Conners, Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic playing in the same tournament.  We could add Rod Laver, Arthur Ash and others to that list.  We could get them to play in the four grand slam events so that the edge that one may have on one surface would be neutralized by someone else being more at home in another.  We can play period technology — one year with 70s racquets without ball tracking and another with everything that is ‘usual’ in the year 2017.  We can have spectators as well as the players in period attire.  We can think of all kinds of things.  Fantasize.  

Well, we won’t get it.  Nostalgia is something that few are immune to, and therefore, even if few are obsessed with it, some will surely indulge.  

And that’s why, for such people, the 2017 Australian Open was so special.  Well, out of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Venus and Serena Williams, none have announced retirement.  Venus lurks as a dark horse whenever potential winners are talked about, but Serena is right there on top.  Roger and Rafa have been sidelined by injury and age we are often told has dulled their competitive edge.  Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are the names that figure most prominently when experts are asked to pick.   Rafa and Roger are of course mentioned, Roger more out of courtesy and respect rather than having the skill-complement to take him the distance.  

Their fans, of course, always hoped for that’s what being a fan is all about.  However, there would have been many who wanted, say, Novak or Andy to win who would not be dismayed by the furtive thought that either Rafa or Roger could take away the big prize.  As the game’s greats grow older they gradually earn the tag ‘Sentimental Favorite,’ which is of course a back-handed compliment meaning ‘it would be nice if you win but let’s get real, you don’t have the chance of an ice cube in hell’.  Again, more so with Roger than with Rafa.  Rafa and Roger, on the odds-chart were numbers 4 and 5, pretty low for the two champions.  The bookies may have factored in the general trend of champions to raise their game in important tournaments.  

Sure, they were helped by upsets along the way.  Murray was bested by the unheralded Mischa Zvarev (Germany) and Djokovic by the even more unheralded Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan.  But then again, Rafa prevailed over third seed Milos Raonic of Canada and Roger beat 4th seeded compatriot Stan Wawrinka in an absorbing five-setter in the semi-final.   They met in a final that some may have yearned for but few would have predicted.  Roger won and at 35, he is now the oldest Grand Slam champion in his own lifetime. Australia’s Ken Rosewall is the only other man to claim majors in the Open era after his 35th birthday, the last of which came at the 1972 US Open at the age of 37. It was his first win in a Grand Slam event since 2012.  Both men were coming off injuries.  Nadal, at 30, is not the energetic youngster he was.  The final then was an improbable match-up.   No wonder it was called the ‘Grandest of Slams’.

That, however, was just half the story.  Although Serena is no ‘sentimental favorite’ for she’s been No 1 for a long time and only slipped to No 2 recently, she’s a veteran.  Most players leave the women’s circuit long before they reach 30.  Serena is 35 and her opponent in the final, sister Venus, is 36.  Venus hasn’t won a major title since winning Wimbledon in 2008.  She came to the Australian open having won 7 out of 14 Grand Slam finals.  Serena on the other hand already equalled Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Grand Slam titles, although Graf was the main beneficiary of Monica Seles being essentially stabbed out of the circuit.  This was Serena’s 29th final.  

What made it a fairy-tale match up was not that the Williams sisters were facing each other in a Grand Slam final nor that it was because it was the ninth time they were battling for top honors in a major.  It was because this is where it all began.  Nineteen years ago, they met for the first time in a professional match in the second round of the Australian Open.  Venus won that match.  Serena had won six out of the eight Grand Slam finals in which she faced her sister and Venus hadn’t beaten her since Wimbledon 2008.   They were the two oldest women in the tournament and in fact there hadn’t been an ‘older’ final or even an older encounter ever in the Australian Open.  Serena beat Venus and lay sole claim to the record for Grand Slam singles in the Open era.  

We don’t know when they will retire.  If her form does not desert her for at least two years, then in all likelihood she’ll add to her tally.  As for Venus, in the time that remains, she will always be more of a sentimental favorite than Serena.  

Venus and Serena, Rafa and Roger — they played like champions.  Of course victories are sweet, but it seemed as though they had all come to that point when their true competitor is themselves, going out to the court to do their best, which means for them to do better than anyone, including themselves, expect.  

Venus and Serena hugged each other at the end of their match.  A hug is customary, but they hugged longer than is normal.  What was said, no one knows.  Victories, at least some of them, are somehow smaller than other things.

It was the same with Rada and Roger.  When Roger, in his acceptance speech, said that he would have been happy had Nadal won, it might have sounded a tad condescending, a bit of artificial grace from the champion.  On the other hand, he followed this by saying ‘Tennis is a tough sport, there’s no draws but if there was I’d be happy to share it with Rafa tonight.’  That’s the stuff of a champion, a legend.  And that’s why there’s always a few out there who get excited about improbable outcomes.   

We don’t get many of them, of course.  Maybe this is as good as it gets and as such something to savor for a long time to come.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene