Novak, Rafa and a Historic Men’s Final at the Australian Open

Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open title in impressive fashion. It was his third Australian Open title, his fifth overall Grand Slam title. And the victory was once again over his current rival, Rafael Nadal.

This win puts him one slam title away from holding all four slam titles at the same time, gives him a seventh consecutive finals victory or Rafael Nadal, and gives him a victory in the longest grand slam final in history. More importantly, Novak has a legitimate chance to achieve a calendar-year Grand Slam. It’s pretty heady stuff… the stuff of dreams, for sure.

Novak showed us (again) all the reasons why he will be a continuing force in the ATP for 2012. But at the risk of throwing cold water on his achievement, a 6-hour grand slam final that didn’t even go beyond a 7-5 scoreline in the fifth set left me a little bit disturbed.

We have seen from their past achievements that the top four men, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray, are all talented tennis players; sometimes bordering on brilliant. All of them, even Murray. Increasingly, matches between them are becoming much more than “mere” tennis matches. They are becoming superhuman feats of tennis brilliance combined with superhuman levels of physical endurance to a degree that defies description. That is a troubling trend.

There are many who think this level of sustained intensity and shot-making is a great thing. I’m not one of them. I admit that I haven’t even watched the entire Aussie Open men’s final. Part of the reason is because I’m a busy guy who could better use that six hours getting other stuff done. I’m also a Rafa fan who was more than a little dismayed to discover upon awaking that he had lost the match (though to be completely honest I wasn’t shocked at the result owing to Rafa’s 0-6 record against Novak in finals last year). Do I really need to watch a match that I know is going to end in my disappointment?

Those reasons aside, the main reason I haven’t watched the entire final is because it would be like watching a 20 round bare knuckle boxing match. It was a match that ended up being much more about its’ historic duration and intense physicality than tactically brilliant shot-making. It is said that the Grand Slams are as much of a test of a player’s fitness as they are of a player’s skills. But when the matches are this extreme, even for players as brilliant as these two, is it simply too much?

By “too much”, I mean that matches like this are too much for these athletes to ask of themselves and their bodies for Grand Slam glory. And they are also way too much to ask of spectators to sit and remain engaged in the battle.

This match reminded me of the US Open final, with just almost two hours of additional tennis. Watching it live in Rod Laver Arena must have been the equivalent of sitting through “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” or the complete “Angels in America”, accompanied by over-amped rock guitars. You lose your appreciation for the excellent production because of fatigue brought on due to the hyper intensity.

Yes, I’m sure the atmosphere was as electric as many writers (Wertheim, Bodo, and Cronin to name a few) reported. But at some point we all reach our limits, no matter how brilliant or electric the atmosphere or match. At the 4-hour mark, you could definitely stick a fork in me because I would be “done”! At five hours I’m over it. At six hours I wouldn’t go to another live match again.

Spectator concerns take a back seat, however. I think the greater concern should be for the athletes. The Nadak-Djokovic US Open final was four hours and 10 minutes of brutal hitting. This Aussie Open final was five hours and 53 minutes of “more of the same”. Matches on red clay, which is used at The French Open’s Roland Garros, are notorious for long matches. What are we to expect from a final there with the same participants? 8 hours? Do we really need to see that much tennis? And who does it benefit? Isner/Mahut made for great Wimbledon theater, but would surely raise LTA (Lawn Tennis Association) eyebrows if matches like that happened every year.

I remember watching Rafa’s semifinal win over Fernando Verdasco in 2009 followed by his win in the final over Roger Federer. Within a three-day span Rafa played just under 10 hours of tennis to win the title. It seemed unreal that he would be able to compete as well as he did in the final against Roger, especially given that he couldn’t even practice on the day off due to his physical condition from the semifinal. But compete he did in back to back five setters.

His situation was very much like Novak’s this year in that Novak’s section of the draw also only had one day off to recover and prepare for the final. Novak beat Andy Murray in the semifinals, had one day off to rest and sleep, then was victorious over Rafa in the final. Back-to-back five setters, and just under 11 hours of total tennis time. At this pace it’s no wonder that we see such battered bodies and shabby tennis at the ATP World Tour finals. Who can forget Novak yelling in pain and sinking to his knees during Davis Cup as his body complete gave out. Even the best athletes can’t punish themselves to this extent and remain viable over the long haul.

I had a long discussion with one friend who equated what Novak did to Rafa in the final as being very similar to what Rafa does to Federer in these long matches. In best two out of three set matches, Roger has a much better chance of beating Rafa. If his game is on, he can jump out to a quick start and hopefully overwhelm Rafa with fast quick points. In a best of five match, he has to endure in a way that has always been difficult for him with Rafa’s game. Roger’s fans point out that it’s not because Rafa is better that he wins these matches. He just lasts longer. Rafa’s fans say that the endurance factor is just as much a part of the game in Grand Slams as Roger’s shot-making skills.

From my friend’s point of view, this match – all 6 hours of it – is what Novak needed in order to “out-Rafa” Rafa. He did to Rafa what Rafa does to Federer. Historic in duration? yes. But completely fair game, and it adds to Novak’s credibility as a burgeoning Grand Slam “great.”

I still don’t buy it though. Endurance in the slams is part of the “championship greatness” package we expect from the top guys. But this six-hour match seems to part of a great trend unfortunately. 88 minutes, almost an hour and a half, for one set of tennis in a best three out of five set match? God help us all if they start lasting much longer than that!

So where do we go from here?
I can tell you where I hope we don’t go: longer rallies and longer matches. I can’t take the current length and severity of these matches anymore as a spectator, and I don’t think their bodies can take much more either. We are enjoying such a great “golden age” of men’s tennis with these top four guys… and I want to see it last a little longer before it ends in injury.

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