Sunday, June 3, 2012
A day of resolve and major regrets
By Howard Bryant ESPN.com
PARIS -- The beautiful, melodious buzz that crackles when something big is happening. That is the essence of a Grand Slam tournament. The acoustics, by themselves, are delicious. There's quiet disbelief from one family box and nervous elation from the other. And you can't miss the warming human roars from the disparate quarters at Roland Garros. On a crazy Sunday, this was all happening on Court Suzanne Lenglen, where Roger Federer was getting pushed around by David Goffin, a 21-year-old Belgian kid who had played fewer career matches (14) than Federer's 16 major titles.
On the big show court, Philippe Chatrier, Novak Djokovic, ostensibly the greatest player in the world, the man going for his fourth consecutive major, was down two sets to none against Italian Andreas Seppi. The dream final against Rafael Nadal was wilting.
In response to the buzz, which grew louder and more urgent, the Parisians and their foreign guests scrambled to Lenglen and scurried to Chatrier and stood in front of the big boards to watch if the improbable chatter they were hearing was actually true. Would Federer and Djokovic suffer the same bitter fate as women's world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka? Earlier in the day, she wound up able to take that early flight home to Minsk after all, courtesy of the motivated and victorious Pocket Rocket, Dominika Cibulkova.
Roger Federer has looked his age many times during the fortnight.
First Serena, and now Azarenka, have been vanquished, but not Djokovic or Federer, both of whom sweated and persevered and ultimately won entrance to the quarterfinals. If fate grants their wishes, they'll face off in a semifinal showdown for a second consecutive year.
It has been eight years since the top-seeded man and woman were knocked out on the same day, and it has occurred only three times ever, but the possibility loomed over the grounds. Trouble was the theme of the day, and virtually all of it was real. The weather was terrible, a rush of heavy wind and threatening skies. Azarenka is gone, justifiably, for Cibulkova was the better player in a ferociously competitive match -- illustrated by her tremendous ball-striking. Azarenka could only hope her championship aura and toughness and history could save her. It couldn't.
There were numerous hard truths for Azarenka to face; the biggest, though, was placing her terrific streak to start the year in proper perspective. It is true that Azarenka demolished Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-0 to win the Australian Open and take the top ranking from the paper champion, the uninspiring and major-less Caroline Wozniacki. It is true that Azarenka dusted Sharapova again at Indian Wells and solidified herself as the player to beat on tour. It is true she won 26 matches in a row and was building the kind of mandate that created -- at least in the imagination of a tennis world hungry for a legitimate No. 1 -- a player worthy of her top ranking.
The other side of this reality, however, is that after her streak, Azarenka has been eminently beatable and happens to be a poor winner and an even worse loser. During her streak, Azarenka bathed in her seeming invincibility. Since, she has proven to be petulant and small and coarse, smashing her racket Sunday, swearing loudly on court in Miami and angering opponents such as former friend Agnieszka Radwanska. Finally, after losing to Cibulkova, Azarenka refused to wait on her side of the net to shake hands with her conqueror. Afterward, she was asked how she would recover from her loss and responded by sarcastically saying, "I'm going to kill myself."
Winning is the balm that masks all imperfections because we want our champions to be as graceful as they are dominant, but Azarenka is neither right now. The dearth of a true force in the women's game is evident, for if Maria Sharapova reaches the final here, win or lose, she will topple Azarenka, whose dynastic charge to the top of the women's game will have lasted less than half a year.
Federer lost the first set thrillingly, 7-5, because it simply didn't seem possible that a lucky loser -- Goffin was ranked No. 109 in the world and lost a qualifier to gain entrance to the Open -- could dominate Federer's return game. And because he's the Federer who will turn 31 in August, the Federer who has lost at least one set in each of his past three matches, the Federer who hasn't been able to beat both of the men ahead of him in a major, clearly the bow-taking Goffin's performance was proof that the Old Man no longer has it.
Except that he does. Eventually, because he's Roger Federer, the boa constrictor that is his game wrinkled the youthful Goffin, aging him as the sets wore on. Goffin became less a competitor and more of an auditioner for a future spot among the better players in the world. Federer struggled and Goffin won the point of the day, a scrambling, desperate return in which Goffin recovered and volleyed into the open court to a standing ovation. He responded to the crowd by taking a bow.
Though Federer held only a one-break lead, the buzz had subsided and transformed. The threat weakened, from hurricane to tropical storm to steady downpour. Federer, though not without difficulty, won the final three sets, and the idol and apprentice even embraced and engaged jointly in a postmatch interview for the adoring crowd. No doubt such a love affair never would have occurred if the Great Man had been upset, but the danger had passed, his place restored, and he could smile and be magnanimous.
At Chatrier, a few thousand feet away, Djokovic walked off the court having beaten Seppi but looking as though he had wrestled an alligator. After, he knew he had done nothing but survived, and rightfully gave credit to the fighter inside of him that saved him. Djokovic was at his dangerous best for only a few moments in the third set. The rest was a blueprint for how to get knocked out of a tournament without one's best material. Yet there he was, playing the biggest point bigger than the game. A determined Seppi knew his greatest upset was well within his reach. For the second time in less than a calendar year, Djokovic was down two sets to none -- the other was to Federer in last year's U.S. Open -- and both times the day ended with his hands raised after winning the final point of the match.
This is what Rafael Nadal and Federer and the rest are competing against, the aura of Djokovic as much as against Djokovic himself. He is what Azarenka aspires to be: a true and fearless champion who possesses the weapons while resolving to emerge victorious, even from himself. The challenge of winning when defeat seems so sure is what created the buzz that saturated the historic grounds on an odd and special afternoon.
"I was fighting. When I was two sets down, I thought I could win," Djokovic said, admitting that a younger Djokovic would likely have lost to Seppi. "It was the only positive I could take. It was one of those days where nothing is working. I was fighting, and because of the fight, I won the match."