Americans love an underdog. The most delicious of the kind is a formally great champion trying to reclaim past glory after it seems far past possible; this well-worn but irresistible anecdote has been replayed over and over in film and sports media and when you couple that with an all time great champion at the tail end of his prime, trying stave off inevitable decline, the story becomes a bit more compelling; add the inherent likability of the individual and the strong belief that the run is nearing its end and you have the most fascinating story-line of this years French Open.
In a sport sorely lacking in personality and riveting characters, Nadal’s attempt to continue his unprecedented dominance at this tournament is one of the truly captivating subplots. Nadal has had an amazing resurgence this past year, not long ago it seemed the old, dominant Nadal had been replaced by simply, an old Nadal; early exit after early exit and constant injury concerns had the tennis world assuming that his best days were long gone. it was then that a remarkable thing happened on the way to the French Open last year, all of a sudden it seemed, Nadal was back; the dominating, powerful, crushing Nadal. The year before it had seemed all but over, a few quarterfinal appearances, a few semi final berths, mixed in with some surprisingly disappointing first and second round ousters; sprinkled amongst them a few moments that remind of past greatness; matches against Berdych and Wawrinka come to mind, but much more down then up; the roller coaster ride that usually signals the end of ones prime and the beginning of slow inexorable decline.
Going into this years French Open, Nadal has looked anything but average or old, last years win catapulted him toward a unexpectedly great season, (the loss to Them at this years Madrid Open notwithstanding), his usual ferociousness has returned. It is rare that a player of Nadal’s age and mileage will show evidence of decline and then rebound back to the top and stay there. Agassi may be the only example, although his mid career fade was more self inflicted, rather than age or injury related, or possibly Federer who had pulled off a similar resurgence the year before, but he didn’t have nearly as far to go. Usually, an aging legend will have some moments that remind of past glory, (Connors in 91 comes to mind-Check it out here!) before eventually bowing out meekly in the quarters or semi’s to a younger star on the rise.
Now it’s Djokovic who appears to be fading and it remains to be seen if he can pull off the kind of resurgence that Federer and Nadal were able to summon.
Entering the 2017 season, Djokovic’s inexplicable run of dominance spoke for itself. With his computer chess like precision, he had been able to blunt Nadal’s force of nature power, especially when the hurricane resembled more of a tropical storm the past few years due to Nadal’s years long issues with injuries and also beat Federer at his precision game by being, well, more precise. The questions which swirled around Nadal then were in regard to whether this great all-time champion could re-establish himself as Djokovic’s only kryptonite (formally Federer’s role) and beat a player who had pretty much had his number from the beginning and in the process return to the mountaintop. Now the whole thing has flipped.
Djokovic, at his best, succeeded behind his mythical consistency; he was machine-like in his approach and although he neither had the biggest serve nor the hardest forehand, he would, when on top of his game, get to ABSOLUTELY-EVERY-SINGLE-BALL infuriatingly and return them, with pace, at impossible angles. He is the kind of player who doesn’t bludgeon you into submission like a prime Nadal or eviscerate you with the Beethoven-esque symphony of beautiful shots like Federer, he simply makes you lose heart; like trying to win a match against a brick wall by hitting it harder and harder until you collapse from the effort.
Despite his already Hall of Fame unimpeachable credentials as a top 2 or 3 all-time player, Nadal, in some respects faces one of his greatest tests at this years French. His accession resembled a tornado gathering force as it swallowed up everything in its path. His rival and greatest obstacle coming up was none other than consensus GOAT, Mr. Federer. But his passing of Federer, seemed at the time to have an effortlessness and inevitability to it. A close loss at Wimbledon, a few more close matches in Finals and then years of absolute dominance was the story of that contest. There really was not a lot of back and forth. This is Different. This FEELS different. The three greatest players of this era or maybe any era, are still dominant (excepting Djokie lately), but also much older now, scarred and undoubtedly staring at the finish line, though still staving off the inevitable.
The story this years French Open will hinge on is whether these three great champions can maintain their dominance or in Djokie’s case, regain his, or will they continue/begin to slide into the abyss of aging formerly great athletes hanging on after the moment is gone.