Australian Open: When the past was very much present!

As much as the 2017 Australian Open warmed the hearts of the sceptics, it was perhaps the most forceful of cases ever made for the triumph of mind over matter. Four players aged over 30 making the final showed tennis’ shallowness it was argued. In fact, as far as one can remember, tennis has been a young man’s game. But the recent Australian Open proved that when physical prowess reaches a saturation point, with modern medicines and recovery techniques available to all, it’s often the mind that plays the decider.

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Roger Federer... the second oldest man after Ken Rosewall to win a Grand Slam title.   -  Getty Images

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Serena Williams... the Usain Bolt of women's tennis?   -  Getty Images

The business end of the 2017 Australian Open, in more ways than one, seemed like a throwback to the yesteryear. There were Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Venus Williams as the last four players standing. These were four 30-somethings in a sort of an old school reunion, smiling their way in front of the camera, after having thrown open all the gates which all but seemed virtually clanged behind them forever. All four were together in a Grand Slam tournament final way back in 2008 at Wimbledon.

With it came a plethora of statistics and trivia for the romantics to consume. The first time the Williams sisters met was as teenagers and here they were almost two decades later, once again facing off on the biggest of stages. The first time Federer met Nadal was in 2004 and here they were after eight Grand Slam finals between them, the last being in 2011 at Roland Garros.

Federer was gunning to become the oldest major champion since Ken Rosewall. Serena was merely hoping to rewrite that record after having twice broken it already. Federer was inching closer to the ‘Greatest of All Time’ tag. Serena wanted to slam the door on any further debate on the same by getting to her 23rd major and thereby going past Steffi Graf’s 22.

 

In the end, all of this happened. Serena got her wish, even signalling the number 23 emphatically after beating Venus rather easily. Federer, at the ripe old age of 35, nearly five years after his previous title, clinched his 18th crown following yet another titanic tussle against nemesis Nadal. Tennis needed it, it was said. The world needed it, it was said. After all, in a time of great strife and anger all around, there is still place for romance, isn’t it? What better way than sport to showcase that?

As much as the tournament warmed the hearts of the sceptics, it was perhaps the most forceful of cases ever made for the triumph of mind over matter. Four players aged over 30 making the final showed tennis’ shallowness it was argued. In fact, as far as one can remember, tennis has been a young man’s game. Boris Becker’s Wimbledon triumph aged 17, Michael Chang’s French Open win aged 17, Pete Sampras claiming U.S. Open aged 19 and Nadal conquering Paris aged 19 are all testaments to this. To take it further, by the time Venus was 25, she had won four majors and played six other finals. By the same age, Nadal had won the French Open six times.

But the 2017 Australian Open proved that when physical prowess reaches a saturation point, with modern medicines and recovery techniques available to all, it’s often the mind that plays the decider. Nadal had to recover from a brutal match-up against Grigor Dimitrov in the semifinals which lasted nearly five hours. Federer was hopping on one-leg ever since he beat Stan Wawrinka. That both managed to do it, exhausted and hurting yet unyielding, and put on a grand show in the crucible that a Grand Slam final often is, should tell one about what they are made of.

Intrinsic to this was the duo’s capacity to stay in the present and also revel in it. Federer’s last four Grand Slam tournament results have been — semifinal, semifinal, final and final. He was indeed able to play with the rest, but the very fact that he couldn’t play better than the rest could have been soul-crushing. Nadal’s mental issues since his last Slam in 2014 have been well-documented.

But their career-paths in recent times have shown what a champion athlete does. They seem to convey that it’s often the struggle they enjoy. The result is merely incidental. They try and spin tall tales, dig ever deeper into their genius, try and take you to places you’ve never been to, roll back the time — literally in Federer’s case — and even mock prediction. In the end only one wins, because as Federer said, “there are no draws in tennis.” Yet, throughout, they never displayed the demeanour of someone whose mind was racing ahead to factor in the repercussions of a victory or a defeat.

 

“Of course, winning an event like this is so important,” Nadal said after the defeat. “For me, if I won that one, it will be amazing. But the real thing is what makes me more happy, more than the titles, is go on the court and feel that I can enjoy the sport.”

“That’s the smallest part, to be honest,” said Federer when asked if this title increased the distance between him and his rivals. “For me it’s all about the comeback, about an epic match with Rafa again. We go furthest back, you know. Rafa definitely has been very particular in my career. I think he made me a better player.

“Him and a couple more players have done the most to do that to me because the way his game stacks up with me, it’s a tricky one. I’ve said that openly. It remains for me the ultimate challenge to play against him. So it’s definitely very special. That’s what I see. The last problem is the slam count. Honestly, it doesn’t matter.”

It’s a kind of rivalry which has eluded Serena Williams though; at least in this tournament where Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka have been absent and Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza, who won three of the four majors last year, withered early. It is a perception Serena has had to battle all career — of there not being enough competition.

But if history is any evidence it’s not tough to realise how difficult it is to motivate oneself internally. When Bjorn Borg quit tennis aged only 26, John McEnroe is said to have remarked, “I thought we’d pull each other to these unreal heights. And then he up and quit just like that.” There was no one who could motivate him like Borg did. There was no one whom he respected more. Borg’s fall in the end brought both of them down.

It is this context which makes Serena’s achievement stupendous. It is beyond doubt that she has the game to neutralise anybody in history. She has bettered every rival she has ever had. But it has often been a question of her wanting to do it over and over again. However, as the last few years have shown, she is now into unparalleled territory. She has won 10 of her Slams after 30. Graf has none.

“Venus and I work so hard,” said Serena. “Still to this day we work side-by-side each other at practice. We motivate each other. Every time she won her match, I felt obligated to win, I’ve got to win, too. I wouldn’t be here without her. The Williams sisters wouldn’t exist.”

It’s only fair that one leaves the last word for Venus then. She now has a semifinal and final appearance in two of her last three majors. But prior to that, she made the last four way back in 2010 at the US Open. If that doesn’t convey persistence, probably nothing else will.

“Ready to kill it this year,” said Venus. “That’s my goal. Who goes into the year and says, Oh, my God, it’s not going to be a good year? Who says that? Not me.”

Not Federer, Nadal or Serena either.

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