- What the Deuce
"Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war."
David Foster Wallace, Federer as Religious Experience, New York Times, 2006
To watch the past decade of men's tennis has been to bear witness to a golden age unfolding before our very eyes. Has the sport ever pitted a quartet as outrageously talented as Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray against one another? For 10 years, duel after spellbinding duel has raised the bar for the sport and rewritten the history books in the process. Whisper it, but once this awesome foursome calls it a day it may be some time before we see their likes again.
Like death and taxes, the end will come for them all. Scratch that - the end is nigh: assuming he plans to leave on his own terms, Federer is in Pete Sampras territory, looking for one last big score before hanging up his racket (whichever racket that may be). But Sampras didn't have three fellow greats of the game at the height of their powers to contend with when he walked away with the US Open title in 2002. You can never rule Federer out, but you can bet against him, particularly when you consider the obstacles: Murray's laser-guided assault plan on the slams are now bearing fruit, Djokovic remains consistently outstanding and Nadal's return to the conversation following his injury lay-off has been nothing short of awe-inspiring. It's no coincidence that each has claimed a major in 2013.
And yet, for all the euphoric highs the Big Four have given us, there has been something missing from the narrative, something that came to define previous golden ages of the game as much as the classic encounters - a bit of animus to go with the artistry.
"The game now is what it is," believes Jimmy Connors, who more than held his own in the era of the great hot-heads alongside John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase and Ivan Lendl. "I've been criticised for saying it, but the rivalries are soft. I can only compare it to what I did. To me, they were real, not only on the court but off the court, too. I don't see Mac coming up and putting his arm around me and consoling me."
We've reveled in the beauty, but we've missed out on the war - or at least we did while the Federer-Nadal narrative dominated the landscape. The cynics out there may believe that it's simply safer for their agents - and better for their sponsors - for these guys to get on, but the comradeship is genuine: Roger and Rafa get along famously away from the court, while Murray and Djokovic, born a week apart, became pals as juniors on the European circuit.
Genuine, yes - but not universal. Federer has had the odd run-in with the Djokovic camp over the years, and while Nadal was partial to a kick-about with the Serb all that seemed to change when Djokovic claimed the upper hand in their rivalry. Indeed, Novak's father Srdjan has accused both of envying his son's rise to the top of the men's game at their expense. Meanwhile Murray admitted at Wimbledon that his friendship with Djokovic will have to be put on hold until their playing days are over.
For all that, however, seldom have we seen sparks fly on court - which made events at the Montreal Masters, when Rafael Nadal tagged Novak Djokovic during the final set of their semi-final showdown, all the most compelling. Serving at 2-2, 30-30, Nadal traded blows from corner to corner before drawing Djokovic into the net with a drop shot. When Djokovic responded in kind, Nadal charged forward and went for the jugular - literally. The Spaniard's cross-court backhand shot right at the Serb, hitting him in the neck. Djokovic was indignant, ignoring Nadal's apology, leaving the Spaniard to shrug to the crowd.
"I said yesterday the only chance to win against Novak, the only tactic is to play very well," said Nadal, who won the match in a final-set tie-break and cruised to the title against Milos Raonic. "To play very well, I have to play aggressive. If not, I cannot play very well on this kind of surface. And I did. I played a very high level tonight, I think. I played with the right decisions in the important moments."
Let's be clear: if Nadal did deliberately tag Djokovic, it was the right play at the best possible time. Tennis may not be a contact sport but that doesn't mean players can't expect to get hit every once in a while, particularly at net. A body shot is one of the hardest reaction volleys to deal with, jamming up an opponent looking to guard the open spaces to either side. As for the psychological one-upmanship, that's a bonus. Failing to deal with the fallout from a single lost point can often cost you a match. Just ask Juan Martin del Potro.
"Sometimes hitting the ball straight at your opponent is the only option," former doubles world No. 1 Max Mirnyi told The Tennis Space last month. "Playing on the professional tour is not like playing at a country club. The ultimate goal is to win a point. If that's what you have your mind set on, and it's an easy ball, and if you want to get a psychological edge or advantage over your opponent to show them that you're on the court to win, I don't see a reason why you shouldn't do it."
It's hard not to imagine a contented grin forming on Connors' face, more at the sight of Djokovic's reaction than Nadal's shot selection. The world No. 1 was rattled by what happened, but not shocked. Normally he would laugh such incidents off, but not in Montreal. Not with the memory of his French Open semi-final heartbreak, followed by that loss at Wimbledon - two results that reinforced exactly who now stands between the Serb and the game's greatest prizes. For a moment, it seems, the mask slipped. The rivalries among the Big Four may have been soft, but it looks like the Big Three era will have a little more edge - at least on court.
"I had my chances," he said afterwards, back in press-gang mode. "He had his chances. You know, I guess at the end he played better. Whenever we play against each other, it's always a thrilling match for the crowd to see. We are both competing at the high level. We both want to win these matches."
That's eight tournament wins and 10 finals in 11 tournaments for Nadal. Having bounced back from his shock first-round Wimbledon exit in such emphatic fashion, many pundits have installed the Spaniard as favourite for the US Open - something all but unthinkable just six months ago. The Spaniard is back up to No. 3 in the world. Win in Cincinnati and he may even surpass Murray to become No. 2.
Part of me hopes he doesn't make it there before they get to New York. The same part that wants Nadal and Djokovic to land in the same half of the draw, on course for a supercharged semi-final showdown. The part that can't wait to see them take each other on again. The part that wants to see how Djokovic responds.
Then we'll see who's soft, Jimmy.