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Del Potro and Federer play an old tune in a new setting

Saqib Ali

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Saqib Ali

The big four era has produced enough great matches for a lifetime, enthralling battles in which the quality and drama of tennis action has rivaled instant greatness and occupied classic status in the audience’s mind. These matches are also a part of the extended personalities of these champions and how they all get along with each other. The combativeness never threatened the level of respect they have for each other, which always has resulted in a civil theatre. Yes that includes Federer-Djokovic matches too — even though they have had some moments in the distant past when they were less cordial compared to the other versions of Big Four rivalries.

Gracious post-match greetings and complimentary remarks toward opponents have become quite the norm in this age of men’s tennis. Of course exceptions are always there, like Lukas Rosol and his matches, or Ernests Gulbis versus RBA. But overall the temperature is mild in the rivalries on the tour, a tone that has been set by the Big Four.

If you have only watched the Fedal era, let me tell you: This was NOT the case in eras prior — John McEnroe’s matches versus Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl were never dull; the match environment was the polar opposite of Fedal matches. Boris Becker the German wunderkind in 1985 had quite a few fiery moments with McEnroe, the well-established bad boy of the tour back then. It was normal for players to be intense and edgy with their biggest rivals — the fans loved that aspect of the rivalry. The not so cordial emotional equations of top men meant ruthless on-court battles in which no quarter was given or asked for.

There were exceptions such as Stefan Edberg — who was the automatic poster boy of sportsmanship back then. His contemporary, Jim Courier, said something along the lines of “you do not pull for anyone on the tour as they are all rivals and competitors, but one always feels good when Edberg wins.” This comment may seem contrary to the context back then, but this is a very common sentiment these days. The culture on the tour is more laid back and friendly.

Given the current climate of the tour, the final of the 2018 BNP Paribas Open had a very vintage feel when two modern-day nice guys, Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro, locked horns in an extremely edgy final by their Edbergian standards. Federer can be edgy in matches but is seen as the beacon of sportsmanship and gets along with many of his peers. He has won the Stefan Edberg sportsmanship award 12 out of the last 13 years. The Argentine del Potro is also an immensely popular player among his peers and fans — he is titled “the gentle giant” for a reason. On top of that he is the sentimental favorite of the tennis fraternity due to the various injuries he had to endure in his career. On top of that Federer and Delpo admire each other a lot and have genuinely come across as friendly rivals. Del Potro is also managed by TEAM8 – a company owned by Federer and his agent Tony Godsick. Considering all these factors it was an unlikely scenario that these two gentlemen would breathe fire in a very testy final on one of the grandest stages of the game.

I chose not to write about the glorious level of tennis that was played over two hours and 42 minutes because the constant edginess of these two champions is what added an extra component to this great match. On the hot seat was chair umpire Fergus Murphy, who had to deal with the many complaints and rants from both men. This was a testament to how badly these friendly rivals wanted this trophy. Federer has won this event five times before, but his champion-like appetite always wants more. His fight in pursuit of this was exemplary as he weathered the brutal force of Del Potro’s majestic groundstrokes shot after shot, rally after rally, and pounced on his opportunities when they came his way. This is a man who keeps extending the sunset of his storied tennis career and keeps adding new chapters of uncharted success.

Del Potro on the other hand was looking for his first title at this level. He was long overdue for success at a Masters 1000 event. In a logical way he was the best player without a Masters title until now. He played the legendary Rafael Nadal in the finals of Indian Wells five years ago and came in second in a very competitive final. Sunday he played like a man who was determined to bring home this trophy as he complained about the pro-Federer crowd throughout the match, but never allowed the fans to get in his head. The crowd’s behavior bothered him but did not affect his resolve, as he kept unleashing the bazooka forehands in this three-set final against his Swiss rival.

Federer too kept complaining to the chair about various things as the match grew in stature, but it did not affect his rally balls or clutch volleys. Both men wanted this so badly and needed to fire up themselves without being in each other’s face as McEnroe or Connors would have done. Tennis was of high calibre and the tension served as the perfect garnish for all those who watched this seesaw battle. Federer had called this match as an arm wrestling exercise with both men trying to exert their game over the other.

However the 25th edition of this rivalry was a little more complex than the previous matches between Federer and Del Potro. It CLEARLY had an added mental element which reached contained levels of gamesmanship from both men.

Maybe this will change the context of their future matches or maybe this was an anomaly. It was like watching a movie which is ahead of its time and may need another viewing. Maybe the game will change to the point that fierce battles will become personal like olden times on tour… or maybe not. As an audience we were enjoying the spectacle, but observers were not sure how this would shape the match. Maybe watching the encore later this week, we can fully appreciate what played out on Sunday. It was a throwback tennis battle in many ways — but starring a modern-day cast!

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