By ANAND MAMIDIPUDI
When two tennis titans who share a storied rivalry meet in the finals of a Grand Slam, there is more than a mere result at stake. History is waiting to happen, to be augmented, to be rewritten.
Let’s start by looking at two stalwarts who found each other on opposite sides of the net at the tail end of their era-defining rivalry. One of them is seen by many as a wizard who is inimitable in style and touched by magic. The other is an android who built superhuman endurance and possessed a mind forged in steel that toughened with every loss. In the beginning, the wizard cast an unbreakable spell on the android on his way to the apex of tennis. No matter what the robot attempted, the wizard found a way to outwit him. The wizard lost fewer matches in an entire year than the number of fingers on one hand. The android, on the other hand, learned from every loss, adapting his game and his acumen to slowly narrow the gap.
Their rivalry turned a corner one sunny afternoon when a Grand Slam title was at stake – the wizard was up two sets to love and ready to continue his stranglehold on the android. However, this time, the robot clawed his way back slowly but surely and stunned the wizard. After this match, the rivalry was never the same again. The android soon became number one, while the wizard’s charms slowly faded away. The wizard only defeated the android once in a Grand Slam after that loss. The last time they met was in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam.
When Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic meet in the Wimbledon final Sunday, they will be following the illustrious footsteps of John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl, the aforementioned wizard and the android of the past era, who played in the 1989 Australian Open quarterfinal.
The Federer and Djoker rivalry is 47 matches old, but perhaps no match was more important than the 2011 U.S. Open semifinal when Djokovic fought back from two sets down to defeat Federer (much like Lendl’s defeat of McEnroe in the 1984 French Open final). Djokovic’s victory underscored the leap his mind had made from being a top contender to an undisputed champion — he began to believe that he was better than Roger. After this, the power shifted irreversibly from the ethereal talent of Federer to the freakishly elastic Djokovic (with Rafa taking some of the honors as well).
It is important to note that Federer differs from McEnroe: While Federer has not been able to alter the dynamic of his rivalry with Djokovic, he has shown unprecedented opportunism to annex three slam titles in the past two years while Djokovic took a breather. Now that Djokovic is back near the pinnacle of this sport, Federer’s prospects have dimmed in a manner that McEnroe’s did after his loss to Lendl in Roland Garros.
Simply put, Lendl and Djokovic have been the better five set players in the second half of their respective rivalries against McEnroe and Federer. You have to go back seven years to find the last time that Federer defeated Djokovic in a Grand Slam (2012 Wimbledon). When Lendl and McEnroe met in the ’89 Australian Open quarterfinals, it had already been five years since McEnroe had beaten Lendl at a slam. If history offers any precedent, Federer is in deep trouble this year.
This is not to say that history cannot be reversed. First let’s turn to some basic math to figure out Roger’s chances against Novak. For Roger to win, two things must occur:
1) Novak must not bring his “A” game (conservatively assume a 50% chance)
2) Roger must play at an exceptionally high level for five sets, bringing his own “A” game (assume a 30% probability).
Marrying the two probabilities will tell you that under the current assumptions, Roger has a roughly 15% chance of winning the final, which is bleak but consistent with the Lendl-McEnroe quarterfinal that Lendl won. Lendl was not the superior player in his rivalry with McEnroe. Similarly Novak is arguably not the superior player today despite his recent victories. However, it is true that Lendl and Novak became superior exponents of the five set format over time and turned the tables on their more talented opponents time and time again at the grand slams.
As Yogi Berra once said, “It is hard to predict anything, especially the future”. But history can often serve as a guide to what we should expect, and we should expect Federer to lose tomorrow, just as McEnroe did in ’89. Yet we should not be totally surprised if the result is different and Federer wins. That’s because Federer’s own history tells us that he likes to write his own chapters.