First things first: Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic lost to Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem in the Roland Garros semifinals because their opponents handled the conditions better. They weren’t good enough. Their opponents were. We can begin with that.
We can then mention that both men — but especially Djokovic — were bitterly unlucky to get to a major semifinal and receive such nasty weather conditions. You can say (and this is mostly something Nadal fans believe) that braving the conditions is part of elite competition. That is an entirely fair point. Yet, even if you do believe that’s part of the deal for professional athletes, one can acknowledge that it is a rough break to arrive at a moment of great importance and be forced into a position where one is not just playing the ball or the opponent, but also Mother Nature.
This is true in sports other than tennis.
Americans might recall the 2008 NFL football season. The New York Giants were going for back-to-back Super Bowl championships. They got the top seed in their conference and played the second (divisional) round at home. They were in great position to return to the Super Bowl. However, their game against the Philadelphia Eagles turned into a wind tunnel at The Meadowlands. Eli Manning could not handle the wind, and the Giants lost to the Eagles.
Under calm weather conditions, the Giants and Eli probably would have won, but Donovan McNabb was the much better wind-based quarterback that day. The season ended. Yes, athletes have to cope with extreme conditions, but it remains unfortunate that their normal style of play is blunted by the elements.
So it was for Federer and Djokovic in Paris on Friday (and for Nole, Saturday as well).
Federer and Djokovic leave France united as bad-weather brothers, blown off course not just by the two French Open finalists, but also by the wind. It is true that Federer is a better wind player than Djokovic, but that offers relatively little comfort when Federer was unable to reliably calibrate his shots against a locked-in Nadal, who played extremely well in the difficult conditions on Friday.
It is obviously true that Federer and Djokovic are the elite indoor players of this era. Their records at the ATP Finals speak for themselves. Yet, when one says that a player is a great “indoor” player, what does that mean? I’m not trying to suggest that this is a false debate or a hollow construct — not at all — but I am trying to drill deeper and underscore a specific nuance about what it means to be an elite indoor player.
What precisely is it that makes a player great in an indoor environment? Seeing the ball better in a lit arena might be part of it. Federer has said in the past that he sees the ball very well in night matches with stadium lights.
Not having to look into the sun on a serve toss can smooth out the serve and improve consistency.
Yet, each of those two components mentioned above aren’t the sole possession of indoor tennis. Those two details also belong to night tennis played outdoors.
The inherent qualities of indoor tennis — separate from outdoor tennis in any circumstances, day or night — are that they remove wind and heat from the equation. Indoor tennis removes and reduces variables. It doesn’t add; it subtracts. It doesn’t complicate; it simplifies. It doesn’t create more chaos; it provides a calmer environment.
What is the larger importance of these explanations and their nuances?
Here is the answer: While Rafael Nadal handles adverse conditions better than Federer or Djokovic — which is not meant to either say or imply that Fed and Nole DON’T handle bad conditions well (they DO handle them well, but as in so many other Big 3 comparisons, one often rises to a higher standard than the other two) — it is also the case that Nadal handles “calm” conditions worse than Fedole, as shown every year at the ATP Finals.
Within this point, however, one can also make the claim that Nadal — had the ATP Finals been played in January after a two-month break, instead of in November at the end of the calendar season — would have won several ATP Finals by now. That is something Nadal fans can make note of, and they would be right.
Yet, we can only work with the results we have, and based on a decade and a half of Golden Era competition, Federer and Djokovic have demonstrated a better capacity to make calm conditions work to their advantage.
Nadal will never be topped when the debate revolves around who can endure and suffer the most. Rafa is simply better in that department — it is his brand, his identity. Federer and Djokovic have both reminded us at Roland Garros that calm conditions — the absence of complications rather than an abundance of them — is when they are in the best position to win.
In many ways, an “indoor player” is merely an incomplete or partial way of saying that a player thrives in calm and uncomplicated conditions.
As a wise person once said, “Less is more.” It doesn’t have to refer to matches played indoor.