Athletic Stratification at the French Open

I have a candid and sometimes cantankerous approach to watching and commenting on sports; I might, at times, wish I was otherwise.  But I yam what I yam.  And this point-of-view has its benefits, as far as I’m concerned.  Not sure what put me in this particular position.  Obviously a love of sport helps.  But I know many athletes who couldn’t care less about sports, as strange as that sounds.  It’s like there’s something wrong with them.  I happen to love to analyze the events and people around sport and like sharing my insights: and there you have it.

Another factor that, for me, becomes pretty crucial toward one’s ability to speak reasonably on any subject, aside from his/her love and willingness to carefully observe, is some sense of objectivity.  If one can’t distance herself from the fanaticism of sport, one has less to add to a reasonable discussion.  Objectivity or honesty helps with flushing-out the truth; honesty could actually be overlooked as a harbinger of insight.  Without insight, one has little chance at a semblance of truth.  To put another way, just because you like something, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right or good.

So be honest and do your homework.  Then, you might help us figure-out some of these ever-important questions of sport and life.

Determining the hierarchy in any sport amongst its athletes rings of significance.  When we were kids and everyone got a trophy, we soon realized this occurred because we were kids. Once we got our wits about us, we determined winners and losers.  That’s because this interest in winners and losers is inherent to competition, to the entire animal kingdom; once this is realized, hierarchy is born.  Granted, the brother and sisterhood of competition is important; athletes and fans can relish the sporting occasion and find stoke in the variety of events, traditions and beauty of the fellowship of competition.  Much of us get up each day with this kind of outlook, to lace them up and get after it with our fellow sporting folk.  However, once there exists a competitive structure in a sport and the sporting competitors and audience can determine levels of success, even a champion, then you find the existence of athletic stratification.  In professional sports, this is a popular discussion.  I know many of us do not care for professional sports, nor the discussion of this kind of stratification. Good luck with that.

Who wins and why?  Why does someone lose? What is the significance in the wins and losses?  What are the narratives that interest us as athletes and spectators?  These questions fascinate me in many sports.  We can learn so much of the humanity involved, transfer that to other experiences.  In other words, through this kind of analysis and discourse, we can transcend the world of sports.  Many don’t see that.  Many are bored, somehow, by this kind of interest in sport.  Again, good luck with that.

I have documented at length my views with regards to the sport of mountain (and ultra) running.  To bring that discussion up to speed: historically, many many inspiring individual performances in some of the most incredibly beautiful and mysterious places on earth showcase sheer athletic greatness IMHO, mountain running, if you can follow along, is more inspiring than just about any other sport in the world.

But there are certainly other sports. . .

This first installment will cover the recent shit that went down at Roland Garros.  It’s not trail running, but many of these athletes would certainly shred trail and the tournament is played on clay, so folks dirty their handsome little outfits now and then (Bjorn Borg actually trained running in the mountains during his tennis reign in the 70s ad 80s).  Men’s tennis is in an interesting place at this point.  What 2015 amounts to (or amountED to) is the year that Novak Djokovic separates himself from the big four who have dominated tennis.  Nadal, as of this writing, has fallen nearly out of the top 10.  That’s big news in tennis.  I need a separate post for his narrative; either way, he’s pretty much done.  Andy Murray remains a strong threat to reach a semi-final in any tournament and even win if things fall his way.  I would argue he’s not in the same class as the other three, for several reasons.

Lastly, the lovely Roger Federer.  The Swiss great has remained relevant despite his age and TWO sets of twins (the rule in tennis is that once a child is born, your game shits the bed).  At 33, he’s #2 in the world and continues to threaten the draw, especially in the best of three format.  Having said that, some might argue that since the majors are the most important part of the sport and that he has lost his ability to win in those best of five scenarios, he’s done.  We remind this critic that tennis has a fairly sophisticated ranking system designed around the play at several tournaments year-round.  He ranks #2 in the world based on that system.  He remains world-class given the eye test, as well.  I got to watch him recently in March semi-final action at Indian Wells, against Milos Raonic, the lubricous-haired Canadian trying to break into that exclusive top of the sport.  Raonic had dismantled Rafael Nadal in the quarters, which prevented me from seeing another Nadal/Federer match: boo hoo.  But Raonic embarrassed Nadal; I can’t get the image out of my head: Nadal playing ~15 feet behind the baseline, looking like he’s giving birth – an absolute mess.  In the semi-final, Federer toyed with the 6′ 5″ Raonic.  Just another tennis ballet.  FYI, the debate about the GOAT gets pretty clear if you see Roger play in person.  You begin to understand why, despite his brutal struggles against Nadal, the sport continues to declare almost unanimously that Roger is the GOAT.  His play is Michael Jordan-like (to this day I will argue that Mike’s greatness and popularity are in part because of his style.  No one was as beautiful sweating, making others sweat more, cry and kiss his ass).  Roger has that same grace that kinda blows you away (I know it sounds cliche). The fans love him. The sport cherishes Federer and fortunately for the sport, he’s still relevant.

Having said all of that, Djokovic has steadily established himself as the best in the game today.  His game evidences almost no weaknesses.  Best return of serve, most consistent ground stroke (either side), great serve, decent at the net, nasty drop shot. . . He has eight majors and counting.  Although he’s suffered some tough losses in major finals during the last 3-4 years, his time is now and he started 2015 off with his 5th Australian open.

Coming into the French, the world of tennis anticipated a Djoker clay coronation.  This is the one major to evade the Serbian; but he had earned his stripes, his game was virtually a top the world and all eyes were awaiting the inevitable. None the less, because of Nadal’s greatness on clay (9 French Opens – coming into the tournament he was, in effect, 70-1 on that the Roland Garros clay), the slaying of that dragon needed still to occur.  Djokovic’s career grand slam was not a slam dunk, so long as Nadal was in the draw (for those unaware, only 7 men have won all four majors, so this is elite company for sure).  Could the crafty, athletic Nadal rain on the Dkjoker’s parade?

Nadal’s dismal last year and a half (especially his 2015 campaign) left him with a lower seed;  in the end, he and Djokovic faced off in the quarters and this was controversial for some.  The tournament could’ve given him an exception, because of his success at this tournament, still granting him the 4 seed that would’ve ensured such big fireworks taking place in the semis or finals.  In the quarter finals?  Such was the case.  Djokovic destroyed him in straight sets.  It was interesting for a set, but then reality set-in on the Spanish champion.  Looks like clear sailing for Djokovic at this point – beat Murray in the semi-final and beat a tough Stan Wawrinka in the final (Stan had absolutely dismantled his fellow – Swiss mentor in the quarters and took care of Frenchman J. Tsonga in the other semi-final).  The stage was set, #1 vs #8 in the world. Djokovic had earned his time and place in the tennis record books.

But shit happens.  Athletic stratification is played out in the politics and economics of sport.  If Djokovic could win this final match, he’d enter that aforementioned elite group of career grand slammers.  Moreover, he’d have two of the four 2015 slams won with Wimbledon and the U.S. Open left – he would be an enormous favorite at both.  Furthermore, in the big picture of men’s tennis greatness, he would be writing a very interesting chapter in his and tennis’ historical narrative. Winning the French would give him 9 majors (the obvious benchmark for his sport’s superiority) potentially with the momentum to win the final two, finish 2015 with 11, a career and calendar year grand slam and, uh, holy shit.  Would be all-time.  He’d be the undisputed boss of the sport.  The time is now, Djoker, make a run at Roger’s 17 majors or Pete and Nadal’s 14.  Indeed, this was, I will argue, an historical moment, the 2015 French final, for so many reasons.

Indeed, shit happened.  He dilly dallied in his semi-final against Murray, and won in five sets.  It was played over two days because of rain delay (if he’d won the third set, he’d have been done, through to the final, and resting).  This makes no sense.  Part of Djokovic I don’t understand.  Coming into last week’s French final, he was 8-7 in major finals.  He’d blown some easy wins already, imho.  He lost to Murray in a US Open final that was just obscene.  Murray is not in the same class.  Marathon match that ends with Murray the victor.  Blew that one (although one of my childhood favorites, Ivan Lendl, was coaching Murray at the time, which made me almost pull for him; of course, Murray has since fired him which makes as much sense as the Scots game).  Djokovic also choked against Nadal on this very clay in a semi-final in 2013 (he ran into the net on a huge pivotal point that pretty much secured that loss) and a final in 2014 (his passivity at times is mind-boggling).  Unreal.  So he has this going for him, a refined ability to fail at these critical moments.

To make a long story short, he got into a bare knuckle brawl with Stan (the man or Stanimal) Wawrinka and it didn’t go well for the Serb.  The Swiss won his second major in 4 pretty decisive sets (he beat-up Nadal in the Australian Open in 2014).  Stan has been playing beneath Roger’s wing for a long time.  I love Stan’s game; his style is classic, the most lethal single-handed back hand in the game.  So watching him destroy Djokovic was bitter-sweet.  On the one hand, I like Stan; on the other hand, I like historical moments, how greatness manifests itself in competition, the rise and fall of dynasties, etc.  This was Djokovic’s opportunity to seize control of the game.  His passive (was he tired?) strategy against the hard charging Swiss was baffling to watch.  And that’s the complication here.  This was no fluke; congrats to Stan. We might say this was more about Wawrinka.  The problem there is that he’s 30, so sure he’s a worthy champion (no argument there – I’m a big fan), but a Djokovic win had enormous historical implications.  That’s just an objective truth.

We will continue to watch Djokovic’s very impressive journey; he has much, I would hope, championship tennis still to play.  Be that as it may, his place in the game seems, for now, to be amongst that second-tier, with the likes of McEnroe, Borg, Conners, and Lendl (Ha! there is no shame in that, I concede).  Yes, certainly, no shame at all in this; but Roland Garros 2015 was an incredibly historical opportunity.  This would’ve undoubtedly added to the enormity of championship character in the sport, to the discussion of all-time greats, to the sport’s athletic stratification debate.  Perhaps it was just too good to be true.

9 thoughts on “Athletic Stratification at the French Open

  1. the final was sooo good! Love an upset and loved watching Stan the Man take it Djoker.

    ultranerds that don’t follow “real” sports are missing out. There’s a log that can be learning from world class athletes no matter their discipline.

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  2. “Murray has since fired [Ivan Lendl] which makes as much sense as the Scots game.” Excuse me? Get your facts straight at least.

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  3. Siwel G, thanks for stopping by and catching an errant shot. Agreed, he didn’t fire him, but the split was more mutual I believe than some accounts. To my point, I just can’t see Andy being able to handle Ivan’s style. Murray is so erratic, so undisciplined. He’s returned to that since the split? It’s tough to watch Murray. Seems more of a drastic difference in style and rigor. Lendl got a couple of majors out of him (and a gold medal); IMHO, he was done with that project. But Murray’s tennis had a lot to say about that future, so I think it was destined to break.

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