21 gives way to Medvedev’s 1

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As Daniil Medvedev slowly took control and glided the landscape of the men’s US Open final over his hands as though crafting clay through his fingertips, he imprinted each singular moment with characteristics of his game.

Bizarre looking groundstrokes run through with relentlessness were interspersed with un-returnable first serves that anchored the match to such an extent, that even the world-renowned contortionist escape artist on the other side of the net found nothing in his arsenal of first-class magic tricks to combat this brain-freezing oncoming flurry of mind-bending rally construction.

For his part, Novak Djokovic could only reach into the corners of his artillery firing-range, his hands scraping and cramping along every dusty nook and cranny in an effort to find something, anything that might help him pry his way free from a web that had been so artfully positioned so as to steadily consume him, limb-by-limb, stringing its way over his joints and stickifying his already pressurised mindset with a layer of heavy exhaustion.

This particular championship bought never reached the heights that tennis fans were daydreaming of in the run-up but never was it really ever realistically going to, being played as it was under not just the regular enormity of a major final but also the much larger question marked immensity of the Calendar Grand Slam achievement.

Could it be done?

The answer was nailed emphatically to the door early on as Medvedev broke the Djokovic serve in the opening game and didn’t really look back, the Russian reinforcing and rattling the security shutters of the set with an eyebrow-raising 100% of first serve points tumbling his way, a stat that even now beggars belief given the diamond-encrusted return his opponent usually possesses.

The start of the second will be the moment looked back on with a wondering Serbian gaze, as the Medvedev momentum was wrestled and grappled with under the lights of the biggest tennis stadium in the world and break point opportunities sporadically plattered themselves up under the late afternoon sky as potential Djokovic feastings.

No room at the inn though, and Medvedev brought his hammer down by way of an array of seemingly-magnetic shots that appeared to almost drift over baselines before boomeranging back and clipping in, winning him points that left Djokovic screaming in frustration as his own serve failed to survive the onslaught.

Two sets down and Djokovic had been here before, producing a rabbit from a hat and bewildering Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final of the French Open a few months ago when all had seemed lost for him.

No such come-back-for-the-ages this time however, as the third and ultimately final set trod dominant footprints across the Djokovic game, with the Djokovic heart left struggling against the crushing repetition of the Medvedev heat.

A double break down, there was to be only brief respite for Djokovic in the form of a break back and scrappy hold formation but the writing was on the walls and the great man knew it.

Sitting at the final change of ends, he covered his head with a towel and wept tears emotional ruin. Relief and gut-wrenching sadness bound together in a raking fashion that gripped his body even as the umpire called time, meaning that Novak Djokovic stood on the court to face his fate with heartbreak still dancing around his eyes.

Minutes later, it was over, Medvedev falling like a puppet to the ground in a celebration that’ll live long in the annals of classical meme-able tennis content.

The presentation ceremony arrived and with it, sponsorship preamble but when the time came for Djokovic to speak, he did so amid sniffs of impressive composure given all that he’d just missed out on achieving. His words drip-dripped as he congratulated his opponent and thanked all the right people before turning his attention to those watching from the stands.

Now, Djokovic’s relationship with crowds the world over has led to an unhealthy amount of think-pieces regarding how supposedly unfavourably he’s generally viewed by your average tennis fan.

The reality is that Djokovic’s game and personality do not mesh well with many of the ideals lorded as “tennis typicals”, those assumptions that champions must behave and act straight-laced and pretty-faced at all times. 

Indeed, restraint and emotional control are favoured and Djokovic has been successful in spite of his obvious contrasting characteristics. Smashed rackets and angsty outbursts of bitter disapproval at his own errors have earned him dressing-downs by many and yet, he’s clambered level with greatness by doing things in exactly the way he’s forever been told not too.

Djokovic is not at all unloved. Rather, he remains an alternative offering to the usual.

…oh, and his fanbase is very much there and my god, they’ll certainly let you know that they exist if you question them.

Back with the curtain-call proceedings, Djokovic took the love offered by the cheering masses and thanked them, surprise layered across his face, years of temperamental tug-of-wars worn away with one simple swelling of genuine appreciation from those who had witnessed this momentous reach for the otherwordly.

He gulped down any other further thoughts and stood aside for the crowning momentous.

We watched around the world as Medvedev took the final piece of Djokovic’s planned jigsaw behemoth and hung it around his own neck instead for a victory that was only completely unexpected in its mesmerising straightforwardness. 

This had been both an assassination of the Djokovic dream and a proclamation of a Medvedev one.

The road to stand alone crumpled last Sunday night for Djokovic, never really allowing him a foothold from which he could push off from. No helping moments from his opponent either, no rusted nerves in the Medvedev wheelhouse, no muscle tightening pressure that might have constricted, no moments of lose-your-head madness.

History does not deign to offer help to those hoping to carve victory from it.

Neither, clearly, does Daniil Medvedev.

21 Slams remains the immediate goal for the world number 1, an achievement that would take him through the gates guarded by his greatest rivals and into the garden of the men’s leadership race leader alone.

As for the fabled Grand Slam, the wait for a singles tennis player to win all four majors in a calendar year again goes on. 

So too will Novak Djokovic.

The Unending Novak Djokovic

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The eyes widen, not out of shock, but in preparation. Blink, blink, blink, vision cleared, and going, going, gone, lashing out to the right with ferociously shuddering suddenness.

Legs stretch, sinewy skinny with muscular flex bound around, knees bending at angles sharp, lunging, powering sideways across the baseline in a slide of simplistic impossibility. 

Shoes grip but the force pushes and the ground lets the glide have its way with it, peeling the dust from its surface like sun burned skin.

His arms flay sideways, madman-like in their apparent wildness but controlled in the results that they calmly produce, a return of quality coolly measured and frozen low in the underbelly of crystal-clear perfection.

The ball lands low, catching and tossing powdered white clouds centimetres into the air, and leaving Matteo Berrettini handcuffed, knotted tall and awkwardly hanging in an effort all too commonly futile for opponents of the man opposite.

This is Wimbledon the Novak Djokovic way.

The thing is, it isn’t magic and nor is it grace. It’s not balletic or a dancer’s silhouette and neither does it need to be. 

This is point-by-point play, carefully constructed and consistently studied, analysed, theorised. It’s been welded and burnt strong in the doldrums long cast by the two men he’s been chasing.

As there ever is, there’s also a few errors strewn throughout, resulting in a somewhat complex combination of tightly strung nerves woven deep within threads of skill unbelievable. 

This was best witnessed early on in the men’s final at Wimbledon this past Sunday afternoon, as Djokovic slipped and slackened his grip on a set that seemed solidly constructed with obvious finish-this-fast intent. 

The 20 major pressure was muggy and weighty, sweating Djokovic out as Berrettini bankrolled the opener and cashed his first cheque of what he hoped would be a fat stack of three.

But this story had been written before. It’s been read, edited for the screen and the film version is due any week now, so often has the Serbian proven his innate ability to frustrate his way back into big matches.

Watching Djokovic gluing, taping, paper-mache-ing the following trio of sets together must have served notice to any casual watcher that still believed that to win major tennis titles, players must first mold their games around the picturesque.

Up in the echelons of tennis unimaginable, amongst the eye-catching and the stop-and-staring, there is a small corner rarely spoken of, often forgotten amongst the colourful and glittering.

It is Djokovic who shines a spotlight there to reveal devastating functionality and its briefcase of potential.

Back down on Earth, the shiny gilded techniques of your Roger Federers of the world may well set camera shutters clattering, flattering the front page news-spreads whenever they play.

But when the clamouring uproar of Centre Court applause for prettiness and beauty alone begin to fade, it’ll so often be the figure of the one who kept working through it all that’ll be left holding the trophy.

A few words for the defeated.

There was real fight here, salt-and-peppered throughout by Berrettini’s bravely mounted assaults with ground-strokes of gasp-inducing aplenty.

The Italian stood up to be counted and those that say otherwise should take note of the fact that he actually finished this match with more games won than Rafael Nadal could muster when the Spaniard attempted to knock Djokovic from his perch a month ago at the French Open.

This was Berrettini’s first Grand Slam final and he seemed to drag any negative feelings he was experiencing afterwards under wraps pretty quickly to be unpacked and learned from at some other point down the line, evidenced largely by videos of him celebrating Italy’s defeat of England at football over at Wembley Stadium later on that very same day.

Who even needs tennis anyway, eh?

There’s an old absurdity frequently relied on whenever Djokovic does something of stratospherical preparations.

“He’s an unloved champion,” they’ll say. “He’ll do anything for positive support! He craves it! He’s obsessed by it! Consumed by it!”

These folk see him as a third-string third-wheel bit-part, a side-ways glance when looking at the herculean images of Nadal and Federer that he’s framed himself alongside. He’s someone that can be acknowledged only with a half-hearted sigh of “well, he’s OK, I suppose…”

They’ll point out his off-court attitudes, his after-match celebrations, his mid-tournament racket smashes, screams, yells and moods. They’ll list them and label them, stamping them all with thickly inked acknowledgment of barely with-held distaste.

“And he cares!” they’ll swear. “He cares that we don’t like him! He cares and cares and cares that we don’t pedestal-place him!”

This rhetoric is about as fresh as the withering grip that his rivals have on a smattering of records that they can still stake sole ownership over.

Indeed, Federer and Nadal may well be out here headline-grabbing. But while that’s going on, Djokovic is over there on the sidelines, title-snatching his way right on up to them with a swiftness oh-so smooth. 

And for anyone to believe that he regularly considers whether or not he’s being globally adored while he’s doing so demonstrates a laughable misunderstanding of how professional athletes go about their day jobs.

Djokovic is seemingly never-ending and that really truly appears to bother certain people only in the sense that they can do absolutely nothing about it.

You need not like Djokovic and that is OK.

Djokovic need shed no tears.

Now tied up at 20 and bristling with a softly and powerfully blended mix of you’ll-only-beat-me-when-I’m-no-longer-breathing energy, Novak Djokovic sat in his post-match press conference Sunday night and was asked about his thoughts on greatness.

“I think I’m the best and I consider myself the best.”

As the Olympics and the US Open approach steadily on a conveyor belt of possibilities, who would dare to disagree?

The past two weeks of the Big Four

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As the martian colour of Garros is carefully layered onto the grounds of the French capital every year, it dusts the shoulders of unimaginable efforts. Lung-busting sweat-inducing eyebrow-raising exchanges stained with red and scraped across courts with salty concoctions of pure physicality. 

Many of these moments are sanded down carefully into the very history of tennis. They’re glued fast against the pages of remarkable things and they sit heavy in the memories of those that hold this sport close.

Deep in the depths of all of this is Rafael Nadal, stretched out on a recliner sofa in front of his fireplace, a copy of Yachting Weekly placed carefully across his knees. The Spaniard is at home here. This is his comfort place in a season dominated by knee-crunching hard-courts and he’s made it his own, hanging his name and photo 13 times across the walls, one-by-one, framed and stamped with consistency unmatched.

If you go through these, cast your gaze across them in order, you’ll see the wear and tear, the aged lines slowly etching themselves into his skin year-on-year. His hair, shorter, thinner, and his eyes, wrinkling, ever eager, ever searching, ever looking forwards and onwards towards the next opportunity to set this all in motion once more.

It’s a love affair between man and tournament played out in public for two weeks annually and to separate them takes a feat accomplished only twice before.

Indeed, it remains an almost impossible task in its near-mythology.

Enter the dragon Novak Djokovic from stage right, with neither a knock or a call of warning and with no visible willingness to bend and break when pushed and pulled both back and forth by the forceful presence of Nadal’s clay-court whirlwind of a game alone.

Or maybe that’s not quite right, for in actual fact, Djokovic arrived at the French Open this year armed and able, prepared to take it all and yet still stand tall at the end of it. The cracks and the bruises that come with best-of-five gunslinger shootouts, the stumbles and tumbles, creaks and fumbles, we saw him falter and suffer, for that’s exactly what he does.

He snaps, beaks in half, but solders himself back together when it most matters.

The stage was set and the lights rose up, catching gazes from the sports world over.

This final-four four-set clash soaked up history with its very happening, as the two chess-matched ball-bashed their way through it, with questionable clarity only properly being provided with the arrival of its conclusion. 

And so it was that the bricks-and-mortar of Nadal’s bread-and-butter kingdom were shaken at their very foundations by a Serbian force unstoppable. 

Djokovic would go on to win the final against Stefanos Tsitsipas in a somewhat inevitable display that read “Never Say Die” in a closing fifth set chapter. He’ll be screaming and yelling his way to more titles in the future whether you are a fan of his or not. 

Once thought to be blatantly apparent in its Fedal obviousness, Djokovic is blotting and blurring the ink of the Men’s Grand Slam leadership list with every passing week.

As he trampolines skywards and bounces between championship podiums, Djokovic is tearing up scripts and submitting his own for our consideration.

Reach for those stars while your muscles will allow it, Novak.

As the shadowy curtains were falling, billowing across the stage of yet another crushed-brick season, carpets of green were being rolled out and pastured with fresh coats of chalk white court lines.

Wimbledon summer had arrived, bringing with it pomp and circumstance in abundance.

A duo of ageing stalwarts were seen struggling, an icon and a long-term fighter finding the going getting tough in rings they ran riot around not too long ago.

Roger Federer and Andy Murray were spiralled, dizzied from their respective warm-up grass-court tournament draws in the second rounds. 

These events used to be formulaic affairs for the pair, providing both with multiple winner’s trophy photoshoots.

Now, they only helped highlight change using the most basic of formats – the simple passage of time.

Federer fell to youth, his game usually so softly smooth and burnished with all that he’s achieved, now seemingly rusted with with the vestiges of a dance-with-dirt effort that he’d made just the week prior.

Murray, back on a competitive match court at last, found himself lacking in areas he’d once lorded over alone on a throne of mastery, his returns failing to click against a storm of Italian ace rain that only hammered down harder and harder with every passing game.

Shoulder-to-shoulder, blockaded in and retired off by many, these two now stand, their fans doubtful and fearful of impending career endings.

They’ll come together this week on the practice courts in London, keen to fine tune and clear dust from gears that can surely still be fired up when it most matters.

Slower. 

Older. 

Moving forwards.

Indeed, while legends ride the hands of the clock alongside the rest of us, surprises might yet lurk in the shadows beneath the tick-tocking inevitable.

And what of Nadal?

Well, he left the Chatrier walls with his head hung low, shoulders burned from aggressively defending his haven with all that he’d had. 

His hatches had been battened but been broken back open with a withering reminder that even the unbeatable must do their deals with reality.

No Wimbledon or Olympics on the agenda, as he looks instead to stopper and slow his own falling sand-flow with preventative resting measures.

But he can relax in the knowledge that the lights still shine from his Parisian kingdom windows as he leaves it behind for now. His statue still stands out front and his photos still check-mark the walls, permanently postage stamping for evermore, those times when he dominated with such wizardry and guile, those moments that he resembled the unfathomable.

This remains his house, even if someone else has the keys.

As the sun rises on the day of the Wimbledon draw, this foursome of one-time domination now find themselves scattered across different stages, all far closer to the end than they are the start.

Whilst Djokovic looks to draw level and Nadal plaster-casts his warrior-wounds, Federer and Murray appear ready to empty the tank to see what’s left.

All of them are still here.

Trying.

Fighting.

Going.

And yes, their fans are still arguing.

Here Cometh The Thiem

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As Dominic Thiem lay flat on his back, sweat-soaked clothing already steadily marking the court beneath him, he slowly brought his hands up to cover his face as if fearful that this was all some wonderfully wild and fanciful dream that he might be torn awake from if he wasn’t careful. 

His fingers rubbed at his eyes for a brief second or so as the magnitude and the moment clung together and weighted themselves across his emotions, imprinting and bookmarking this snapshot of tennis history on his heart to be remembered forever.

Within minutes, the trophy was held, glinting and glittering in the brightly lit stadium lights, cradled carefully as one would with a newborn baby. 

Because that’s what this was for Thiem. For as long as he had been gasping for breath in the suffocating shadows of those legendary tennis-playing beings of dominance, Thiem had been touted as the bringer of structural change within the ATP contenders category.

The stars twinkling in the night sky above Arthur Ashe seemed to wink down at him, finally aligned in place, destiny-like in their perfection.

Empty stands looked on, an unfortunate and necessary sign of the times, but in a way, it only helped make this ceremony markedly unique. No one will ever forget the US Open final that no one could be there to watch.

Drink it all in, did Thiem, as the red-carpet rollout began and the fanfare for him grew. He deserved this, that was something nobody could deny, and surely now the monkey had been crowbarred from his shoulders, more could be quickly claimed too…

But that was a talking point for later, days, weeks and months on down the line. For now, Thiem stood there and smiled and cameras flashed and tennis fans talked the world over about their newly crowned and first-timer Grand Slam winner…

A few days, weeks and months on down the line and the tennis tour has rumbled on as it ever does, rolling consistently by at a pace not many sports can keep up with.

There’s been another Slam in that time, the Australian palace and the house of Novak Djokovic. He wasn’t denied for long following his controversial US exit.

Other events too have come and gone, leaving their presences felt by way of their winner’s final trophy poses.

But there’s been a Thiem-sized hole in these of late, with the only really notable Austrian mark made at the end of year ATP World Tour Finals, where he lost out to Daniil Medvedev in a hard-fought three setter in the final match-up.

Back then, it was easy to dismiss this defeat as nothing more than a Slam-winning hangover coupled with a brilliantly talented opponent. If anything, a final showing was a good result that demonstrated a willingness to try for more in the aftermath of a dream-come-true achievement.

But as the 2020 season shuttered and 2021 opened for business, question marks slowly arose, driven upwards from a bedrock of surprising losses in matches usually shaped perfectly for Thiem’s wheelhouse of abilities.

Falling in Australia in the fourth and following that up with a pitter-patter of disappointing results at a smattering of tournaments, Thiem withdrew from the Miami Open Masters before it had even begun. 

Despite whispers of injury, many took this as a good sign, a signal of renewed focus on the clay court swing, a regular time of much baited-breath and high expectation.

However, when the first prints on the red brick were made, Thiem’s was not in amongst them.

Wearisome fatigue-ridden worries of long-term fans grew louder online, fuelled primarily by articles that were published detailing Thiem’s lacklustre year so far and mapping his descent from those long-gone glory days of only a few months ago.

And then finally, at long last, the darkness of unknowing was no more and a much-clamoured-for explanation was finally provided.

The hamster-wheel nature of professional sports means that nothing pauses and nothing changes, even when all of your earthly ambitions come true in a matter of hours. Driven throughout the years by his pure desire to forcefully etch his name into tennis folklore, Thiem’s struggles to fully comprehend the biggest win of his life helped him to realise that the view from the top is great but only for the merest of seconds that you’re up there.

“But during the preparation for this season, I fell into a hole… We’ll see if I can loosen up. I don’t know. I hope so.”

The uncertainty in Thiem’s words was surprisingly refreshing to hear, especially in an athletic world of so much macho-man bravado and over-confidence. It spoke of an innocent unwillingness to fully commit back into the single-minded focus required for professional tennis playing that he’d spent so much of his life entrenched within.

Physical and mental well-being walk hand-in-hand through the mindfield of an athlete’s life and if one blows up, the entire system falters. For Thiem, struggling with both was a toxic combination, the results of which spilled over and out in the eye of the public in the form of an entirely understandable handful of messy matches.

Having taken some well-deserved and much-needed time off to recuperate and rethink, Dominic Thiem will return to a tennis court later today for the first time in over a month. He’ll pull on his shoes and pick up his racket, headband his hair and steady his mindset, readying himself once again for the trials and tribulations that come with a love affair with tennis.

Clutched close to his chest will be his renewed certainty that there are other things to life than all of this. Above all else, perhaps it is this that will drive him forward into his next career chapter.

The French Open looms large.

311 weeks and counting

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The dusty heat of the desert days wafted around the stands, slowly cooking the skin of watching spectators as they sat in their sweat-soaked shirts. Now and then, they’d all reach up and push their shades back into place to avoid them clattering from their faces.

They didn’t care though. There was tennis going on. 

Back in 2011, the ATP season was in full-swing and the players had descended on the dirty dry but undeniably beautiful surroundings of Indian Wells. 

However, all was not quite as clear-cut as the business-as-usual results of years gone by.

For here in the humid climate of sun-soaked America, there was an alien-like uncertainty. This was defined primarily by the fact that for the first time in a long while, tennis fans weren’t quite sure what to expect come finals day.

As the gates swung open on the first day of the event, you could see him looming ever larger on the horizon. Just a speck at first and then a dot of recognition and then a thick line of “oh, here he comes!” and then he was suddenly there. Novak Djokovic tidal-waved his way through the grounds, an ever-growing win-streak hanging lightly around his shoulders.

You see, the previous five seasons had practically been handcuffed in place, shackled to the wrists of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with the major spoils being generally and generously shared between them. Sure, there had been some hiccups here and there but by and large, these were the two podium posers at the end of the biggest events.

But then along came Djokovic with his stretch Armstrong game and newly improved diet. Coupled with a freshly reinforced mentality, the Serbian slid into 2011 to play the role of the great disrupter on a world stage long characterised by a duo of icons.

In January of that year, a Grand Slam had fallen past the outstretched hands of the Swiss and the Spaniard. Standing tall and casting shadows dark, Djokovic had held the Australian Open trophy close in victorious celebration but as he’d looked out at the Melbourne crowd with a wild-eyed stare, one could sense that he wasn’t done yet.

Of course, Djokovic had tasted success even before this point, the most notable spotlight shining at the 2008 edition of the Aussie Slam. Taking apart the Frenchmen Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final back then, he’d looked set to push on and through. Instead, there had been a period of driftwood results, a stream of steadily solid runs and wins but never quite enough to solidify him as someone capable of performing at the very tippy-top legend-level of the sport.

So nobody could be blamed for wondering if the same thing was fated to happen this time? Was this yet another flash-in-the-pan brief snapshot of genius from Djokovic? Were the extinguishers ready to flicker into life once more and douse the sparks that were only just beginning to properly catch like wildfire across his career?

Well, no. No, not really.

His newfound ability to breathe calmly through hyper-pressurised moments in key matches meant that this time around, there was no return of the bit-piece third-fiddle push-over version of Novak Djokovic.

Wins followed wins. A trophy triumph in Dubai backed up his successful title run Down Under and his fans could only look on in awed admiration of the freshly burnished consistency of their battle-ready hero.

And so it was that ten years ago this week, Djokovic approached Indian Wells as a challenger of the long accepted ways. The media sat up a little straighter so that they could look a little closer and the Fedal monopoly battened down the hatches in an effort to put an end to this uprising.

Stitch by stitch and match by match, Djokovic etched his name into the draw sheet onto the winner’s line as he swept opponents aside with the same methodological dismantling that had defined his season so far. Federer fell, tumbling from the semifinal stages and leaving only his great rival to make one final stand against the inevitable.

Weaving a web of rubberised variety ball baseline rallies, Djokovic ground Nadal down into a fine dusty paste of debilitated breathlessness. Lifting the crystal-clear trophy above his head and draped in his Serbian colours, three-titles-in-row Nole had an aura of masterful wizardry about him that left the watching crowd bewitched by the transitionary period that men’s tennis was being single-handedly forced to accept.

To put the rest of 2011 in context, it would take a career performance from Federer at the French to halt Djokovic’s unbeaten streak, the clay courts of Paris proving to be a step too far even for this colossal eruption of volcanic momentum.

Not that it much mattered.

Djokovic would serve Nadal his notice period as the world number 1 at Wimbledon, ascending up to the top spot for the very first time in his career on a carpet of perfectly cut green and picking up the gilded gold cup while he was at it.

By the end of that season, exhausted statistics painted the portrait of a man who’d been haunted into action by the nightmares of his long wasted potential.

3 Grand Slams. 5 Masters. 10 titles. A 70-6 win/loss record. A 41 match win streak. Year end world number 1.

Questing across unmapped terrain in an effort to vanquish Gods required previously unseen maturity from Djokovic. Gone was his jokery jester tendencies of old, to be replaced with an un-chokable physical manifestation of the unbeatable. 

The childish swagger that had carried him through his career so far now resembled a strut of utter belief and brought with it an aura of belonging among the very best. He learned to embrace the uncomfortable and obsess over perfection and in doing so, he was able to seamlessly transition into a mental giant of history-making feats.

Tying all of this together was a willingness to suffer through adversity in an attempt to reach victory. The amount of times opponents had their feet at his throat, only for Djokovic to lift himself out of the grave through the outstretched claws of defeat frequently left worldwide tennis fans with boggled minds. 

Eyes-out-on-stalks material if there ever was some.

They could not crush him and so they could not beat him. 

In spite of all of this, however, many still felt that Federer and Nadal alone existed in a stratosphere of impossible dreams. To overhaul them over the long-term would take a concoction of magic on a scale that looked laughably out of reach for all.

Still, Djokovic undeniably deserved his plaudits and applause, even if all he ever ended up being was a one-season wonder…

***

A decade on from that transformative run, Novak Djokovic relaxes calmly on a throne that he’s occupied for more collective time than any other male player.

World number 1.

311 weeks and counting.

For Tsitsipas, the real task begins now…

Throughout a muggy night on Rod Laver, the unbelievable was on show as though torn from a work of fiction into the land of the living.

As Stefanos Tsitsipas turned to his box following a final backhand winner struck, the look of casually-innocent laughter playing across his face brought forth an impression of a man who had long been looking for this.

Rafael Nadal bowed his head and shook hands at the net before quickly taking his leave from the arena that has given him only one of his record equaling 20 grand slam titles to date.Wound-licking will be on the agenda for him, memories of tired errors in the important moments replaying in his thoughts for days to come.

Back on the court, Tsitsipas drifted daydream-like in the direction of the beckoning calls from his team and stretched upwards towards them as if to ascend to their level of obvious elation. A packed crowd showering appreciative applause down on their shoulders was the only thing missing but as it was, the silence of the stands enveloped the moment with the care and attention it deserved.

In time, Tsitsipas lowered his hands and brushed back hair from his brow. Still work to be done yet.

Looming large in the shadows of the semifinals like a haunted Halloween decoration is Daniil Medvedev, armed with his unusual concoction of nightmare tennis designed to frustrate his opponents to the very edges of exhausted despair. Beyond that, the giant darkening silhouette of the world number 1 Novak Djokovic, currently relaxing once again in the penthouse suite he’s built for himself in the Australian Open final, so common is his presence in it.

Derailing a freight train-ing Nadal from 2 sets to 0 down is a herculean task only accomplished once before at Grand Slam level and to write one’s name down as only the second person to accomplish something like that is a fairytale moment all too easy to bask that bit too long in the afterglow of.

Having defeated Roger Federer in the fourth round at this very same event back in 2019, 22 year old Tsitsipas has often danced the line between big wins and agonising nearly-theres, never quite fully willing to stake his claim to the glittery golden future so many have predicted for him.

To be choked by a God of the game and breathe right the through it to victory is an achievement to be treasured but Tsitsipas needs to keep hunting for the pay-off that must come in the wake of wins like these ones. This cannot be it for him.

The Norman Brookes Challenge Cup hovers tantalisingly close and yet still a world away. If Tsitsipas is left holding it on Sunday, he’ll have crossed through near-impossible terrain to do so.

Laura Robson hasn’t retired yet. Let’s stop pretending that she has.

As planes coasted through Melbourne blue skies carrying tennis players into the waiting wings of a 14-day quarantine period preceding the first grand slam of the 2021 season this past week, some could only watch on from home and hope.

Amongst a plethora of adapted pre-tournament preparation videos filmed from the confines of Australian hotel rooms, one player’s social media page played host to a very different kind of content.

Bleeding from between the words of Laura Robson’s most recent Instagram post is a sense of perseverance in the face of an ever-growing number of consistently frustrating setbacks. The former British number 1 has been through a trio of hip operations over the course of the past decade, leaving her career peppered with lengthy periods of off-court rehab. Despite that, Robson’s refusal to call it quits while walking in the shadows of so much uncertainty is to be admired above all else.

The descent of certain journalistic journeymen in the aftermath of Robson’s post was disappointingly predictable. Click-baited career epitaphs were written beneath RETIREMENT eye-grabbing headlines. Commentators were interviewed about what they thought of her game, the “what-could-have-been” woeful kind of discussion that always flourish in the dying light of any sidelined athlete’s story.

Unwilling to be set adrift warily into the scary waters of post-tennis life just yet, Robson took to Twitter on Friday in an effort to offer some clarity to those people who had burdened themselves with delivering steadfast mis-truths regarding her statement.

Reporters dance with dramatics so much that they repeatedly assume that they know best in order to publish their own thoughts on someone else’s life. Robson’s plea for some positivity may well go unheard but her hopes for her own personal future should serve as some respite for her fans desperate to see her back playing again at some point.

Whether or not Robson ultimately decides to embrace her career curtain-call in due course remains to be seen but she does not need her journey towards making that decision mapped out in advance for her by journalists on the look out for quick-clicks. To attempt to predict what someone’s next steps will be in the midst of the most unpredictable period in recent human history is an action of someone either very brave or exceedingly foolish.

The coverage of Robson’s story is not an unfamiliar scene. “They don’t know” will never sell as well as “They’re finished” and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. But writers that deal in only absolutes will find none with Robson currently and her letter of tennis resignation will remain unwritten for now as she weighs up her options.

She should be given the time to do so without anyone attempting to bury her career for her.

Tsitsipas mourns the loss of the little things

Artwork by the wonderfully talented @tsitsipxs

With his sweaty golden locks tumbling about his face, free from the confines of the bandana holding it back, one could be forgiven for mistaking Stefanos Tsitsipas for a Greek god descending from their throne as he exited the court at the O2 Arena last Thursday night.

As reigning and defending champion at the World Tour Finals, it would have been easy to explain the ominous cloud of seemingly dark disappointment enveloping him as the mere frustrations of a world-beating athlete who expected a better performance from himself.

As he sat in the brutally brightly revealing glare of the computer screened post-match press conference, however, Tsitsipas revealed an anxious relief and an agitated mentality that had slowly begun to plague his inner-psyche.

Tennis is a lonely sport, the singles game in particular penned in not just within the confines of the lines of the court but also between the ears of the players, as problem-solving thoughts wage wild warfare over strategic technicalities and game-play ground-plans.

It was with a simple sigh of desperately held-in sadness that Tsitsipas voiced his desire to take his own thoughts elsewhere for awhile.

Tsitsipas’s unique outlook on life has often gained him plaudits and this was no different, with many appreciating the vulnerable honesty from someone living in a celebrity world so reliant on masculine PR-proof responses and cookie-cutter happy-go-lucky statements.

Mourning the loss of the little things has seemingly become a taboo subject this year, an area best left unacknowledged in fear of sharply blunt reminders of greater global issues. This thought process is both understandable and understandably unfortunate, given that a lot of what is seen as comparatively little is actually mentally massive for many of us.

Tsitsipas’s wistfully innocent words serve as a reminder to us all that we should be allowed to vocally admit to missing stuff.

He won the event in 2019 in an arena that reverberated with the last vestiges of accumulated energy from a packed crowd of baying tennis fanatics desperately keen to prolong what had already been an epic season. He exited the court in defeat this year beneath the cobwebbed dusty rafters of an empty building and with the ghostly memories of better days lodged firmly in his head.

The Complicit Silence of the ATP

When Alexander Zverev takes to the court this evening to contest his first match of this final week of a chaotic 2020 ATP tennis season, he’ll cast an unsettlingly familiar shadow that suggests that nothing much has really changed.

The empty echoes and ghostly applause of the handful of staff present at the O2 Arena for the Tour Finals this year may well serve as a blessing in disguise for the world number 7, as questions regarding his past actions continue to gather nothing but hastily constructed dusty denials that stink heavily of PR damage control.

In the few weeks since being accused of domestic violence by his ex-girlfriend, Olya Sharypova, Zverev’s every move to shut down inquiries on the topic has only gathered further scrutiny online.

His decision to release a powder-puff statement that deftly framed Sharypova’s story as an afterthought to be casually ignored and swept under the rug of the far happier news of unexpected impending parenthood was a classic example of the misdirection genre.

And when asked in a press conference to elaborate on the situation in the run up to the Tour Finals, he doubled down on his initial words of non-existent substance and offered up little more than a verbal copy-paste job.

Reading from his phone like a primary school kid attempting to remember his lines in a school play, Zverev’s words had an uncertain edge to them as he stumbled repeatedly in an effort to blankly declare that he had nothing else to declare.

These consistent rebuttals alone may not have been enough to see him through this last month almost entirely unscathed, had the ATP’s immediate response to the story not been to flatly ignore it and hope it would disappear while they weren’t looking.

You see, up until now, those in charge at the ATP have sent love-letters to Zverev’s successes. They’ve drawn hearts around his name as they’ve banked on him and plastered his name everywhere in an effort to solidify him as a neutral, safe and harmless figure that they can crowbar to the forefront of their social media advertisements.

The white boy with the surfer hair, the sparkling blue stare, the beanpole frame boy wonder destined for fame and fortune forever, he represented what they thought was a risk-free opportunity that passed by all character assessments.

So many people in prominent positions have directly thrown their weight behind Zverev’s monstrous global career potential in the past few years, so much so that it would appear that anything that directly threatens his safely-securely reliable image will be treated with a quickfire attitude of panicked dismissal.

Make no mistake, the ATP knew for a fact that by refusing to take any immediate action at all, they were indirectly inviting a cloud of doubt to cross over the validity of Sharypova’s claims.

And they didn’t care.

Late Friday afternoon, two weeks too late, the silence was broken, not with a bang but with a whimpered sigh of a statement that oozed frustrated and irritated finality from its very core.

Seeping between these words is a sense of relief at being able to briskly absolve themselves from any and all responsibility, before leaving the onus on Sharypova to take her accusations to the police should she wish to see any further action taken.

So for now at least, her story alone seems unlikely to make a dent in the armor of the Zverev machine. This is exemplified by a finals appearance from him at the Paris Masters this past week and further underlined by an unsettling assertion in his runners-up speech when he maintained that despite many people wanting him to fail, he was “still smiling” under his mask.

That mask has shown signs of slipping recently to reveal a figure of a man so acutely aware of his prominent presence within the worldwide appeal of tennis, that he can shrug from his shoulders any claims that he is anything other than the innocent young talent that his sponsors have been branding him as.

Zverev’s decision to repeatedly counter an emotively charged assertive recollection of violence with somewhat childish denials seems ignorant at best and suspect at worst. The most tragic thing, however, is that such a response has been more than enough for doubts over the legitimacy of Sharypova’s claims to be vomited over the walls of certain loud and proud corners of social media.

It will also ultimately be enough for the ATP to continue to treat the words of women as mere inconveniences for their superhero men of money.

Zverev bites back

It was late this past Sunday afternoon, as the sun was dipping, setting and settling onto the Parisian horizon and as the sky surrounding it was slowly draining and darkening to a purplish shade of blackness, when it finally happened.

In the shadows of the Roland Garros grounds sat Sascha Zverev in defeat, slumped in a press conference chair in front of a dozen computer screens beaming familiar journalistic faces in from around the globe to question him on his fourth round French Open loss.

This is the way of the world now and it’ll be a strange feeling when media and fans alike can attend tournaments again. Until that day comes, the press conference room looks to be an even lonelier place than usual, especially if you’re the loser.

In this case, the loser was Zverev and he leant forward on the conference desk with seemingly weary tiredness and a forlorn expression of someone who wanted desperately to be anywhere else.

And then from out of nowhere, he reached up and tore back the polished PR curtain surrounding him with such swaggeringly confident disdain that the impact of him doing so rattled the tennis sectors of social media for hours to come.

“I’m not answering your questions. There’s no chance of me answering your questions after what you’ve been writing about me in the last few months. Absolutely no chance.”

With his face only half visible over the top of the mask he was wearing, Zverev’s eyes told a story all on their own as he murmured these words with an intensely strong sense of simmering finality.

You got the impression he’d been sitting on this retort for months on end and that finally, in the bright and garishly revealing light of a grand slam exit, he’d finally been given his opportunity to hand deliver it.

And it was fabulous.

Professional pot-stirrer and discount Piers Morgan, Benjamin Rothenberg, was the one in Zverev’s firing line and he’d be forgiven for laying low and licking his wounds in the immediate aftermath of such a publicly withering questioning of his professional integrity.

But this would have required a period of self-reflection, something Rothenberg has demonstrated in the past that he’ll do almost anything to avoid being forced to do.

And so typically, with a tip-tapping-tip-tapping sound of a keyboard rattling, Rothenberg bombarded his twitter followers with the pretentiously defensive attitude of a no-nonsense reporter refusing to bow down and lick the boots of his interviewees.

This response would have been an entirely appropriate one, had Rothenberg not built his entire career around trying to drum up as much controversy as possible at every twist and turn.

Long since passed has Rothenberg’s right to fall back on his qualities as a legitimate reporter of tennis facts in the wake of pushback from those he interviews. To not be aware of this demonstrates a deeply ingrained sense of delusional entitlement.

Of course, there were those that rushed to defend Rothenberg and chastise Zverev for his apparently childishly churlish response to a question of great importance.

In fact, it was somewhat fascinating to watch Rothenberg’s friends in the media rally round to defend him. It was as though Zverev’s retort had directly personally insulted them all on some bizarre individual level.

To watch so many miss the point of the blowback Rothenberg was receiving was one part frustrating and one part wildly amusing.

Because you see, Rothenberg’s question WAS an entirely valid one and no one was arguing otherwise.

Which is exactly why it was answered by Zverev later on when asked by a journalist who hadn’t spent the previous few hours loudly and proudly comparing his tennis technique to “beta” and “alpha” males on twitter while he was still playing his match.

What proved difficult for people to understand was that Zverev wasn’t invalidating the importance of the question by refusing to answer it. By taking it upon himself to be the one to ask the question, Rothenberg’s history had already seen to that.

Rothenberg has spent years bending, twisting and twirling the words of many professional tennis players. So much so, that any semblance of possible valuable input he brings to the table these days should rightfully be questioned by tennis fans.

And now, it’s being directly questioned by players as well.

To give this breakdown of Rothenberg’s general journalistic motivations some exemplified context, this is the same man who implied that Venus Williams hadn’t done her part to publicise the Black Lives Matter movement on her social media pages.

And so to cry unfairness when someone bites back at the biggest and most obvious ego in worldwide tennis press circles is the equivalent of picking up a bat and swinging it hard and fast for the wrong team.

Make no mistake, Sascha Zverev isn’t the beating heart of all things right and good in the world of men’s professional tennis, as much the ATP have been trying to brand him as such.

But you don’t need to be a statuesque bastion of an exemplary human being to be allowed to swat a fly.

And Rothenberg – with his buzzing restless relentlessness and creepingly consistent fascination with players unwilling to give him the time of day – is the biggest fly there is.


A question with an answer

The question: why did I write this piece?

The answer: people interest me and that includes someone like Ben Rothenberg. I wrote this piece because the idea of telling a brief story about a journalist (who is usually tasked with telling the story of someone else) was very appealing to me and I hope I did so successfully.

I say a lot of things up above without a huge amount of actual sources. I like to keep links in my writing to a minimum to keep the flow better and so I’ve decided to instead include a few links at the bottom for you to browse for yourself and come to your own conclusions over.

Feel free to leave any feedback (positive or negative, agree or disagree) either in the comments at the bottom or in the twitter replies of the link to this article.

Quick thanks as well to Augustin de Montesquiou on Unsplash.com for the beautiful photo at the beginning of this piece.

Thank you.

Scott Barclay

The Examples

Rothenberg implies Sascha Zverev is a cheat in late 2019 and when proven wrong, refuses to apologise.
Rothenberg describes an exchange between Serena Williams and a reporter in 2018, despite not being in the room to see it. Odd.
Nice apology there, Ben…
Rothenberg fails to understand feminism but uses the word as a crux to create a buzz.
Rothenberg crowbars toxic masculinity into a debate that has nothing to do with toxic masculinity.