‘Never again’ the commentators said, as Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were reduced to sitting on chairs after their five hour and 53-minute marathon in last year’s Australian Open final. The tennis between the two, while remarkable, phenomenal and laudable, was also almost too painful to watch. Djokovic and Nadal left every single last ounce on the court.
“That match would have scared more people away than pulled them in,” commented Mats Wilander. “People, as in players. That was the ultimate fitness test. If I have to do that, I can do it. But that was one match.”
But was what took place on Rod Laver Arena last year a glimpse into the future instead of a freak occurrence? On Saturday and Sunday nights at Melbourne Park, there were two matches that followed suit, albeit in different ways.
First there was the rally-fest between Frenchmen Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils, a head-scratching series of 348 points, many of them lasting longer than 20 strokes, two of them 47, and one of them, 71 shots back and forth.
At the end of that one, Simon, the winner, strode to his towel. Monfils, by contrast, bent over with his hands on his knees, head to the floor as if the ground would provide him with the oxygen he so desperately needed.
Neither player could gain any ground, pat-a-caking the ball back and forth, knowing exactly where it would come to, and not making much attempt to finish it off. It was clay court tennis on a hard court, on hard courts which various players had described at the beginning of the tournament as playing ‘quicker than ever.’ Added to that, Simon had an elbow injury and continual cramping. Monfils had blisters on his hands and dead legs.
Darren Cahill, the ESPN commentator and adidas coach, called it ‘one of the most frustrating matches to watch.’ ‘Not a fan of that type of tennis,’ he tweeted.
While Blaz Kavcic had found himself on a drip a few days before after yet another draining five-setter, after winning in four hours and 43 minutes, Simon was forced to delay his post-match press conference, later seen manoeuvring his way out of Melbourne Park using the wall for support after having refused a wheelchair.
Twenty-four hours later, Novak Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka surpassed the five-hour mark, by two minutes on Sunday night. Theirs was a very different encounter, their pace twice that of Monfils and Simon, no injuries to forcibly slow down the rhythm. But it also defied the bounds of human endurance.
The match point to decide the outcome was a marathon in itself. Wawrinka served a second serve down the T, Djokovic sent the forehand return crosscourt, Wawrinka replied with a backhand crosscourt, Djokovic went forehand crosscourt, Wawrinka sent it back with a backhand crosscourt, Djokovic went down the line with his backhand, Wawrinka punted it crosscourt with a forehand, Djokovic’s forehand went crosscourt, Wawrinka did the same, Djokovic’s forehand was down the line, Wawrinka chipped it back crosscourt with a backhand slice, Djokovic again went down the line on the forehand, Wawrinka’s forehand zipped crosscourt, Djokovic again went down the line on the forehand, Wawrinka buried his backhand cross court as deep as he could, Djokovic got the backhand back down the line, Wawrinka buried another forehand deep down the line, Djokovic chipped it back crosscourt with his backhand, Wawrinka came in for the slice approach, and Djokovic, stepping in and up, ripped the winning passing shot crosscourt with his backhand. And that was just one point. A great point, admittedly. But there were 408 others.
That two such matches should occur on back-to-back nights begs the question, where will it end? Will players just get fitter, faster, stronger, rallies and matches get longer?
Wilander thinks so.
“The bigger racquets, those kind of strings and the solidity of the frame, suddenly you have a sweet spot that is not three good shots and one bad. It’s 20 good shots in a row,” he explained.
“We were better at letting tactics happen because we knew there would be mistakes with execution. Today it’s the other way round. There are very few mistakes in execution, but players are not necessarily doing the right thing. There’s a big change in the game.”
It’s a change that’s been coming. Think Santoro v Clement 16-14 at Roland Garros in 2004. Nadal v Federer 9-7 at Wimbledon in 2008. Federer v Roddick 16-14 at Wimbledon in 2009. Isner v Mahut 70-68 at Wimbledon in 2011. Paul-Henri Mathieu v John Isner 18-16 at the French Open last year. Marin Cilic v Sam Querrey 17-15 at Wimbledon last year.
It can only be better than the boom boom boring men’s tennis of old, surely?
But while fans, press and pundits wax lyrical about these matches, some of the greatest the game has seen, Wilander believes that players will resort to such tennis at their peril.
“You see it with Roger, with Novak. They’ll lay it on the line if they have to, but not for too long. Novak especially, he’s trying to take the ball early. They don’t want that to happen in every match. Because, look at Rafa now. People see that too.”
Is men’s tennis on the path to becoming too brutal? The jury is out.