So this is what tennis is turning to, its next generation. The straight man vs. the punchline.
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Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic won their semifinal matches Friday to advance to the Wimbledon final. It’ll be the third final in the past four majors that they have played each other. In a crazy Wimbledon of upsets, it so happens that the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds have reached the end. They are supposed to be here. They are consistently the best players in the game.
And remember their last classic against each other? It was in … uh. Well, no, they haven’t had a classic yet. I’m not sure they ever will. But for this to work, they’re going to need their Federer-Nadal Wimbledon moment.
These rivalries in sports are mandatory. They drive a sport, get people talking, choosing sides. Tiger or Phil. Bird or Magic. Roger or Rafa.
But in tennis, generations go so fast, and there is little time to replace them, promote them and define them.
Defining Djokovic and Murray is going to be a problem.
Rafael Nadal’s sport-changing win over Roger Federer was just five years ago. Since then, Djokovic already has broken through and become the best player. But coming into Wimbledon, the focus still was on whether Roger would hold onto his title or Rafa would win.
Yet, Djokovic was the No. 1 seed and Murray No. 2.
But something more official seemed to happen at this Wimbledon, when Federer and Nadal lost so early. Federer is still relevant, but he has lost confidence, and half a step. And while Nadal might go on to be No. 1 again, his knees make him unreliable. You get the feeling he will be gone from the game for long stretches. Again and again.
With tennis, replacing generations is so much more difficult than in other sports, ones with team names and jerseys. In team sports, the players change out, but the uniforms and team names are the same. I mean, you can have your heroes on, say, the New York Yankees, but when those players leave, others come and they’re still wearing Yankees uniforms.
In tennis, it all changes. All of it. The sport basically starts all over, hits the refresh button. And the new generation won’t last long either.
Just like that, Murray and Djokovic, who were Nadal’s and Federer’s junior varsity, are now filling up the game’s big moments. After his 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (3), 6-3 win over Juan Martin del Potro in Friday’s opening match, this will be Djokovic’s ninth final in the past 12 majors.
So how do these guys get along? Maybe some Serena Williams-Maria Sharapova dislike?
No, Murray and Djokovic were friends when they were juniors. Now, that has become more of a professional relationship.
“We’ve spent a lot of time discussing various issues within tennis and doing what I think sometimes was best for the sport,” said Murray, who beat Jerzy Janowicz 6-7 (2), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 in the second semifinal. “I don’t think it goes more than that right now.
“You know, I would hope when we finish playing, it will be different. But yeah, it’s just hard because playing in big, big matches with a lot on the line, you can’t be best of friends when that’s happening.’’
That’s a little lukewarm, really. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi couldn’t stand each other. Same with Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. And McEnroe and Bjorn Borg didn’t seem to really know each other, creating a mystery. Federer and Nadal are so cordial, at least, that it comes off as respect and friendship.
The problem with Djokovic and Murray is in their styles:
“There is some similarity in terms of if you look at stats and stuff,” Murray said. “Both of us return well. Both play predominantly from the baseline. We both move well …
“I’d say I probably move with more power and he’s much more flexible. And yeah, that’s kind of it.”
Big problem. It’s the differences that make every rivalry.
The truth is, Federer wasn’t even FEDERER in the U.S. until after his Nadal match. Before that – remember? – the story line on him was that he’s the best athlete in the world whom no one talks about.
After that Nadal match at Wimbledon, the spark, people were talking. And then Federer was doing commercials with Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter.
But what made that match stand out was the contrasts. Federer and Nadal were different in age, clothes (remember Nadal’s pirate pants?), playing style, hair length, muscle size. It was even lefty vs. righty. It was classic vs. modern. Perfect vs. wild.
McEnroe was fire and Borg ice. Sampras was respect and Agassi was rebel.
That’s what hit that Sunday five years ago at Wimbledon. That, and one hell of a match. When two great players are doing different things at their best, at the same time, that connects. It thrills.
The problem with Murray and Djokovic is that they are playing nearly the exact same game. Same age. Both righties. Both standing back at the baseline, running everything down. Neither with particular crushing power.
It just doesn’t make for interesting matchups.
When people talk about the Williams sisters, and the fact that they never had a particularly high-quality match against each other, they talk about personal feelings. The difficulty of competing against your sister. Sure, that was part of it. But the other part is that they were doing the same things on the court.
Frankly, that’s an issue for the entire women’s tour, where most of the women are just standing back and blasting away, like copies of each other.
Now, if there’s a difference between Djokovic and Murray, it’s in their public personalities. Djokovic used to irritate others on tour by clowning around and impersonating other players, not to mention seeming to have an injury or sickness to blame every time he was losing.
He has toned down both of those things, but still entertains when he can. It took Murray’s tears after losing to Federer in the Wimbledon final last year for anyone to even know he was human.
That contrast is actually more about comfort in the spotlight. Anyway, Djokovic says he goes to a Buddhist temple in Wimbledon (Is there really one here?) to retain focus and calm before a final. Someone asked Murray if he does that.
“Yeah, I watch TV, comedy TV, I would say,’’ he said. “But I don’t … yeah … go to temple.’’