Roger Federer and Grigor Dimitrov may have similar styles, but it's competitive desire that separates the two—and made the difference on Friday at the Australian Open.
MELBOURNE – It was Jean-Paul Sartre—allegedly a tennis fan—who wrote that “hell is other people.” There are a handful of tennis players, even at the highest level, who can relate. They unfurl these artistic, elaborate strokes. They glide around the court with grace and fluidity and an economy of motion. They guide the ball with precision.
And then, when another person is involved—an opponent, who stands across a net and acts with adverse interests—it all goes to hell. Put this player—this performer, really—against a wall and you would still pay to watch. Put him in a competitive environment, and he wilts.
So it goes for Grigor Dimitrov, a player not merely touched by the tennis gods but completely massaged by them. If you were building the beau ideal of a tennis player, he would play (and likely look) a lot like Dimitrov. The problem: Dimitrov plays tennis. He doesn't work tennis. He certainly doesn’t compete tennis. You have the feeling he would prefer tennis if it were like golf or bowling. You’re not really competing simultaneously. You do your thing and don't much worry about other people.
Dimitrov took on Roger Federer in the third round of the Australian Open on Friday in a match that the pitted two of the sport’s great stylists against each other. They were comparable on most dimensions, except that Federer embraced the competition and Dimitrov retreated from it. The score pretty much told the story of the match. Federer won 6–4, 3–6, 6–1, 6–4, the fifth time he's beaten Dimitrov in five matches. At one point in the commentary, Jim Courier described Dimitrov’s style as see-ball-hit-ball. “You never see the top players hit the ball without purpose.”
No sport does irony quite like tennis, so it’s fitting that the player least like Dimitrov might well be…Maria Sharapova. Her tennis is not easy on the eyes. No one describes her movement as fluid. Even her soundtrack is unappealing. But to Sharapova, heaven is other people. She loves an opponent, loves combat, loves throwing down against someone else. On Friday, she showed that again, in the match preceding Federer-Dimitrov. Spotting her opponent a foot in height, she won a set and lost a set against Lauren Davis, a Clevelander who, herself, is no slouch of a competitor. In the third set, Sharapova (predictably) steadied and won 6–0. The battle nourishes her.
Five Thoughts from Day 5
• For a tournament so closely associated with oppressive weather, this year’s event has been strikingly mild (and wet) so far. Rain today has backed up the schedule and turned into the Melbourne Indoor.
• While he’s still in the doubles, Lleyton Hewitt’s poignant farewell still lingers. How did Hewitt spend his first day as a retiree? He was here, warming up with Nick Kyrgios.
• Maria Sharapova may be lacking match play but as long as she competes, she has a chance to win this. Today she took out Cleveland’s Lauren Davis by the curious score 6–1, 6–7(5), 6–0. That is, losing a set while winning 18/26 games.
• Sharapova’s next opponent, Belinda Bencic, advanced to the middle weekend by beating Kateryna Bondarenko 4–6, 6–2, 6–4.
• Kei Nishikori survived and advanced with a win over Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. He played far from his best, but after losing early at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, nice to see him in the middle weekend.
Lleyton Hewitt: Proof that anyone can become beloved if you stick around long enough.
• A few of you have made similar remarks. But I think there’s something instructive here. People evolve. People change their priorities and dispositions. People grow emotionally. People develop social graces and shed less appealing qualities. You heard it here first: In 12 years from now, Nick Kyrgios will be taking the court with his three kids, toasting Roche and the Australian tradition and generally comporting him like an adult.
Dear Jon, remember me? I'm the guy who keeps noodging you to do a story about Michael Mewshaw. It's amazing to me how much of what he covered in "Short Circuit" is still going on. He talked about the gambling and corruption implications of players tanking and splitting sets 35 years ago, and here we go again. It would be really great to get his take on the current scandal. It would also be great to see real shoe-leather reporting about the conflicts of interest that persist in tennis and almost surely play a role in the betting scandal. Get on it, will ya?
• While it obviously predated the era of Internet wagering, “Short Circuit” laid bare just how easy—and common—it was (and is) for match results to be manipulated. The least we can do as a gesture of thanks is an Amazon link. Your point on conflicts of interests is well taken. When so many “leaders” are double-dipping and wearing multiple hats and have so many entrenched loyalties and financial interests, it's not exactly a surprise that the sport has a hard-time self-policing.
Tennis needs to institute performance bonuses. No way should Pella walk away from today's match without some extra dough
• Right, because tennis needs more arbitrary policies and subjective judgments, especially when cash payments are involved. Seriously, though, I like your idea a lot. The UFC gives out Fight of the Night (and Knockout and Submission) bonuses after each card. Apart from adding an element of fun and mystique for the fans, it’s a nice way to reward fighters for their mettle. I’m all for this.
Now that Verdasco lost his next match after playing a grueling five-set match against Nadal, I was wondering if there is a statistic that would tell us how a player fares in his next match after playing a five setter?
—Eric Bukzin, N.Y.
• Sharko! (Or Jeff Sackman.) To me it’s less about winning a five-setter than springing an upset on a top player. We’ve seen the same thing with “the curse of beating Federer”—players knocking him off and then faltering in their next match. What this tells me: players assess risks differently and allow themselves different margins when they play against the top guys versus the next opponent who, invariably, is less highly ranked.
Several (many?) years ago you ran an anagram challenge. My response appeared in your Mailbag. I recall pointing out that the (then) generally disparaged Lleyton Hewitt could have the letters in his name rearranged to spell “The Lonely Twit.” Now that time has passed and he is saying farewell, perhaps it is a good opportunity to give him a more tennis-friendly anagram. Why don't we go with “Hit net, yowl 'let!'” and let bygones be bygones.
—Mike Oelrich, Dunn Loring, Va.
• What about: “The twill Tony,” a reference, of course, to the aforementioned Tony Roche. Or “Not yell,” which is Lleyton spelled backwards of course.
• Tennis Channel and Tennis Australia have signed a multi-year rights deal heading into the 2016 Australian Open that is underway now in Melbourne and includes all domestic media rights to five annual events leading up to the first Grand Slam of the year, along with access to historical matches from the Australian Open library and ongoing collaboration on original programs.
• Helen of Philly has LLS: Thierry Van Cleemput and Patrick Mouratoglou