By TOM PERROTTA
Imagine the perfect tennis player, a graceful, effortless athlete who wins almost every match he plays on every surface, and most every Grand Slam singles title. Then along comes another player, as rugged and violent as the perfect player is sublime, and he pummels the perfect player in Grand Slam finals on all three surfaces. And then a third player emerges, a man so fast, flexible and efficient that he clobbers them both—and everybody else.
Welcome to the unlikely, borderline absurd world of men’s tennis, where the quality of play keeps accelerating at a seemingly impossible pace.
First there was Roger Federer (16 major titles and at least one at each major), then Rafael Nadal (nine majors and at least one of each) and now Novak Djokovic (41-0 in 2011 and 7-0 versus Federer and Nadal).
“They are geniuses,” said Gustavo Kuerten, who won his third and final French Open 10 years ago. “They are doing stuff, breaking records that nobody else can compete with.”
On Friday, all three of these men—plus Andy Murray, the not-too-shabby No. 4 player in the world—will kick off what promises to be a blockbuster weekend at the French Open. Nadal and Murray will play in the day’s first semifinal, followed by Federer and Djokovic.
But the question on everyone’s mind is, how did we get to this heavenly place?
Answers are tough to come by and involve much head scratching. But the evolution, most agree, has been greatly accelerated because of Federer.
The former No. 1 came of age in a lull in the sport’s history, when Lleyton Hewitt was the best player, Pete Sampras was no longer dominant and the French Open was almost wide open. Once Federer began to win, there was no stopping him—and with every passing year, he set the bar higher for all those who would challenge him. The expectations for a No. 1 are now so immense that it’s seen as a burden to be called the next big thing in tennis.
“I don’t want people to say this, it’s too much pressure,” said Patrick Mouratoglou, who runs an academy in France where Grigor Dimitrov, the 20-year-old seen as one of the game’s brightest prospects, trains. “The reality is so far away from that.”
Gilles Simon, the wiry Frenchman who lost to Federer in five sets at this year’s Australian Open, sees it as luck—an unknowable act of nature—that two other men have come along and challenged Federer so quickly. “It’s just that these guys are amazing, they are just great champions,” he said.
Kuerten offered a more concrete theory. In recent years, the three main surfaces in tennis—hard, clay and grass courts—have become more similar, with hard courts slowing down and grass courts becoming firmer and more predictable.
At the same time, players have become quicker and improved their footwork; Kuerten said this is the biggest difference he sees among players since he was at the top of his game.
The result, he said, is that surface specialists have less of a chance against the top players, and the top players have an easier time building momentum and confidence, which leads to dominance.
“Once you open up a gap, it’s difficult for the other guys,” he said. “The other guys don’t even compete anymore. For me, it’s the only explanation because if you look around, all the players, number 10, 20, 30 in the world, they have the capacity to challenge these guys at least once every 10 matches.”
This year, Djokovic has opened a gap wider than tennis fans ever thought they would see with Nadal still in his prime and Federer not too far from it. The 24-year-old has won the Australian Open title, two other top-flight hard court titles and most impressive, two clay court titles that required victories over Nadal in the finals.
“His game is unbelievable,” said Toni Nadal, Rafael Nadal’s uncle and coach. “All of what he’s doing is perfect.”
Richard Gasquet, who lost to Djokovic in the fourth round, said Djokovic’s speed and impeccable footwork—he always takes the shortest distance to the ball and never seems to waste a step—were suffocating. “There’s no time when you can breathe,” he said. “His balls are so well hit. They’re always flat and deep, and he grabs you at the throat.”
Djokovic has never played Federer at the French Open, and he’ll have an unforeseen obstacle Friday: Too much rest.
His quarterfinal opponent withdrew with an injury, so Djokovic hasn’t played a match since Sunday.
When asked about the extended layoff, Djokovic’s coach, Marian Vajda, said, “No problem,” since Djokovic had played so much, and so well, this season.
Djokovic practiced with John McEnroe Wednesday and a French junior Thursday. Murray, who is a friend of Djokovic’s, still wondered if it might have an effect.
“He’s got to be switched on from the start against Roger, because he’s playing Roger,” Murray said. Federer, who hasn’t garnered as much attention as usual this tournament, hasn’t lost a set so far.
Then there’s Nadal. If Djokovic beats Federer, he’ll take the No. 1 ranking from Nadal when this tournament ends. But it would be more traumatic for Nadal to lose his reign at the French Open, where he has won five times and lost just one match in his career.
Nadal started this tournament poorly and spent a few days bemoaning his lack of confidence. Then, suddenly, he found his legs, and his forehand, in the quarterfinals.
Kuerten knows the feeling well: During his last title run, in 2001, he was one point from a straight-sets defeat against Michael Russell, an American qualifier, in the fourth round. A 26-shot rally ensued, a Kuerten shot clipped the line and then—Kuerten snapped his fingers as he retold the story—everything changed.
“I was thinking already about my flight, what time I would be leaving,” he said. “Once I finished the match and I was stepping off the court, I knew I would win the tournament.”