The End of the Tour: Tennis Stars in Twilight

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Exactly. Photo: Christopher Clarey
There are stories. It’s a sober denouement back to a Europe, with clenched fists, toxic fear of its own shadow, and a bleating cacophony of useless, cowardly politicians. In other words, the last three times they’d played, Federer had dry-erased Nadal. And unless there’s a moment of divine intervention on the other side of the net, the other players on the tour can’t keep up. And then there are “story-stories.” The twin reemergence of Roger Federer and Rafael “Rafa” Nadal this year has been one of those story-stories, full of wait-that’s-not-alls and tell-me-what-happened-nexts. And all this with winter coming. Therefore, aside from some vague love of tennis for its own sake, what really matters now, with the U.S. Before that, the last time they’d played was in the final in Miami in late March: Federer had also won in straight sets in barely over an hour: 6–3, 6–4. Tennis seems more momentary, more fleeting, and the pastoral is sucked from it. Federer won in straight sets in barely over an hour: 6–4, 6–3. Most recently, they played in the final of the Rolex Shanghai Masters. Their return to form has been as emphatic as it was unexpected, a jolt of sun in a strange year. Just remember: this is not the dawn of heroes; it’s the dusk. Most of the remaining hierarchy—Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Nishikori, Raonic—have been out injured. The grand narratives of the majors—who will win or not win what? Federer is number two. Life starts to press in. They even played on the same team—as doubles partners no less—in a team-tennis enterprise dreamed up by Federer called the Laver Cup, after the great Australian Rod Laver. Quiet as it’s kept, we’re to the point where we can’t tell if it’s better that they keep playing each other or are kept as far apart as possible. Nadal was in imperious form coming into that final, having just won the previous tournament in Beijing and the one prior to that, some minor summer event played in Queens. And in the only close match they played, in Melbourne, Federer sped past Nadal the final five games. And the time before that Federer had   once again won in straight sets in barely over an hour: 6–2, 6–3. So, where exactly are we with these two? When they flipped the coin at center court in Shanghai, Nadal was on a seventeen match winning streak. The match was expected to be lightning caught in a bottle, something to be savored before reality set back in. But since then, Federer and Nadal have played three more times, including in two other finals. Call me strange and unredeemable, but this is one of my favorite times of the tennis season. Not only did they split the four majors up for grabs this year, they’re certain to end the season ranked in the top two. Federer was ranked and seeded seventeenth at that time; Nadal hadn’t reached the semifinal of a major since 2014. By now, we know all about the miraculous returns of Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Tennis arrives like a returning prodigal. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. After ten straight months of chasing the sun and living in a floating bubble of perpetual summer, the ATP World Tour—the official name for the highest category in tennis of the men’s professional circuit—has turned the final corner and veered, finally, into autumn. It’s another story in the story of 2017.  
Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s most recent collection of poems is Heaven. Federer may never again play on clay. But Nadal can’t touch Federer at this point. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, a 2013 Whiting Award, a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 2016 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. No more Mediterranean vistas behind the mezzanine in Monte Carlo, no more late winter dreamscapes of the Coachella Valley, no more impossibly red strawberries on beds of frothing cream in the thimble-size London summer. When the two faced off in the final of the Australian Open way back in January—which Federer won in a tense five sets (6–4, 3–6, 6–1, 3–6, 6–3)—there was the sense that the stars had simply happened to align one last fleeting time. And what about it is beautiful now that 2017’s story has been all but written, with the matches from now until the end of the year being played out in the dreary pall of one indoor arena after another? How will that affect this person’s or that person’s legacy?—have come and gone. This is the time of the tennis season that has fewer of the fun baubles—no cheery sun, no wind, no anachronistic traditions, and match after match on one unremarkable, and for the most part interchangeable, indoor backdrop after another. Nadal is ranked number one in the world. Open fairly far in the year’s rearview mirror? This is the tour distilled to its most unromantic elements under the advancing autumn lights and encroaching darkness of Moscow, Antwerp, Stockholm, Basel, Vienna, and—like lovers who don’t know better than to leave well enough alone—less-sexy second swings through Paris and London in November to close out the year. It, too, still has its role to play in the ways in which 2017 was and will be remembered. Nothing has come close to stealing the spotlight from Federer and Nadal and nothing that happens between now and the end of November could possibly change that. The others—Cilic, Zverev, Thiem, Del Potro—have alternately flickered and faded on the biggest stages. The severity and consistency of these beatdowns have been aided greatly by the fact that Federer, in a rare recognition of his limitations, skipped out on the clay-court season entirely and watched from afar as Nadal won his tenth title in Monte Carlo, his tenth in Barcelona, his fifth in Madrid and, in Paris, his tenth French Open.