In search of Kryptonite

Posted on June 8, 2016


Looking back at those two games in the fourth and final set of the French Open, when it seemed Superman might be invincible after all.

There was a point during the French Open when I discovered how badly I wanted Andy Murray to win. I wasn’t rooting for him when he won the first set. I wasn’t rooting for anyone, really, now that both Federer and Nadal weren’t playing. It was just a first set win. Then Novak Djokovic won the next two sets. Again, it was just business as usual. The best kind of game to watch is when you’re just watching the game for the game, when you’re a distant spectator, enjoying how the sport is being played rather than trying to tame a hammering heart, hammering over the fate of your favourite. This was that kind of game. The fourth set happened. Murray had let Djokovic get into his head. He was snarling, grimacing, celebrating points a tad too expressively. The camera is a horrible thing when it zooms in on naked need. You see how badly someone wants something, how badly he feels when he is not getting that thing, and you suddenly feel better about your humdrum life. You may not be a global star and you may not have those millions, but at least you’re not Andy Murray out there.

It’s not that Djokovic was a sage in a divine trance, free of need. His need, if anything, was greater. If Murray won, it would have been his third Grand Slam trophy, a first in the French Open. He was playing for a career statistic. Djokovic, on the other hand, was playing for history, for the only Major that had eluded him. He was playing for a 12th Grand Slam that would tie him with Roy Emerson, take him closer to Nadal’s 14, Federer’s 17, and make him only the third man ever to hold all four Majors at the same time, which, in turn, would make him an indisputable candidate in GOAT discussions. But Djokovic did not show that need – at least, the camera never caught it. Whatever was churning inside him stayed inside him. Until the fourth set. He was leading 3-2. Then, 4-2. Then, 5-2. Then, he was serving for the Slam. He looked like Prince Charles who’d received news that his mother had decided to call it a day, trying to seem… gracious, as though he believed a thing wasn’t done till it’s really done.

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He won the first point. Then Murray chased down a shot and somehow sent it over the net. Still, it was only 15-all. Then, Murray won a great point, with a superb backhand. Then, Djokovic double-faulted. Then, Murray found a corner and won the game. It was 5-3. The crowd roared and I felt it – whatever it was – all those miles away. I was surprised. Why was I suddenly rooting for Murray? There was a time I did not care for Djokovic, the upstart who craved love from the crowd (that was his naked need then), but he gradually won me over – and how long can anyone who loves a sport be indifferent to one of its most spectacular champions? But by the time he got to that evening at the French Open, it appeared that he was the only spectacular champion out there. He was winning everything. And when Murray won that game, it appeared that he was channelling a universal wish that someone at least put up a fight. Even Federer, at his peak, kept losing to Nadal at, say, the French Open finals – and even the Majors he won (against Nadal) were epic, heart-stopping five-setters. In contrast, Djokovic downed Murray in straight sets in this year’s Australian Open, lost just one set to Federer in the 2015 Wimbledon and US Open (though the latter was a closer match than the score would have us imagine).

It’s one thing to be in the Djokovic era – and the way he is playing, he undoubtedly deserves an era named after him – but are we doomed to watching him win everything, with no one coming close? Is there going to be a rival spoken of in the same breath, or is his era going to be the first one in a while with a single superstar? Is he going to be the first superman in a kryptonite-free world, with only the luck of the draw and a player’s form at that particular moment determining who will be on the other side of the net in a Slam final? Can Djokovic be allowed to get away with holding all four Majors at the same time, something that has eluded even Federer? Aren’t there laws against that? All these questions, I am sure, were part of what I was feeling as Murray won that game, and, incredibly, the next one. And just like that, we were able to see Djokovic’s need. We saw him annoyed, angry, frustrated – the Queen, it appeared, had decided to stick around. From Murray’s side, it was too little, too late. We knew it. Murray probably knew it too. But for just a couple of games, it turned into a thrilling match. In the Djokovic era, anything that staves off the inevitability of his win is a thrill.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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