Just when you thought the Fabulous Four of men’s tennis was becoming a little bland, a little here-we-go-again and a little in need of a fresh new face, the quartet has reached another peak.
The intertwining rivalries of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are even richer than before. The second coming is now.
Three of the four won Friday at the Sony Open, and Nadal plays Saturday night.
What an absolute pleasure it is to watch them in action.
Pick your favorite method of marveling: Ambling through the Hermitage or the Louvre; savoring a gourmet meal; climbing to a breathtaking viewpoint. Way up there on the sports list is observing the handiwork of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray.
As Maria Sharapova said of this convergence of talent in one era, “What the men have created is one of a kind. It might never be replicated.”
They are each so different in athletic style and personality. Federer is as elegant in conversation as he is in crafting shots. Nadal is a relentless tide of a player and genuinely humble to an atypical degree among champions. Djokovic uncoils lithe power, countered by his comedic nature. The reserved Murray, called a “dour Scot” by his countrymen, doesn’t play with flash either, but his game is the most complete.
They are all here in Miami, taking a crack at the “Fifth Slam” of tennis.
Federer skipped the tournament last year during an extended break for his ailing back that apparently did him good. Federer, 32, written off as past his prime and deluded about his ability to win another Grand Slam, has rejuvenated himself and risen to No. 5. He’s beaten four top-10 players already this year and took Djokovic to three sets in their Indian Wells final last week. Federer has regained the springy step he lost and is excited about his adaptation to a larger racket, which has injected power into his shots.
He looks capable of winning Slam No. 18 in 2014. He has had some whiny stretches the past couple of years but seems to have his old radiance back. Federer isn’t one to swagger, but there is no mistaking his cocksure assessment of his talent.
“You want to do it as long as you really enjoy it, and being successful helps in the process,” he said. “It comes down to confidence.”
Djokovic has noticed the difference in Federer, citing his backhand, depth on his groundstrokes and aggressive topspin rather than settling for slices.
“Roger is back to his normal level, the level he had for seven, eight years while he was so dominant,” Djokovic said. “I can feel that he’s striking the ball very cleanly. It doesn’t matter how old he is. That’s just a number.”
Against 6-11 serving giant Ivo Karlovic, Federer broke in the first game, found his rhythm and kept errors to a minimum in a 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) victory.
On one shot, Federer had to dash from one end of the baseline to another and still hit a forehand winner down the line. It was an illustration of the footwork that is the foundation of the game for the Fab Four. Watch their feet when they play. It’s not just the quickness but the balance that sets them apart.
“I think it’s very, very important, if not the most important thing,” Djokovic said after defeating Jeremy Chardy 6-4, 6-3. “A variety of surfaces requires a variety of footwork and adjustment. I have been dedicating quite a lot of time to that matter.”
Nadal, who anticipates many “tough baseline rallies” against Lleyton Hewitt in his opening match, chases down every ball the way a man dying of thirst fixates on an oasis. Murray is a stalker. Federer is the most graceful, nearly balletic.
After Karlovic ducked going into the tunnel, a video tribute from fans was played on court for Federer.
“Roger, Miami is so glad to have you back,” one fan said. “We missed you!” Another blew a kiss and expressed her love. A kid said: “Roger, you’re awesome.”
Federer seemed touched.
“I miss one year and you make me feel guilty,” he said, then reassured everyone that at 32, he’s found his second wind. “I’m looking forward to many more years.”