Drop ShotPosted: February 28, 2012
You’re up 5–2 in the first set, advantage to you. If you make the shot, you’ll win the set. It’s Paris, France, the home of stylish flourish, and you can’t just win the point with a high-percentage, low-risk, workmanlike crosscourt forehand, even if the angle is dazzling. Oh no. Not you. You’ve done that before. They’ve seen your forehand, and while it’s one of the best forehands in the game, it won’t take anyone’s breath away today. So you decide to hit the shot that if you make it will be legendary, on everyone’s highlight film for the ages. Words like daring, panache, and touch will be synonymous with your name.
You can feel the crowd ready to erupt at the sight of the shot you are considering, the shot you hold on your racket: the drop shot. Notorious fizzler, falling short, hitting the net, drifting wide, low percentage. Not the shot to choose, finally, in this circumstance. Maybe on another day of little consequence, or in the middle of a game in the middle of a set in the middle of a match you know you are going to win, but not now, and not against him. If you miss, he’ll take courage from your error. He’ll come to life like you’ve never seen before, roaring back with interest. And you, what about you? You will sink. There might as well be a hole on the court that will open into which you will stumble and there will be no hauling you out. You will be distracted by what you did and can’t take back, can never take back ever. As the match goes forward you’ll be looking back at that ball falling one inch wide, and that’s all it takes to call the ball out and go on to lose the game, the set, and the match in Paris, France, home of style and flourish and now heartbreak.
I’m talking about the finals of the French Open in 2011 between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Federer had unexpectedly defeated Novak Djokovic in the semifinals and landed across the net from his old nemesis on the red clay. Nadal loves to play Federer because he’s got the advantage in the matchup with the record to show it, and he’s chipped away at Federer’s confidence over the years. Federer’s the better player in terms of talent, shot-making ability, and artistry, but he is not resolute when he needs to be. For any Federer fan it was exhilarating to see him command the first set, up 5–2. I felt optimistic that coming off the win over the hottest player on the tournament Federer would play with confidence against Nadal, and the momentum from the win would do the trick this time. That optimism was tempered by remembering that Federer often starts out well, comes out in the first set with all guns blazing, only to lose steam somewhere in the course of the match, often in the third set.
So when he attempted the drop shot in the first set when he was up, I wished he hadn’t. I thought his gamble was unwise and would be costly. I didn’t find myself admiring him for going for the dazzler. Yes, if he had made it, we’d all say it was brilliant. Nadal would applaud and he’d go on to lose the first set. But Federer had to know that if he didn’t make it, it wouldn’t just be a point he’d lose—his shaky confidence would be exposed and Nadal would make inroads on Federer’s error, hewing a thick vein of doubt because that’s what Nadal does.
Thinking about it almost a year later, I find that the call doesn’t seem quite as simple as I thought during the match. If you rob Federer of his audacity and artistry and try to substitute prudent caution, would Federer lose more than he loses when his gambles fail? Would Federer be Federer? That is the question. Tallying the wins and losses is one measure of worth and greatness; it can also obscure what stays with you. Nadal went on to win the French Open again. He holds the record for most wins and that record will likely be his forever. It’s quite an accomplishment. Speaking personally, I’m not fond of Nadal’s style of play. Oh, I admire his tenacity and determination, how he wears other players down. But it doesn’t move me. I get impatient watching him line up his water bottles and bounce the ball fifteen times before serving and tugging at his pants while looking up to his uncle for a sign of what to do. The guy who wore others down. That will be Nadal’s tagline. Maybe I have to accept Federer’s defeats at the hand of Nadal and accept, too, that his strengths are his weaknesses.
None of us has absolute control over whether our shots will make it or not. Does that mean we shouldn’t try? We do have to be prepared to accept the consequences of our attempts, our failures and successes, and sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other.