Sunday, January 27, 2008

Parity a good thing for men's tennis


At 3:03 a.m., I passed out on the couch.

I couldn't make it to the 3:30 starting time. But that doesn't mean I wasn't excited about this men's Australian Open final. In fact, I was more pumped for the Novak Djokovic-Jo-Wilfried Tsonga matchup than for any grand slam final in recent memory.

For the first time in three years, one man was absent from the final: Roger Federer. And for the first time in three years, I didn't see a clear favorite. Djokovic was the seeded player — No. 3 — who knocked off Federer in straight sets in the semifinals. But Tsonga played the most dominant match of the tournament in dispatching of No. 2 Rafael Nadal in straight sets.

Plus, Tsonga has looks similar to a certain Muhammad Ali, a fact not lost upon his boisterous French fans, who like to shout out, "Go Ali!"

So I was not surprised when I suddenly awoke from my deep sleep at 6:14. Some old Super Bowl — I think SB XXIII featuring the 49ers and Bengals — was playing on the TV, but I was just alert enough to locate the remote, which was under the couch, and flip over to ESPN2.

... And it didn't take me long to wake up.

Djokovic and Tsonga were immersed in an emotion-filled, energized final. The crowd, quite decorous for most of the tournament's two weeks, was voluble, yelling out encouragement to their favorite, Tsonga, after each point. Djokovic's fans responded with chants of "Nole! Nole! Nole!" — the 20-year-old Serbian's nickname.

It was the fourth set, Tsonga having taken the first set before Djokovic won the second and third sets. And it would go down to the wire.

Not once during the drama-filled set did I find myself yearning for Federer or Nadal, who have dominated the grand slams the past few years. Watching Tsonga and Djokovic fight for their first grand slam title was good television, especially at 6:15 on a Sunday morning.

(No, I don't watch cartoons.)

I even found myself gaining a rooting interest in Tsonga only because I wanted to see more tennis. When Djokovic won a point on Tsonga's serve in the tiebreak, I pounded the pillow I was holding in frustration. When Djokovic took a commanding 6-2 lead, I gingerly started planning my sleeping plans.

Yes, I was disappointed that I didn't get a fifth set, that I didn't get to stay awake for another hour, but that didn't take away from how great the tennis was during the 45 minutes I was able to stay out of sleep mode.

And this could only be the beginning.

As good as Roger Federer is, the competition has caught up to him. At 20, Djokovic has loads of potential. As annoying as his several-bounce routine prior to big service points is, his talent and cool-customer demeanor are very similar to traits of the Great Federer.

Tsonga, 22, has just as bright of a future. Anyone who saw his match against Nadal knows what he's capable of.

Will either player be as consistently dominant as Federer?

C'mon, mate? Arya crazy?

But no longer can we pencil Federer in for three grand slam championships a year and Nadal for the French Open title.

As in other sports, parity is a good thing for men's tennis.

Federer is still the undisputed world's No. 1, but he's got some company at the top.

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