On another momentous day of sport in Australia, a couple of sporting institutions, who we could have been forgiven for thinking were no longer operating on the level of ordinary mortals, were given a reminder of just how precarious their lofty perches really are. One just about hung on for safety, but another was brought crashing down to earth.
The Australian cricket team, an all-conquering group of national heroes, set off in pursuit of history at the third test in Perth. Having come through the controversy-laden second rubber in Sydney with a record-equalling 16th consecutive victory, a new breed of Aussies were out to raise again the standard set by their predecessors.
If anyone was going to stop the Australians in their tracks it would have to be India; the one team which has consistently given the world champions a headache in an era of dominance stretching back almost twenty years.
The Indians went into this game with even more motivation than usual to try and turn the formbook over of course, with a strong feeling of resentment in their camp after the ‘race-row’ fall out of Sydney, and with a healthy amount of national pride to recover for their army of followers back home.
Despite the sideshow though, surely a team of world-class competitors like the Indians needed nothing more than the opportunity to upset the odds and bring a halt to a sporting juggernaut to get them fired-up. I think this is why we saw no return to playground antics as India stormed to a 72 run victory in Perth; this wasn’t about exacting a childish revenge, this was just a team knuckling down to serious sporting business.
The Australians are already looking back on this game regretting that they were caught committing the sin that threatens to bring every era of sporting superiority to its end – complacency. The most consistent feature found in any individual or team that reigns supreme in their arena is that they never forget the basics; they never come into a contest without the raw materials that have sustained their power.
The WACA ground in Perth has always been known for a pitch that fast bowlers would like to dig up and carry around with them, and yet you would have to look a long way back through the records to find the last time Australia selected a team to play there that didn’t contain a specialist spinner.
Granted, this could be down to the fact that Shane Warne has been no ordinary spin bowler, and certainly not someone who would ever be dropped because a pitch didn’t suit him, but the more knowledgable observers are aware that the presence of any test-standard slow bowler offers a bowling attack the crucial element of variety, as well as a ‘plan B’ to fall back on should the original pitch analysis prove inaccurate. Australia ignored this piece of received wisdom and paid for it, as their old nemeses Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman once more tormented their seamers.
The Australians were forced to admit their error when turning to the inadequate spin of Andrew Symonds and Michael Clarke during both Indian innings’. In a deliciously ironic twist, both these batsmen, when charged with saving their team’s proud record in the second innings, were dismissed by Anil Kumble, the only specialist spinner playing in the match.
Meanwhile over in Melbourne, another apparently unbeatable sporting luminary was made to appear human. The last time Roger Federer lost in a Grand Slam before the semi-final stage was in the 2005 French Open, on the clay surface that he is yet to conquer. The last time Federer lost any match in one of the three majors in which he is undisputed master was in the semi-final of the 2005 Australian Open. To find the last instance of Federer being defeated before the semi-final stage of one of his favourite slams, you have to go back to the US Open of 2003.
In short, to say that the talented young Serbian Janko Tipsarevic was an outsider for his third round match against the world no.1 would be putting it mildly. Tipsarevic, despite being ranked only 49th in the world, is already highly regarded in the game and seen as a sure-fire future top ten player, but any expert would have considered him some way out of his depth against the genius of Federer.
So, when Tipsarevic took the first set on a tie-break, he was showing the potential that everyone knows he has, but it was surely just a brief blip for Federer. When the second set also went to a tie-break, the champion was a game away from going two sets down, yet there was no real concern, and he came through to level it.
Federer would undoubtedly run away with it now, went the considered view; and an early break for Roger in the third seemed to confirm this as true. When Tipsarevic then took the third set after coming back to break the champ twice, the question had to be asked again: “Are we worried about Federer?” Not really, he’d been in such positions before, he was still a strong favourite. And so it proved as the fourth set quickly went to Federer 6-1. Tipsarevic had given us a great game, but the final set was surely to prove a formality for the champion with all that grand slam experience behind him.
As the final set reached five-all, six-all, seven-all and eight-all, and the match moved beyond the four-and-a-half hour mark, the penny finally began to drop for the disbelieving audience that Tipsarevic had not read the script. By the end of the match, Federer was no longer the indestructable force striking cold fear into his opponent as he prowled the baseline; instead he was merely one of two prizefighters, bruised and exhausted by the battle, slugging it out to the bitter end.
When that end finally arrived, it was Roger Federer that was still standing. Just. At 10-8 in the final set, Janko Tipsarevic, who must have matured the equivalent of several years during these few hours, finally conceded defeat to probably the greatest player his sport has ever seen. On this occasion however, when his talent and genius for once wasn’t enough to see him through, Federer prevailed with the will of a champion. Not something that he usually has to rely on in the third round of a grand slam.
Tipsarevic walked off a loser, but having given everyone, most of all Federer, a glimpse of what we can expect from him in championships to come. After all, only Rafael Nadal has even looked like he was meant to share a court with Federer in a grand slam in the last 3 years. It is also worth recalling that Federer reduced the 2007 Australian Open to a procession, winning the trophy without dropping a set. That is an indication of Tipsarevic’s achievement in taking the great man to the brink.
We are lucky to live in the era of the great Australian cricketers and the legendary Roger Federer; to be able to enjoy their skills is our privelege, and we should grasp every opportunity to do so. To see these champions challenged, or even beaten, however, is a rare treat indeed. It serves to remind us all that no one is infallible, and it is that knowledge that keeps every sport healthy in times of domination.