Rafael Nadal very nearly got an unexpected Birthday present, as his only two legitimate challengers in his way to an unprecedented seventh French Open Men’s Singles title, teased the Spaniard by pretending they were going to crash out of Roland Garros before the start of the second week.
As World Number One Novak Djokovic began his fight back from two-sets-to-one down against Andreas Seppi, Roger Federer went a set, and very nearly two sets as he stared at break points late in the second, down to lucky loser David Goffin.
However, while the prospect of a double-dip upset of the highest order should tantalize the taste buds of any true sports fan, the sense of inevitability that both men would make it through in the end cast a shadow of calm over what should have been a tension-fueled nail-biting experience.
While I imagine it’s only a matter of time before Federer loses early in a major in a similar manner to Sampras’ depressing final exit at Wimbledon on court two to little known Swiss George Bastl, (Little trivia for you: Sampras’s last two defeats at Wimbledon came against players from Switzerland, Federer in 2001 and Bastl in 2002), it still feels as though it’s not going to happen any time soon.
The last time Roger Federer lost to a non-seeded player at a major, it was 2004 at the hands of three-time French Open Champion Gustavo Kuerten on the court he had once owned. Wait, now I think about it, even Kuerten was seeded back then; 28th by all accounts. No, to find the last time Federer lost a shock exit at a Grand Slam against a non-seeded player, you have to go back to 2003 to the first round of the French Open when fifth seeded Federer lost to Luis Horna in three straight sets. That’s nine years without an upset loss in a major.
And while much hoopla is made over Federer’s run of one million straight Grand Slam quarter-finals, he’s not the only one who’s a near-cert to run through the first week every time.
For Rafa Nadal’s last upset loss at a Slam, you have to go back almost as far, to the 2005 US Open, when he lost to wildcard James Blake in four. At the time Blake was riding the J-Block to a once-in-a-lifetime summer for the American after recovery for a series of illnesses and personal loss. A summer so inspirational that he wrote a book about it.
While Djokovic’s last non-seeded loss comes as recently as the 2008 Wimbledon second round, it was to former World Number One and two-time Grand Slam Champion Marat Safin. Safin, who’s hardly a no-name nobody, went on to the semi-finals before losing to Federer.
When you see Nadal two sets down against Isner, or Djokovic two sets down to Seppi, or Federer a couple of points from being down two sets to Goffin, no one really believes these guys will lose.
The result of the aforementioned three’s remarkable consistency is a guarantee of a high class short list of contenders at the end of every major, but is the trade off the lack of Cinderella runs and upsets that makes sport so special?
Perhaps it would be good for the game if some wildcard like Goran Ivanisevic or a teen like Michael Chang could mix things up with a run through the pack, but right now the top is just too good.
The fact is, the Big Three are, and have been, practically infallible in the early rounds of a major and have been for the best part of a decade, and the prospect of one of them falling to a shock defeat at the hands of someone outside the top 32 in the World is about as exciting as waiting for the World to end on December 20th, 2012. You know it’s not going to happen, but you’ll keep your eye on it just in case.