Novak Djokovic has played two tight matches so far this week. Both ended in small slaughters. I was gratified for the feast, but I noticed, not for the first time, something unusual: The result was not quite the point. Djokovic's fourth-round and quarterfinal victims, Lleyton Hewitt and David Ferrer, had played admirably. You had to applaud them — and Djokovic did. He could afford to, of course, since he'd beaten them. But I couldn't help but get the sense that he could respect them because he didn't really care about beating them, just refining his game and moving on.
I felt pretty sorry for Hewitt and Ferrer because people kept calling attention to how competitive they were. It was like the worst backhanded compliment you could give. "A" for effort! No one obsesses over how competitive Djokovic is. That's partly because winning is pretty routine for him these days. But it's also partly because even when he's down, he doesn't seem to play with greater intensity than his competitors do: He just plays better. It's like he plays to find his form, not to defeat his opponent.
At least that's the experience of watching. This is also true of his two greatest opponents. The experience of watching Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal playing against anyone but one another is more aesthetic than competitive. The winning matters, definitely, but mostly as a consequence of what happens before the point is over. Mostly, the play is the thing. When you think about it, this is strange.
It's worth returning to those two matches Djokovic played earlier this week. (After all, you were probably asleep when they happened.) Against Hewitt, Djokovic played typically astonishing tennis for the first two and a half sets. Everyone in Rod Laver Arena could sense that he might embarrass the former no. 1, the Aussie playing in his home grand slam, if he wanted to — and that he might do it even if he didn't. Only a few minutes into the first set, after Djokovic broke Hewitt without breaking a sweat, Mats Wilander,1 in his commentary of the match, suggested that Hewitt "needs to win a game here. Tonight. At some point." Hewitt wasn't even playing so badly.
Djokovic won the first set 6-1, basically doing drills while practically running his opponent into permanent retirement. It was obvious that things were becoming awkward for everyone involved, and Djokovic responded with an almost gentlemanly grace. He seemed to lift Hewitt a little, helped him elevate his game, and gave the local crowd some terrific moments. He joined the appreciation. He tapped the heel of his hand against his strings to clap for a desperate Hewitt winner. A few questionable calls by the officials went unchallenged. When he slid into the splits after a long sprint across the baseline to rip around — how?! — a backhand cross-court winner, he did not yell, or bang his chest, or pump his fist. After serving aces he simply lowered his head and slipped his hand into the pocket of his shiny black shorts to fish out another ball. And in the third, right around the time when Wilander was fondly reminiscing about how Bjorn Borg tossed him a few games in a match when he was a young and struggling player and suggested that Djokovic might think about throwing Hewitt a bone, Djokovic stopped hitting his backhand quite so relentlessly. He slowed half a step. You had the sense that this was on purpose. Not that you could prove it, or that he would admit it — but it just seemed that way. You had the sense that he was going to let Hewitt go out with some dignity.
And then suddenly it was around midnight, and Djokovic was hunched in exhaustion, and Hewitt's old rascally coach was roaring in the stands like he really believed that the 30-year-old, with his bad hips and his backward cap and his pre-Federdal game, might actually have a chance to beat the best player alive. Hewitt had just done something that no one in the tournament had yet accomplished, taking a set off the Serb. Djokovic was flat, nervous, defensive, off. In the end Djokovic recovered his rhythm, and the earth circled the sun, and 2 + 2 = 4, and the match was over and Djokovic was into the quarterfinals. Djokovic was clearly the better player, and when he needed to dig, he dug. But it seemed more like he hit his way out of a bad patch than found some competitive fire deep within himself. If you had to pick who was the more tenacious player that day, you'd say it was Hewitt.
Something like that happened again in the next round. To be sure, the situations were very different. Where Hewitt was unseeded, coming off an emotional five-set comeback winner over the wunderkid Milos Raonic, Ferrer was the fifth seed and an early-tournament dark horse pick. He has been perched on the edge of the top four for a long time — so long that it's tempting to wonder if he could take the leap and win a major someday. The Spaniard is widely regarded as one of the fittest guys on tour, and coming into the match Djokovic had only a 6-5 record against him. From the start Ferrer seemed capable of stretching Djokovic. He ran down every shot, knocked Djokovic off his serve, hit clean and consistent balls, and played the hard court like it was made of clay. The rallies went 20, 30 shots, and soon Djokovic was struggling for breath. He won the first set, but things got worse before they got better. His rock-solid first serve looked shaky. After one scrambling stab at the ball Djokovic grabbed his thigh and threw his head back in an expression of pain after jamming his leg to stop his momentum. He pulled out the second set, but just barely, in a tiebreak. In the third set, though, Djokovic swung more freely, started moving into the court more, and markedly improved his serving. He didn't play more intensely; he played more loosely. He won the set 6-1. Relief settled in. With all due respect to Ferrer's effort, the third set was just as satisfying to watch as the two tight sets. Djokovic was playing his game again, and it was beautiful. All was right with the world. Nothing personal. You got the sense that Ferrer, like Hewitt, was the more dogged, determined, desperate one, but it didn't matter.
The stats don't really bear out my perception. Djokovic has become the guy who almost never loses when something's on the line. Before he played a tiebreak against Ferrer in the second set, his career record in breakers was 109-69. Ferrer's was 85-88. But Ferrer, like Hewitt, was the one who looked like his life was at stake. If he didn't have strong enough weapons, he would try to defend the baseline until Djokovic dropped dead. "Intense competitor" in men's tennis has become a euphemism for "tries hard and plays better than he has any right to." Competitiveness is for the second tier.
Maybe denying that winning is really what matters when the big three play is another way of saying that they always win. One of the three has won every major except one since the 2005 Australian Open.2 Either Djokovic, Federer, or Nadal will win in Oz this year, too, barring a (perfectly possible) upset by Andy Murray, the perennial also-ran.
So it might seem insane to suggest that one of the greatest tri-valries in sports is somehow not about who's no. 1 — but that's not what I'm saying. Clearly Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer care about winning. Djokovic is an emotional guy, Nadal is aggravated right now — partly, you have to think, because he keeps losing to Djokovic — and Federer has been known to shed a tear or two after a tough defeat. They all play big on big points — almost invariably, better and more consistently than their opponents. They are clutch. They are not Gaël Monfils. Still, they all seem to approach the game with something more than the score in mind, like they're playing with some abstract ideal of the tennis point as their goal. It's not go fish, or blackjack, or trench warfare. It has to be tennis, and it has to be great. At least, that's what I think about when I'm watching them. I have no idea what they're thinking. Maybe they want nothing more than to win at any cost. Maybe they're all inveterate gamblers.3 But watching them is not like watching Michael Jordan. They're more Peyton than Eli, more perfect than pugilistic.
Determining which player is best right now has become a little bit of a parlor game. I suspect I'm not the only one who feels this way. What you really want to see is that improbable forehand down the line, and unless you're Serbian or Uncle Toni or maybe that guy who wears RF's monogrammed Nike gear, then when it happens you'll probably find yourself not caring too much about who hit it.
Just listen to the crowd. They don't care either, and that's what makes this situation special. If you're a Saints fan, you don't roar with pleasure when Alex Smith hits Vernon Davis with nine seconds left in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, even though it's a thrilling play. And if you're a Patriots fan, when the Ravens blow a game-tying field goal, you're just happy for the gift. But if Djokovic double faults on championship point against Federer, a Federer fan will feel a little cheated. Or at least I will.
What describes the top three isn't their raw competitiveness. It's the particularity of their styles.4 Federer is so light on his feet, the way he dances in and out of his split-steps and the way he controls the points with a variegated mixture of shots. Nadal's game is dynamic and vertical, stubborn and smart, and its improbability is part of the pleasure. People call Nadal a warrior, but that speaks as much to the martial quality of his overall style. His huge heart is part of his whole game. Djokovic's style is much more horizontal and efficient-looking, with his brilliantly compact backhand and his perfectly timed slides. He plays like a machine, with an almost unnervingly inhuman quality. Even his body looks efficient, like he's eaten the exact number of calories for maximum stamina, speed, and power, and not one too many or too few. I'm half convinced that his outrageous win streak last year was the result of a secret algorithm. When you see him play, it makes far more sense to think of the outcome as the result of some complex calculations than of luck or overpowering will. (That's one of the reasons The Shot during the U.S. Open semis against Federer was jarring as well as thrilling, and why Federer was so upset afterward: It was like watching parallel lines cross. For once willpower seemed to play a deciding part.)
You could chalk up some of this preoccupation with aesthetics to the nature of the game, to the residual politeness of a clubby sport. But I don't think that explains it. Even when tennis was more of a snobby sport, there was little love lost between some of the greatest rivals. Jimmy Connors turned even his fist pumps into a pose of extreme aggression. Within the game today, what I'm describing only really applies, at least for now, to the top three. When you watch Andy Murray, the question is whether or not he's going to find a way to win when it matters — whether he's got that drive. And who isn't frustrated by Tsonga's lack of consistent intensity? One second you think he could take the world by storm; the next, it's like he's watching the weather instead of the ball. Or look at the women's side, which has become a greased ladder. If a set is not a romp, then it's tighter than Serena's red-carpet dresses — and most matches feature both, as players seem to swing suddenly between impressive resolve and pathetic nerves. That's why Maria Sharapova is so much fun to watch, shrieking and all: Her desire outmatches everything, even her own game.
Maybe competitiveness matters more in the cases of other players because they have to (or had to) surpass some natural barrier to be the best — some lack of talent, or lack of innate dedication. With the top three it's different. Unlike everyone else, they don't need to play better than they are: They just need to play as they are. When they play as they are, they play with extreme intensity and focused tactics. Their matches are emotional roller coasters. They only play their best when they play to win. When they start to doubt, as they sometimes do (as Federer, especially, does more and more), bad things happen for them. For us, the experience becomes rich and interesting in a different way, as they try to recover themselves. It is extraordinary how often they do, and it's scary when they don't.