Photo: Ben Solomon/New York Times
ITV's coverage of the French Open has been excellent. The commentators are thoughtful and informed, and Jim Courier is a really first-rate analyst, a fund of insight who hardly ever resorts to banality (tennis pundits are often really good - why isn't this the case in football?).
Watching Federer-Djokovic this afternoon, it was interesting to hear Courier muse on the psychological qualities of the top three players in the world today: Djokovic, Nadal, Federer. Courier said he once asked Leyton Hewitt, who has played them all many times, who he thought was mentally toughest (Hewitt, while far from the most physically talented player on the circuit, is celebrated for the strength of his will to win). Hewitt wouldn't give him a straight answer, so Courier asked it another way: if you had to pick someone to play for your life, who would you pick? "Nadal," said Hewitt. "No question." Nadal, said Courier, is almost in a different league, psychologically. His demeanour on court is one of utter implacability, his aggression punishingly relentless.
Courier went on to say that he thought Federer was the most mentally vulnerable of the three. As a rough and ready index, we can use Federer's record in five-setters, in which mental toughness counts for so much: won 19, lost 16. Given the superior quality of his game, you might you think he'd do better than that (Djokovic is 17-5). "I'm not sure Federer really enjoys confrontation," said Courier, whereas Nadal, and to a lesser extent Djokovic, thrive on it. "Federer is more of an artist than a warrior."
I think that's part of the reason Federer still inspires so much devotion among his fans, including me. His genius is more fragile and therefore more human than that of his two younger rivals. When he's playing Nadal you almost feel like you're watching an athletic version of Kasparov vs Big Blue, willing on humanity in its struggle to keep up with the machines.
UPDATE: I wish he'd had a bit more fight in him today. He folded rather meekly against a Djokovic who wasn't even in top form.