Monday, February 2, 2009

oh what a game

So I swear to GOD that this blog has not turned into Liz's Wonderful World of Tennis. I know that I've been writing a lot about tennis lately, but the Aussie Open is officially over so it should be at least a few weeks until I get to watch another live tennis match, and even then it won't be a major. I love all tennis, but best of five sets over two weeks is really what gets my tennis passion stirred. But I just have to write about what went down in the final. So Sunday was the Superbowl, an event that I do enjoy and that I willingly take part in every year (take part meaning eating and drinking while watching from a couch, not you know, participating in the game). I read today that it was the second most watched Superbowl in history. How marked a contrast then between the big football match with all the fancy commercials that almost everyone watched and the first major tennis final of the year, which played out on American television in the very early hours of morning, while most of the nation slept soundly on.

It's a shame really, a shame that Australia is a crazy different time zone, and a shame that tennis isn't really that popular in the US. Because what happened on Sunday morning, when it was still dark out, was another brilliant chapter in one of the all time greatest rivalries not just in tennis, but in sports. It wasn't Wimbledon. The quality dipped at times, particularly from poor Federer in the 5th. There weren't rain delays and fading light. There wasn't a beautiful, perfect ending. But there was greatness befitting the stature of these two players. I won't bore you with the details and match stats because you can get them from various sports sections or websites. What you need to know, if you're a tennis fan or not, what you really need to know to understand what happened in Melbourne, is that Roger Federer dissolved into tears on the podium after the match.

They weren't happy tears or victorious tears or any of the usual tears we're accustomed to seeing from Roger. They were tears of absolute pain, of the bitterness of yet another loss to the Spaniard in the bandana. It wasn't like the French, which Rafa owns. It wasn't even Wimbledon, which Nadal had to claw toward and pry out of Federer's vicelike grip after three tries. This was the Australian Open, a hard court major, a refuge for Federer, somewhere where his greatness was still assured, where the threat of Rafa didn't loom so large. Yet like he has done so many times in the past year, Rafa found a way to win, to bring into question Federer's greatness by being great in his own right, by suggesting that history doesn't only belong to Roger, that it might just well belong to the kid from Majorca. Roger's tears summed up the match for me. It summed up the sheer impossibility and demoralizing effect for Federer of playing Nadal right now, how even at Federer's best (like at Wimbledon) or at his not so great (see 5th set of this final), Rafa plays exactly the same way-to win. And he does. He's so tough, mentally and phsyically. I mean he played the longest match in Australian Open history in the semis and somehow he comes out less than two days later and plays for another four plus hours and wins it.

I, like so many others, underestimated Nadal in this final. Part of it was just assuming he would be exhuasted after the Verdasco marathon. And I guess another part is just assuming that Federer would still have Rafa's number on a hard court, even if he had it on no other surface right now. Maybe despite my love for Nadal, a small part of me hoped that Federer would get this one, that he'd fight his way back into the rivalry, really make it interesting in 2009. I set my alarm for about an hour into the match, assuming I would wake up, see Federer dominating, and maybe catch the last set. But I turned on the match around 5am and Nadal had won the first set. And I wasn't tired anymore. I sat in the dark and watched the next four sets unfold, saw the ups and the downs, saw the missed oppurtunities, saw Federer fold in the fifth set after Nadal's complete refusal to do the same. I saw Nadal fall to his back after match point, saw this 22 year old collect his 6th grand slam trophy, the same 22 year old who was at one time brushed off as only a clay courter, the same 22 year old who could never really be a threat on a hard court.

And along with so many others, I saw Federer collect his runner up trophy from Rod Laver and start to cry. I watched him hold it in at first, and then dissolve into great, heaving sobs at the microphone before backing away, unable to speak. I watched along with a stunned croud and a Nadal also brought to tears by the moment. And honestly it hurt. I felt for the guy. I've never been a huge Federer fan. I always respected his talent, watched many of his matches just to witness such brilliance. I think he seems like a classy, decent man, which is pretty amazing when you consider how rich he is. But he's been hard to root for. He's been too perfect, too flawless. So many of his matches, especially before 2008, were just showcases for his talent. His opponents might as well have been practice partners. There was something sterile and hollow about Federer to me, not because he seemed like a hollow person, but just because his victories were rarely hard fought and his losses were so few and far between. But over the last year, I've seen a new Federer, a Federer holding a runner up trophy with drooping shoulders and red eyes. I've seen a Federer shaking his head in frustration at the back of the court while Rafa sends yet another blistering forehand past him.

I've seen a Federer who has had to fight and scrape and leave all of his blood, sweat and tears on a court. And on Sunday morning, for the first time, I saw Federer as human, vulnerable and at a loss for words. He wasn't a living legend standing there. He wasn't Federer the great. He was Roger, a 27 year old who was being forced to watch history and everyone's expectations and his own greatness slip though his fingers, maybe not forever, but at least for that moment. He was Roger, a competitor in ever sense of the word, forced to stand there and smile in front of thousands of people after a brutal and demoralizing loss. And no matter what happens this year, no matter what happens in the rest of his career, I think Federer has won more fans and more support in his last two major losses than he had in all of his illustrious wins. Roger's brilliance comes from forehands and serves and footwork and movement. But his greatness and his legacy will come from his rivalry with Rafa. They're linked now, permanently, and Rafa has done what no one else could do. He hasn't just proved that Federer is beatable. He's provided a foil for Federer, someone who allows Roger's passion and heart and fight and love for the game to shine, even if the scoreboard puts him on bottom. I'm not sure anyone else could do that. And I think it will only add to Federer's legend. We've all known that Federer wanted to pass Pete. We've all known how committed he is to stamping his place on history. But maybe for the first time we know how much this fight costs him, how much of himself he's given to this game, and how much is at stake every time he walks on court. And right now he's facing the fight of his career, a rival who at least for the moment stands in the way.

So I hope you at least got the chance to watch some of the match, at least highlights. But I also hope you got to watch what happened after the match. I haven't even mentioned the moment where Nadal went up to accept his trophy and immediately went back to Federer, put his arm around him like a brother, and touched his head ever so slightly against the head of his so called nemesis. It was an absolutely beauitful moment, and it makes me proud to be a tennis fan right now. How many other sports would you see that happen? There's so much macho posturing and tough talking and butting heads in so many other sports. And so to see a moment so infused with respect and admiration and empathy, well it was downright poignant. Made me cry at least. I'm pretty darn happy to be a tennis fan right now. I know the so called, "big event" on Sunday was that little football game in Tampa. But for me, the game of the day was the one that started before the sun came up, the one without a halftime show, without egregious corporate sponsors, without even commercials for the duration of the fifth set. It was a game, pure and simple, no distractions, no pomp and circumstance. And as it has been so many times between these two, it was one hell of a game.

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