Sunday, July 6, 2008

one hell of a game

It's been about an hour and a half since the Federer v. Nadal Wimbledon final finished, but my head is still buzzing. I went out to the grocery store and felt slightly in a daze, pushed suddenly into the prosaic light of a humid Sunday afternoon in Charleston after spending the better part of the day witnessing greatness unfold on the chilly grass of London. I've watched a lot of tennis in my life, and I've watched a fair amount of other sporting events, but I can say without a doubt that the final that took place today went beyond any other sporting memory I can think of. It was epic. It was pure, unadulterated sporting heaven. It reached and then surpassed every sports writer cliche I could ever possibly steal. I only hope that if you're reading this, you watched it happen live, because I know otherwise there is no way I can even come close to doing it justice. You can read the detailed match summary, examine all of the stats, but nothing on paper could convey the thrill or beauty of what happened for a few hours this afternoon between the two greatest tennis players of this generation.
It couldn't have been scripted better. The setting: tennis' grandest and most important event, legendary in all of its detail down to the tiniest, most perfectly kept blade of grass. The actors: tennis' top two players fully engaged in one of tennis' richest rivalries, no scratch that, one of sports' richest rivalries. There's Roger Federer, already arguably the greatest tennis player ever, five time Wimbledon champion, smasher of records left and right-with his polished and regal ground strokes, all elegance in everything from his game to his cream colored Nike cardigan. And then there's Rafa Nadal, the current and possibly greatest clay court tennis player of all time. Where Federer is all quiet brilliance and grace, Nadal is all about the fight and the power of the game. He's hungry not just in every match but in his career, transforming in three years from a clay court specialist to the second best grass court player in the game. This rivalry has become the biggest thing in tennis not just because of how great these two players are but because of the marked contrast in their styles and games-it's polos versus muscle shirts, righty versus lefty, Swiss reserve versus Spanish fire. And they share a consistently high level that no other male players enjoy right now. That's why they've played each other in more grand slam finals than any other two men in the Open era. And until now each has reigned over their preferred surface, Nadal at Roland Garros with four straight wins (three against Federer in finals), and Federer owning Wimbledon for five years now (with two final wins against Nadal). Yet each has continued to strive to take the other's house. It's what has made the rivalry so intriguing, because there's so much at stake for each man. For Federer the French Open is one of the only remaining obstacles to him taking over the title of greatest ever. For Nadal winning at Wimbledon would mean silencing any doubt that he's only great on clay.
And so that all leads to the final today. And for someone who uses words quiet a lot and often to excess, I'm struggling here to find any words that might describe the match that took place. If you're a tennis lover you would appreciate the pure brilliance of much of the shotmaking in the match-the strategies used by both players, Federer coming to the net more in this match than he'd done the whole tournament, Nadal scrambling for every ball and blasting away at Fed's backhand. But even if you don't know the difference between a ground stroke and an overhead, this match would have sucked you in. Because like I said before, it just couldn't have been scripted better. There was drama in everything-three total rain delays, one at the start of the 5th set when the sky was already beginning to darken. The match ended seven hours after it started. But take away the rain delays it was the longest Wimbledon final ever, and even more important it was high quality throughout. There were no bagel sets, no long lasting lapses in concentration for either player. Federer didn't start off as well as Nadal, losing the first set and then the second set after holding a 4-2 lead. But just as I started to fear that despite the high quality, it might be a three set match, Federer regroups after the rain delay and takes the third set to a tie break. And of course he wins the breaker to extend the match. The whole time I was watching the match there was almost a feeling of inevitability. It just couldn't have been a straights set win. Nor could it have been a four setter. It had to go to a fourth breaker-the single most breathtaking few minutes of tennis I have ever watched. Of course Nadal would have two, count em two Championship points in the breaker that Federer would save. Sure it's easy to say now, but this match was destined to be a classic, perhaps the classic match of men's tennis, at least in recent memory. And so the destined fifth set did arrive, and it seemed so likely that one of the players would give in a little to emotional or physical fatigue, especially after another rain delay. How could Nadal, after coming so close to winning so many times, possibly keep it together mentally? How could either of these players keep playing at such a high level after so many hours on court, and even more hours of waiting in locker rooms for the rain to go away. But there was no letdown, not for a game, not for a second. On serve they went, game after game, inching past the four hour mark, past the 6 games all mark. And now there's this whole other element of drama. Because as the sky darkened, it became unclear if the match would even finish. They would play until 9:30pm, and as 9pm British time crept closer, there was a new urgency to the way these two men played. Because not only were the now playing each other and history and their own fears and nerves, but they were playing nature itself, trying to find some way to crack the other before the ball was impossible to see. Nadal gets two break chances in one service game and Federer saves them. Federer holds serve and then it's 7 all. Nadal serves again and this time he cashes in on one of the break points, but not after playing a completely nail biting game of tennis, with deuces galore and chances for both players to win game point. And so finally the championship is on Nadal's racket, the crowd is going crazy before the players start, because everyone knows this is it, either Nadal pulls it out or the match will probably have to finish the next day. And the crowd is also just picking up on the energy of these players, who both clearly want it so much, who have so much heart invested in this match, and who will fight to the very last point with everything they have. And the last game is just a microcosm of the entire match, a drama filled, nerve racking series of points-with both players playing with the same energy and brilliance, no matter that they've been out there for hours or that it's dark and chilly and that rain clouds hover in the distance yet again. And Nadal gets a a third Championship point, that Federer saves brilliantly with a return. But when Nadal gets a fourth chance, he makes it count. And the moment Federer hits a ball into the net, the moment Nadal wins Wimbledon after playing perhaps the event's greatest final ever-well how can sports get any better than that? I'm not going to lie. I choked up as Nadal fell to the grass and then climbed his way up into his box to cling on to his family. I choked up at the look on Federer's face as he sat in his chair, the realization that after five years, Wimbledon no longer belonged to him. This is human drama at its finest. Other sports have their moments of course. But in my opinion no other sport can boast the kind of moment that took place on Center Court today-the sheer story arc of it all, a narrative of pressure and desire and will, a narrative of a living legend coming to terms for the first time in years with his own limitations, a narrative of a twenty-two year old kid from a tiny island off the coast of Spain who for all of his on court bravado and force, dissolves into tears when he realizes that he has achieved the highest honor in his sport.
For us fans, sports are a diversion sure, but on some occasions they are more than that. After the match I was struck by the fact that no matter how well spoken the players were in their interviews, they seemed almost clumsy and awkward compared to how they seemed a few minutes earlier on court. As Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal played today, their game spoke for them with the most silent kind of eloquence. When sports are good and when they're pure, they're a form of expression on par with any art. And like any good art, sports at their best allow us to appreciate the rare moments when humans stop being mere animals and start resembling something great. Today's Wimbledon final was the greatest sporting event I have ever had the pleasure of watching. Even if you boil it down to just a game, even if it means nothing more to you than a couple of men swatting tennis balls across a net, you've gotta admit it was one hell of a game.

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