Monday, July 07, 2008

Tennis Anyone? 

In the midst of a baseball season in which the Cubs may have a legitimate run for the Series, and the Yanks and Red Sox are finally not in first place on July 4th, it may seem incongruous to walk away from politics and global affairs to comment on a tennis match between a Spaniard and a Swissie in London, England. Tennis? No Americans? Independence weekend?

But I have to say I have not seen a more compelling sporting event in quite some time. Certainly not a one on one, mano a mano deal like that tennis match. What is interesting about tennis to me is that many of us regular people play it. The blend of physical intensity and mental anguish is pretty unusual. To play 5 sets of world class tennis, you have to be a finely tuned athlete. And to come back from two sets down, or hold serve when it's sudden death requires a stone cold mental assassin. And then to have the championship at your fingertips, fail to capture it, and rally to overcome failure is a feat of mental strength we should all acknowledge.

If you watched the match and appreciate the combination of required physical virtuosity with mental fortitude, there were a series of truly memorable, epic moments. And those moments accelerated as the match reached its climax. Nadal took the first two sets from Federer by absolutely stealing 3 service breaks from Federer, while Federer could only capture a single break of Nadal. When you consider Federer's historical dominance on Wimbledon's grass service and recall Nadal's heritage as a Spanish clay court artist, Nadal's relative edge on service breaks is simply miraculous. Nadal was outperformed statistically by virtually every relevant measure - whether it was winners or aces or break opportunities, Federer won every one. Yet time and again in those first two sets, Nadal came up with the shot he needed to defend his serve, and on those few chances Federer offered him, Nadal seized them. Against perhaps the greatest tennis player ever, and five time Wimbledon champion, Nadal started the match the superior cold hearted assassin.

Now wind the clock. The players are on serve in the third set and Federer gets a gift from the Wimbledon deities - rain. They get to go in and sit for a couple of hours. So after 2+ hours of high energy, high heart rate explosive tennis, all their muscles are now allowed to tighten up, and so are their minds.

Federer used this respite to his advantage, and Nadal then suffered deflating moment after deflating moment. After failing to nab a break from Federer, Nadal was dealt the very difficult task of competing with him in a tiebreaker. Here Federer's clear service advantage had Nadal on his back foot, and Federer had little trouble disposing of Nadal for a 7-6 third set victory.

The fourth set was pure, unfettered cruelty heaped upon Nadal. Time after time, both players failed to capture a break of service. And as they headed to another tiebreaker, it felt like Nadal might be weakening in potentially devastating fashion. Federer's serve was strengthening, while Nadal's seemed to be teetering. Still, Federer could not break him. Nadal's wheels were uncanny, his backhand crosscourt winners from the depth of the corner were pure insanity, unmakeable, otherworldly shots. And this was after he had fallen and twisted a knee, bringing a worried hush to the Wimbledon crowd. Another tiebreaker loomed - yet Federer suddenly demonstrated weakness and Nadal found himself with a 5-2 lead and 2 serves. Victory should have come to Nadal then.

But he blinked. Oh, it was horrible. He double faulted at 5-2 and lost both serves, letting Federer back into the match. This would have broken most competitors right there. He lost 2 more points to Federer to fall to 6-5 and faced the loss of the set. Most would have mailed it in. Here Nadal again showed his mental reserves. He refused to capitulate. In fact, he rallied and generated 2 match points - yet still failed to close the deal. Federer flexed his skill and mental toughness, winning the tiebreaker to force a fifth set. Nadal had choked. Had he lost the match, this tiebreak would have been etched in sporting history as Nadal's choke. But he fought like a cornered animal to recover from his service gaffes at 5-2, and had sufficiently recaptured his emotional balance by creating two match points, that by the end of the tiebreak, all did not seem lost.

By now my entire family was screaming at the tennis match on television. My wife and oldest son are Federer fans, my youngest and I are left-handed Nadal advocates. The Giants drive to beat the Patriots was exciting, but didn't last this long or cause the same amount of angst. Tiger's victory over Rocco went too long, playing out til Monday when we could not watch it any longer. This fifth set was a death march of perfect, agonizing length that we could all suffer together.

No early fifth set service breaks. And, much to my Nadal-supporting relief, no tiebreaks. In the fifth set at Wimbledon, you play games until someone wins by two. This was a touch of good fortune for Nadal, because Federer's serve is a very tough obstacle to overcome in a tiebreak. And Federer demonstrated why, cranking out ace after ace. After another rain delay, these guys settled in for a truly thrilling finish. With darkness falling on the match, Nadal finally achieved a break of Federer's serve to forge ahead to 8-7. As in sets 1 and 2, Nadal stole this break, and defended his serve against all odds on grass. But Federer again rallied, facing down one match point with an absurd backhand crosscourt winner on a service return. That shot alone was worth however many hours of time this match went on (nearly 5 hours excluding the rain delays). That shot was ridiculous. It was against a fantastic serve. On match point. Like so many of Nadal's backhands, its executionby Federer stole the air from your lungs for a moment, and then caused a gasp as you recovered - which you could hear on the television as the exhausted Wimbledon crowd was given one last thrill. Again, Nadal stared down Federer's impossible shotmaking with his own toughness, and refused to be broken. He held and won.

Not since McEnroe and Borg battled for five sets at Wimbledon in 1980 have I enjoyed tennis so much. The skill, the ability to control emotion and then, in the end, the extraordinary class demonstated by both competitors made this a teaching moment for my kids too. For once, there was no gloating, and we could all watch as first Federer and then Nadal were perfect role models for how one gracefully wins and loses a competitive contest.

That tennis match was a rare and exceptional contest. Thanks to both champions.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jul 07, 06:23:00 PM:

Excellent writeup of the match. Who needs the sports page when there are individuals like you producing better stuff?

I just saw the last few minutes of the match on vacation at Mallorca - just up the road from Nadal's home town. There were a lot of tense Spanish faces in the room in front of the big screen.

Spain won the European championships in soccer a couple of weeks ago. They've likely not had such a winning streak since the days of the conquistadores.

Good for them.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Jul 07, 09:03:00 PM:

Am over the Pond in Blighty ( visiting family,et al and attending THE REGATTA )-will not amplify your commentary as it was most excellent-however, a wee bit o'local "colour"...we observed the rolling lines of rain as it zipped in from the West(over Henley)-113km/hr tailwinds from No.America- no whining/wingeing/posing-pure athletic dynamism and mental steel on display, neither man kneeled- hope St.Barry was watching ...this is what being a man with the courage of his convictions is all about...nothing else to say 'cept W. must have learned THAT lesson somewhere after his long weekend in New Haven. Thank you...  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Tue Jul 08, 09:08:00 AM:

"Certainly not a one on one, mano a mano deal like that tennis match."

Unfortunately, tennis is not a mano a mano sport, as 'mano a mano' means 'hand to hand.'

Fencing, on the other mano...  

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