Monday, July 07, 2008

The Greatest Wimbledon Final Ever?

Changing of the Guard: Roger hands over his bling...

...and settles for a first on grass: 2nd best.

Did you see it?

Yesterday, Roger Federer and and Rafael Nadal played tennis for 4 hours and 48 minutes on Wimbledon's Centre Court through wind, rain and near-darkness before a Federer forehand into the net finally ended his five-year reign as champion of the All England Club. Yes, after being down two sets to nil and twice facing match point, Federer lost to Nadal in near-darkness at 9:15 p.m. (it was the longest match in Wimbledon history - and that's not counting the three rain delays that prolonged the proceedings for close to seven hours) after five sets of tension-filled tennis of the highest quality. Or rather, to give the Spaniard his due - for he surely played brilliant tennis on this day - Nadal won, and deservedly so: 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (8-10), 9-7.

It's All Over Now: The devastating denouement

With the victory, Nadal became the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win Wimbledon and the French Open in the same season, ended Federer's 40-game win streak here, and ended Federer's grass-court win run at 65 matches. It also gave Nadal his fifth Grand Slam title, and first outside of his four French Open crowns earned on the clay courts of Roland Garros; Federer remains stuck at a dozen Grand Slam titles, two behind Peter Sampras' record 14 - a record which suddenly look to be relatively safe.

Three-time Wimbledon champion and TV commentator John McEnroe called it "the greatest match I've ever seen." And he should know, having played what many consider to be the greatest match prior to July 6, 2008: the 1980 final between Mac and Bjorn Borg that went 4 hours and 16 minutes (previously the longest Wimbledon match in history), which Borg won in the fifth set after losing an 18-16 tiebreaker in the fourth set - the match we seem to see every time there's a rain delay at Wimbledon. As McEnroe and fellow commentator Ted Robinson also observed, it's doubtful there was ever a final in which two opponents struck the ball so hard, so consistently, on virtually every shot. Listening to each volley was like hearing someone repeatedly smash a watermelon with a sledgehammer. The quality was of play was unbelievable. And it followed on the heels of an unexpectedly excellent final between the Williams sisters the day before, when Venus beat her sister Serena 6-4, 7-5 to win her fifth Wimbledon title.

I missed the first two sets (did Federer really blow a 4-1 lead in the second set?), but I caught the last three and as a viewing experience it was both agonizing and exhilarating. Agonizing in its nail-biting tension and exhilarating in the quality of play. As an emotional McEnroe put it, when he congratulated both players after the match, "As a tennis player I want to thank you for that match." The beauty of the game won on this day, for this was as good at it gets.

What a boost in the arm for the sport! As Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times wrote:
"Almost always, tennis is a niche sport, something watched by the general public if the garbage has been taken out and the ironing is done. Then, every so often, there comes a perfect storm. It happened Sunday, in the cathedral of the sport, Centre Court at Wimbledon, when typhoon Roger Federer met cyclone Rafael Nadal. Even for those who don’t know a backhand from a backbite, what transpired was mesmerizing...It doesn’t happen often, but it was a day when tennis stormed into the mainstream on the wings of two incredible players, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal... If tennis is lucky, the stuff that blew in may just stick around for a while."

And the quality of athletic play was matched by the quality of sportsmanship these two champions exhibited. As the Telegraph Uk reported,
"Every superlative imaginable has been deployed to describe the standard of tennis from the two men. But more striking even than their athleticism and skill was the way they played the game. How refreshing, then, that these two men, playing under great pressure for the highest prize available in their sport, were able to do so in a manner that did them both great credit. They both even agreed to read passages from Rudyard Kipling’s If for use during the anticipated interludes caused by the rain. Lines from the poem are above the entrance that the players use before walking on to Centre Court: If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same. It would be nice to think that many youngsters witnessing the way Nadal and Federer behaved on Sunday night, both in victory and defeat, now understand the meaning of those words."

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Nadal and Federer exemplify the word "class."

What a shock. Although not really shocking to anyone that saw last year's final. Not after Nadal had reached two previous finals here against Federer and came within two points of winning it all last year. "It's a pity I couldn't win it...I tried everything," Federer said afterwards, exhausted. "But Rafa's a deserving champion, he's the worst opponent on the best court." And when John McEnroe asked Federer how he was feeling, Roger politely begged off, saying, with sincerity, "This is probably the hardest loss of my career so far. It really hurts right now." He later told the press that "Losing Paris for me was nothing, this was disaster."

Gloomy Sunday: Federer in his darkest hour (literally)

I'm still depressed after seeing it. Because my tennis hero has been shown to be human and vulnerable this year, and very likely will lose his No. 1 ranking to Nadal. I mean, Roger's only won two minor titles this season (winning Portugal's Estoril Open after Nikolay Davydenko retired with a leg injury and picking up his fifth Gerry Webber Open title at Halle, Germany by defeating the relatively unknown No. 35 Philipp Kohlschreiber) - albeit making it to the semis at Indian Wells and the Australian Open and two Grand Slam finals - and has even lost to nobodies like Czech Radek Stepanek (!) at the Rome Masters. Perhaps, like Icarus, the high-flying Federer has for too long flown too close to the sun of acclaim and now must plummet down to earth. After many a summer dies the swan, as Tennyson said. Asked how Sunday's result might affect his ranking, Federer told the press, "Write what you want. I’m going to try to win at the Olympics and the US Open and have a good end to the season. That’s it."

I hope Federer hasn't lost his mojo on the men's tennis tour. I know he would like to match or surpass Sampras' Grand Slam titles record, so he has the motivation to play for history. But I fear that his standards - and the standards the press have set for him ("I've created monster" he said after losing to Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open, alluding to the fact that he's expected to win everything, all the time) - are so high that he might be tempted to pull a Bjorn Borg disappearing act. Shortly after consecutive Grand Slam final losses in 1981 to John McEnroe at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, a 26-year-old Borg shocked the tennis world by retiring from the tour, saying that the losses confirmed that he was no longer the World No. 1 and that he did not wish to be No. 2. Can Federer handle not being No. 1? "Tennis, life goes very quickly," he once said, "It happens very quickly for you, but it can also be over very quickly for you." For Borg it was a run of four straight French Opens and five consecutive Wimbledons before he felt his dominance slipping away. Is this the moment that Federer, approaching his 27th birthday in August, senses that his four-year stranglehold as the dominant force in men's tennis (315 wins, 11 Grand Slam titles, 13 Masters Series titles and a record 232 consecutive weeks ranked as World No. 1 from January 2004 to July 2008) comes to an end? And if so, will he want to stick around, lurking in the shadows of the spotlight?

Though Federer added that he learned nothing new about his opponent in this loss or about his own game that he could try to improve - other than his first serve percentage (this despite 25 aces) - I noticed that on key points Federer tended to abandon his backhand to fall back on his most trusted and reliable weapon, that Hammer-of-the-Gods forehand, only to overhit it. It's almost as if subconsciously he felt that in a pinch he had to go for that extra something against his nemesis, Nadal-the-indefatigable-retriever.

Meanwhile, the reign in Spain continues to fall mainly on the Iberian plains...Nadal's win coming on the heels of his nation's victory over Germany in the Euro 2008 soccer championship. (By the way, was I the only one who noticed soccer fanatic Nadal shaking hands afterwards with Ramon Calderon, president of Rafa's favorite team Real Madrid?). But despite being on cloud nine, Nadal put his rivalry with Federer - one in which he now leads the Swiss maestro 12-6 in head-to-head play - in an existential perspective befitting the great Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo (1864-1936), when he said of Federer, "For me it is hard to have to play in same time as him, best player in history." Exactly! Think how many more titles he could have garnered playing in an era sans his Swiss rival. And think how many elusive French Open titles Federer - the world's second-best clay court player - would have amassed after making it to three finals at Roland Garros!

Federer could probably relate to Unamuno's world view that the deepest of all human desires is the hunger for personal immortality against all our rational knowledge of life. In other words, we know our limits, yet we still want to live forever and strive for perfection every time - be it in cheating death or winning Grand Slam titles. It's a tough pill for Federer to swallow to know that he is indeed, on a tennis court - even a grass court - mortal after all. He knows that, for Federer is a rational man. But as his courageous comeback yesterday proved, dreams - even impossible ones - die hard.

The king is dead, long live the new king. For Federer, who has been king for so long, here's hoping he can again find the motivation - other than his Quixotic quest to win the French Open - that he seems to have lacked this year. Nadal worked hard to improve his game after two finals defeats here. Now that Federer has been vanquished on his "home turf," perhaps he has a little more incentive next year for a Tolkienesque "Return of the King." And for Nadal? Strive for five.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yep. The greatest I've ever seen. Granted, I don't follow tennis closely, but this match was an amazing match. The torch has officially been passed.

3:00 PM  

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