Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Strive for 5

Federer Wins 5th Straight Wimbleton
in Wagnerian Epic

Federer & Borg: In an Exclusive Club
Roger Federer was pushed to the limit in this Sunday's Wimbleton final against his nemesis Rafael Nadal and the tennis world is better for it. It may not have been Borg-McEnroe 1980, but it was certainly one for the ages, a 3 hours and 45-minutes clinic in tennis excellence that finally turned to one man's favor over the course of six decisive minutes in the fifth set. It was also the second consecutive Wimbleton final pitting the World's No. 1 and No. 2 players against one another and for added drama it featured Federer trying to equal Bjorn Borg's record of five straights Wimbleton titles, not to mention Rafael Nadal trying to be the first man since Borg to win the French Open and Wimbleton back to back.

Federer won it in a nail-biting 5-setter that could easily have gone the other way. The clash of the tennis titans featured two tie-breakers, soul-sapping line-calls and a spate of Nadal serving holds that looked like it wouldn't be challenged until the wind finally came out of his sails in the final set. In that set, Roger the Dodger got two breaks - and saved two potential breaks of his own serve when down 15-40 each time - to win a deceptively close final set and the match at 7-6 )9-7), 4-6, 7-6 (7-3), 2-6, 6-2. Federer served first in the last set and was up 2-1 (after being down 15-40) and then 3-2 in a huge fifth game (once agagin down 15-40 before winning four straight points to finally snatch the game away) when the match turned on only his second break of the match at 4-2. Roger held serve and got his third break (on only six chances the entire match) to pull away 6-2 in the final frame. Take away those two 15-40 holds of serve, and Nadal hoists the Wimbletown trophy (and Roger knows it!)

The scary news for Federer, who improved his record against Rafa to 5-8, is that Nadal - who owns Federer on clay - is now pretty much his equal on grass. He's no longer just a clay court king. Roger had the luxury of a solid week off before the final, thanks to his walkover win over an injured Tommy Haas, while Nadal had to play 5 straight days just to finish one match - and still looked fresh on Sunday! I think Nadal would have won with a little more rest; it was he who looked more steady on serve, despite some 24 aces from Federer to his lone 1, and the Spanish baseliner was coming to net and showing some amazing volleying skills when he needed to.

When Federer got his overhead winner to put Nadal away for the championship, he dropped to the ground in tears. It brought tears to my eyes, too, for this was more than just a tennis match. It was like a Wagnerian opera, epic in proportion, full of angst and glory, yet always tinted with the pallor of sadness, the realization that one man's triumph was another's soul-doubting tragedy. Since his French Open loss to Nadal, Federer had an existential crisis - realizing his mortal limitations in the face of his will-to-triumph and his desire for the one crown that had eluded him - and had been more melancholy than Hamlet moping around the palace, even withdrawing from a Wimbleton tune-up grass toutrnament. He even admitted his frustration, the pernially confident onetelling the press, "Put it any way you want to. I am very disappointed."

Now Nadal looked the same way as Federer at the French Open final. Spent and openly disappointed. What a great rivalry. Two warriors of the spirit with the utmost respect for one another - Federer telling Nadal at the net after the final point, "You deserved this championship today as well"- who continue to bang their heads against the wall of life's limitations, as found in the opponent they see on other side of the net. This was sport at its grandest, a battle of wills and human spirit seeking resolution within the parameters of time, place, history and desire.


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