Sunday, June 21, 2009

Strokes of Genius

Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match of All Time

As the tennis world awaits the 2009 edition of "The Championships at Wimbledon," the Tennis Channel has been replaying - in its 4-hour and 48-minute entirety - last year's five-set final between Raphael Nadal and Roger Federer that has been called "The Greatest Match of All Time." (The Silver Medal in this category may well go to last year's five-set Australian Open semifinal between Nadal and his buddy Fernando Verdasco.) Though I know the stroke-by-stroke result by heart, I found myself compelled to watch this match over and over again - it never got boring to me. I was so inspired by this match that ended Federer's streak of 40 consecutive wins at Wimbledon and 65 consecutive wins on grass courts, I even purchased L. Jon Wertheim's book about it, Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played (2009), which I just finished reading last night (after once again watching parts of the 2008 final on the Tennis Channel!). It's not the greatest tennis book ever written - for my money that plaudit goes to John Feinstein's (shamefully/inexplicably out-of-print) Hard Courts (1991) and David Foster Wallace's brilliant tennis essays (especially "Federer As Religious Experience") - but it's pretty damned good and a fairly brisk read at 211 pages.

Reading about and rewatching Nadal's 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 triumph in the 2008 Gentlemen's Final at the All England Club also reminded me, and no doubt tennis fans everywhere, of what an anti-climax this year's Wimbledon almost surely will be. Rafael Nadal's withdrawal from the championships due to tendinitis in his well-worn knees means he won't be able to defend his grass court crown - only the second time that's happened in the last 35 years at Wimbeldon. Perhaps he's resting up to see if, in a year in which Federer finally won the French Open - the one major that's eluded him (or rather, been denied him by Nadal) - he can win the U.S. Open and equal his rival in achieving, like Agassi, the "Career Grand Slam" of all four majors: Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open.

Federer called Nadal's exit from this year's Wimbledon "very disappointing for the tournament, and also for myself. It's unfortunate. I'm sad for him, because it must have been a very difficult decision to make. I'd love to play him. He's my main rival. We've had some wonderful matches over the years, and especially the one here last year was the one that obviously stands out."

Federer said he knew something was up when, after Nadal congratulated him for winning the French Open, Federer asked him how he knees were. "He was, like, 'It's OK.' So I kind of knew it wasn't great, because he's very honest to me. So I knew something could be coming up."

Nadal: A Spain the Neck for Federer

Nadal is Roger's pounding headache that won't go away

Nadal and Federer represent the greateast rivalry in sports. Only Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe have met in more finals (20), with the pair having so far played 16 finals, with Nadal winning 11 titles and leading their overall matchup 13-7. So for Rafa to withdrawal he surely must be hurting. Likewise, I think Roger needs to battle his nemesis for these majors to have real meaning to him in his heart of hearts. These guys bring out the best in each other, like McEnroe vs. Borg or Ali vs. Frazier. Sure, Roger finally won the French Open, but he didn't beat Nadal to do it - he got help from the upstart Swede Robin Soderling. Thus, he didn't really avenge his 2008 straight-set thrashing at the hands of the mighty Majorcan - Federer's worst loss since he became No. 1 six years ago. And, for those keeping track, Roger's still "0-for" in his three most recent finals against Nadal (losing the 2008 finals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon and the 2009 Australian Open final in Melbourne - the one that drove him to tears). You see, Nadal is in Federer's head, whether Roger admits it or not. And, like Macbeth seeing Banquo's ghost, it must surely torment him. How else to explain blowing a 4-1 lead and losing 5 straight games in the second set of last year's Wimbledon finals?

Federer-Nadal: Making eye contact

Wertheim, to his credit, gets this aspect of the two champions' rivalry exactly right in Strokes of Genius, observing:
Vic Braden, the prominent tennis coach and psychologist, had recently attended a seminar given by Dr. Gerard Medioni, a University of Southern California computer science professor. Medioni spoke about the intelligence experts who use facial expressions to finger terrorists. Braden decided to apply similar techniques to tennis. After watching DVDs of Federer’s matches frame by frame, Braden noticed something unusual. Against all other opponents, Federer played with his eyes wide open, focused straight ahead, and his mouth turned upward. But when he faced Nadal—and only Nadal—he tended to frown and look downward. And it wasn’t just when he was losing. Braden saw that Federer assumed this facial expression even in warm-ups, before the match had started. Never mind the well-lubricated sports cliché that Nadal was “in Federer’s head.” He was in his face, too.
Heavy Mettle

But I have to take issue with one assertion in Strokes of Genius that I think Wertheim got dead wrong: that Roger someone lacks the warrior's love of battle. "The back alley is not Federer's choice milieu," Wertheim opines. "He'd rather soar than rumble." It's a softball variation on the same assertion that Mats Willander made years ago when he said something to the effect that Federer lacked Nadal's "balls." In Wertheim's words:
This is in no way a knock on Federer, but most athletes of his stature - Woods, Jordan, Tom Brady, Roger Clemens, Sampras, the Williams sisters - manage to supplement their physical gifts with the highest levels of competitive resolve. They are "killers" and "assassins" and "snipers" when they play...He wins not because of any "samurai mindset" or "killer mentality." He wins because of his genius.


Everyone assumes Roger wins by virtue of his genius, artistry or genetically-gifted skill. Hey, you don't win 14 majors on every surface, 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals (2005 Wimbledon - 2007 U.S. Open), reach 20 consecutive semifinals, 19 total Grand Slam finals, and be World No. 1 for 5 years without having the grit to match your talent. Of course, Werthiam didn't have the benefit of traveling to the future to see Federer come from two sets down against veteran Tommy Haas to reach the semi-finals of the 2009 French Open. I think Wertheim was a little too heavily influenced in his "fight-or-flight" analysis of the Federer mindset in the aftermath of last year's French Open final, when Nadal's complete dominance of Federer over three sets was assumed to be an indication of Roger throwing in the towel.

Federer: True Grit

I think he got it wrong, assuming somehow that just because few players outside of Nadal could press him (up until his "off" year of seeming "mere mortality" in 2008), he was somehow not up for a scrap. It's not his fault that most of his matches during the halcycon days of his 2003-2008 reign as World No. 1 looked so effortless. Listen, Rafa and Roger are the preeminent warriors of the game. As the Roddicks, Monfils, Gasquets, Djokovics, and Davydenkos retire from matches or drop out of tournaments, Roger Federer has never retired from a match in his career - ever - and Rafa has never retired from a Grand Slam match (though he did retire in the quarterfinal of the Paris Masters Series in 2008 against Davydenko, from the Cincinnati Masters Series 2nd round against Juan Monaco, and the quarterfinal of the Stella Artois Queens Club tournament against Leyton Hewitt in 2006). Basically, two men enter, two men leave. You have to drag them off the court and onto a stretcher for them to quit. That's balls for you, 'nuff said. Federer showed he had grit when he came back from two sets down at Wimbledon 2008 to force a dramatic fifth set and this year when he beat the unbelievable pressure of expectations at Roland Garros when everyone basically said, with Nadal out of the way, the title is yours. Easier said than done! Federer (like Nadal with his battered knees) has more than paid the cost to be the boss, and just because he doesn't have the obvious battle scars of long-term injuries or outbursts of emotion/temper should not be misconstrued to be a sign of reticence to fight for tennis glories. It's not a matter of mind over mettle - it's just another sign of his quality and pedigree.


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