Monday, July 7

The Marathon Match

It seems fitting that my first post would come the day after one of the best championship matches I have ever seen. Many are quick to call this the greatest match they have ever seen. I had just entered the world when Bjorg and McEnroe had their epic match in 1981. Over the years I have witnessed Sampras and Agassi duel in five setters but in recent memory, no match comes close to this one. I sat watching and simultaneously hoping the conclusion would come before the last light and that the match would continue past the 16th game of the 5th set.

Rafael Nadal, the 22 year old Spaniard had been dueling with Roger Federer for years now. The two had been waged in an interesting battle where Nadal's lone achievement was the red clay of Roland-Garros. Nadal has never lost a match there in his four years and the past three denied Federer his chance at a career grand slam. The French Open was the one blemish on the record of Pete Sampras, who won 14 grand slam titles, more than any other male in tennis history. Federer, who once seemed destined and may very well eclipse that mark, does not want to share that distinction with Sampras. His friendship and commercial appearances with Tiger Woods put Federer into the category of transcendent worldwide athlete. If Roger wants to be recognized as in the same neighborhood as Tiger, he will have to claim the French Open at least once. Yet for the past three years Nadal had been the obstacle Federer could not overcome. This year, a month before their clash at Wimbledon, Nadal dispatched Federer in straight sets.
While Nadal was being hailed as the greatest clay court player of his generation, and perhaps ever, he wanted more. Failures to capture the other Grand Slam events would continue to label Nadal as strictly a clay court success. The lawn of Wimbledon was Federer's domain. Five straight titles, not to mention 65 consecutive wins on grass, were held by Federer who had a sub-par year (by his standards) coming into this year. Roger rolled through his opponents on his way to the final, not even yielding a set. Nadal, who fell to Federer last year, also failed to drop a set in his run.
It was a great scene from the beginning and Nadal won the first two sets before I could barely rub the sleep out of my eyes from the 9 a.m. start. Nadal looked supremely confident, and it was Federer, the master of grass (not insinuating anything there) that was the flustered one. He was slamming balls back across the court after points, glaring at the referee, and yelling to himself. His body language was like I had never seen from him, even at the French. He seemed to be thinking the same as many people were, "How can this happen to me on grass?" Whether it be called divine intervention, a twist of fate, or typical London weather the skies darkened and opened up with Federer leading 5-4 in the third. There was no possible way to turn it into a positive for Nadal. Coming out from the rain delay, the two held serve into a tiebreaker. Federer's record in tiebreakers far exceeded Nadal's and it showed. Federer served his way through the tiebreaker to claim it 7-5. The fourth set was the most entertaining. It led again to another tiebreaker but this time Nadal seized the advantage. Rafael held a 5-2 lead only to see Federer dig deep and tie it up which also could have been nerves by Nadal. At 6-6 Nadal rifled a forehand winner past Federer to gain Championship point. Incredibly Federer shot an backhand return winner past Nadal on the next point. Roger fended off another championship point and eventually took the set on a service winner at 10-8.
At this point Nadal had to be struggling mentally. Being ahead is one thing, but having a chance to close it out twice is another. The weather would simply not cooperate and another rain delay would occur at 2-2 in the final set. When the players returned they both seemed energized. This led to incredible shots by both men game after game. There would be no tie break for Federer in this set, one man would have to break the other, which was a fitting phrase was a fitting one as both men were refusing to yield ground. The match timer passed four and half hours, and the real time eclipsed 9 in the evening. With daylight fading and again clouds looming, the possibility of an extension to Monday seemed likely. But it would be Nadal who broke through, taking Federer's serve at 8-7 and then serving for the match. The resilient Federer fought off another match point to bring it to deuce, but slung a forehand approach shot into the net to give Nadal the victory. Nadal hit the ground and screamed in ecstacy, a complete role reversal from the previous years as it was the favorite pose of Federer laying on the lawn at the All-England Club in his five victories.
The trophy ceremony was held as the darkness fell over the court, but the light of the cameras and the clubhouse, kept enough light for both players to take a lap. The interviews were great from both men, who, not speaking English as a first language, did their best to find words to describe what had just occurred. Added to that was the emotion of the moment, which almost overtook Federer in his clubhouse interview with McEnroe. Nadal was class all the way but the real moment he showed his humility was when he called Federer the "greatest of all time".
This win, momentous on its own accord, could be the beginning of a new era of tennis rivalry. Many feel Nadal turned the corner and will now be a constant threat to Federer. However many contend that Federer will return only stronger in the coming months. The bottom line is that tennis needs both to be true. Tennis is an individual sport, it requires either strong personalities, or opposing greatness to be successful. Nadal and Federer can become this set of titans, as long as they play as they did Sunday, on all surfaces, for years to come.

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