Monday, July 7, 2008


And the Great London Circus.

There was a moment today, right before the rains came (the first time), when I had to take a deep breath to realize what we were witnessing. Rafa, who was favored by many to win Wimbledon, was taking out Roger like so much trash. And Roger – normally so brilliant at making adjustments – was totally windblown, completely off course. I can’t remember another time when the great champion looked so confused. He was about to lose in straight sets, and then all the whispers he’s heard all year (Federer has lost it, Nadal is better, Djokovic thinks he can be beaten, he won’t tie Sampras, Federer is through) would become roars. But the rains did come, and not a moment too soon. Would this be shades of the Andy Roddick final in 2005? Roddick, playing brilliant aggressive tennis, was tied at 1 set all, and up a break, looking like an upset winner. Something happened during that rain delay. Federer figured Roddick out and was unbeatable on grass for the foreseeable future.

The Championships had been nearly devoid of rain in 2008, so the storm clouds were fortuitous, perhaps even evidence that the gods favored Federer after all. Still, after the rain delay Federer would have to rally from two sets to love to become the first man in 100 years to win six straight at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club. Nadal was just two games from winning the match and becoming the first man since Borg to pull the French/Wimbledon double.Nadal had pushed Federer all over the court. When Roger came to net he was missing volleys, getting passed, looking hesitant. McEnroe’s little nugget about practicing with Rafa earlier in the tournament was instructive. Mac was surprised by the heaviness of Nadal’s ball, which was full of spin that stayed low to the ground, making it very difficult to volley effectively 

Roger was different right out of the box. . Instead of going to serve and volley, he picked up his serve and started lashing his forehand, dictating play, moving in when he had the chance. Federer's forehand was an incredible weapon. He won the third set in a tiebreak.

The fourth set tiebreaker was a marvelous example of grit, heart, guts and glory. It rivaled Borg and McEnroe’s 1980 epic. Nadal had two match points but Roger, like Borg, came up with the goods. Now they were even. How could Nadal, who sobbed in the locker room after last year’s five-set loss, stand to lose another heartbreaker? More importantly, could he keep himself from thinking about losing another heartbreaker? While everyone was pondering this, including Nadal, Roger started the fifth set in full flight. He had all the momentum, just as Rafa had the year before.
You want a piece of me? He seemed to say. You can’t have it. Come and get me Nadal.

The fifth set was a match all on its own. It included two rain delays – the last we would see on center court, as a new roof will be ready for 2009 – increasingly dark rain clouds and rapidly decaying light. And no tiebreak. The players would see it through until someone broke serve, even if that meant reconvening on Monday. Nadal played from behind that whole fifth set. Every time he was down 0-30 it felt like Roger would close the door. But time after time, Nadal steadied himself. When Rafa pressured Roger the same thing happened. He would not fold. Federer was going to make him pry that trophy from his cold, dead hands.

Neither man was a villain. On the changeovers the crowd was evenly split, simultaneously chanting "Roger! Roger!" and "Rafa, Rafa!"  People were in a frenzy, it was a religious experience, the closest most of us will get to speaking tongues. I paced around the living room while Cyclops looked on anxiously.

Finally, in the near dark, at the last possible moment before the dying of the light, Nadal broke serve. Fittingly, he still had to serve it out at 8-7. I thought about all the times all the tennis players all over the world had stayed on the court a touch too long, playing right up until dark, not wanting to go inside. When Nadal earned his third championship point Roger unleashed his best backhand of the day for a clean return winner. Maybe we would be seeing tennis again tomorrow after all. Then at last, Nadal finished it off, flashbulbs popping the way they did for Pete Sampras when he won his fourteenth, a spectacular sight. Nadal fell to the court in shock, the King deposed.

Long live the King.

Where Nadal rates as a tennis prodigy is overlooked because he toils in the shadow of The Mighty Federer. He seemed physically and mentally a man from the moment he burst onto the scene, winning his first French Open at age 18. With bulging biceps and massive energy, Nadal scared the hell out of half the field. Now with four French Open titles at just 22 years old, he still hasn’t lost at Roland Garros. During the last fifteen years we witnessed the rise of the tennis-version of the Spanish Armada, but those players didn’t really aspire to anything beyond the French Open. Sergei Brugera, Alberto Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrerro – all won in Paris. Yet they often skipped Wimbledon altogether and barely made a dent when they showed up. There were two exceptions to this rule. There was Alex Corretja, who more of a hard court player than a clay specialist. Alex went on to star in one of the most memorable matches in US Open history with his gut-wrenching five-set loss to Pete Sampras in 1996. And Carlos Moya, a French winner and fellow mellow Majorcan, who made the finals of the Aussie.

Unlike his predecessors, Nadal announced he wanted to win Wimbledon right away, and he meant it. Nadal's declaration was an awfully lofty goal considering what appeared to be the limitations of his game: big loopy groundstrokes, a soft serve, no net experience and a penchant for playing ten feet beyond the baseline. But Nadal proved to be an exceptionally quick study, and you could watch him improve at a rate that had to be alarming to the rest of the field. Flattening out his groundstrokes, bolstering his serve, discovering he had good hands at net, and bending the laws of physics to his will, Nadal made two Wimbledon finals. The first time he was overmatched (2006); in the second, he fought valiantly, making Federer step it up a notch to regain control and win in five; it was a modern classic (2007).

The third Wimbledon final for Rafa was destined to be a match for all time. From the moment Nadal humiliated Federer in the French Open final four weeks ago, the two were on a collision course – irresistible force vs. immovable object. Federer was the seemingly immovable object. Five straight Wimbledons. Success on all four surfaces. Roger was able to beat everyone in every type of tournament, fast or slow, big or small. He took on all comers and was frighteningly accurate. We watched many matches where Roger scattered a paltry ten unforced errors over three sets. We watched him transcend his sport and project himself into the sporting arena the world over, drawing comparisons with Tiger Woods. We watched him move without an entourage, traveling only with his girlfriend/business manager and a chef, a feat unheard of in this era of athletes and their traveling support groups and sycophants. The Mighty Fed even coached himself, mainly, with occasional support from coaches who only made it to tournaments a half dozen weeks a year.

But Roger’s 2008 has been dismal by his standards. He “only” made it to two grand slam finals and lost in the semis of the Australian. Playing virtually perfect tennis for more than four long years was unprecedented. He was bound to fall a little sooner or later, and there were miniscule cracks in his game in 2007. He started '08 year with mono, which he apparently played through. His Aussie Open loss was startling because he looked drained and almost resigned to his fate. Once the mono was disclosed most people thought the worst was over. There were other shocks to come – a loss to Pete Sampras in a spring exhibition match, losses to Mardy Fish (!!) and Andy Roddick (!) in Indian Wells and Miami. He rebounded at the French by making the final. The humiliation by Rafa was all the more startling because there were times when Roger hung his head, appearing to give up on the match.

Roger was anxious to put Paris behind him and head to the grass, telling the post-match interviewer that Nadal was just too good on clay at the moment, but reminding everyone (and himself) that he had beaten Nadal just as badly in the past. Then it was on to Wimbledon, where many had assumed Roger would be tying Pete Sampras’ 14-slam record this summer. Instead, the stage was set for what we saw today. It is an earthquake for men’s tennis, a seismic shift that heralds the beginning of a new era. Does this mean Federer is through? Hardly. His loss burnishes his reputation, probably more than a routine win would have. This is hard for Fed to believe now, but give him a decade and he may understand why I regard this as the finest match I have ever seen at Wimbledon, and probably anywhere else. After today no one can question Roger’s pride or his heart. However, Rafael Nadal is #1 for now. Roger will turn 27 soon. While not old even by tennis standards, time moves for no man. Regaining his ranking may not be in the cards.

You know who deserves an assist in these events? The man everyone (but me) loves to hate: Novak Djokovic. Joker doesn’t hide his ambition to be #1. He took the lead in piercing Roger’s aura by beating him in Australia and insisting on crashing the Nadal-Federer party. In this space six months ago I wrote that Joker’s rise puts more pressure on Nadal than Federer because Nadal hadn’t played well in six months and was looking a bit complacent. It wasn’t a given that he would be #2, let alone #1. So give Joker credit for breaking the logjam, although he better be prepared for more hard work. It’s suddenly getting pretty crowded at the top.

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