Sunday, July 06, 2008

A Call to Glory in the Fading Light

Something extraordinary has just happened. You can tell by the intensity and rapidity of the flashbulbs in the fading evening light. But what is it?

They are the center of adoring attention. A young Spanish sports warrior with the heart of a lion hoists a golden cup, while a Swiss gentleman with a champion's poise and an artist's skills stands vanquished, just a few few away. What has happened here?

Something remarkable. For on a day that will stand alone in tennis history and the memory of anyone who experienced it, in a match of which its like will never be seen again, Rafael Nadal became the best tennis player in the world.

By defeating five-time defending champion Roger Federer 6-4/6-4/6-7/6-7/9-7 in the longest Gentlemen's final in Wimbledon history, Nadal became the first man to sweep both this tournament and Roland Garros in the same season in twenty-eight years, and with a single win removed the name Federer -- who should soon go down as the winningest grand slam champ of all time -- from his long-held perch atop the subjective list of the best players in the game. The "Big Two" (or "Three," if you count Australian Open champ Novak Djokovic) are still the same, but today there's a new monarch in town. Even if the transition of power isn't "official," King Rafa's reign has most definitely begun.

It's been a remarkable journey over the last three years, as Nadal has gone from being a vision in Federer's rear-view mirror to his equal to his SW19 conqueror over the course of a trilogy of Wimbledon finals. Once considered a clay courter, first and foremost, his 2006 run to the Wimbledon final was startling. At the time, no one believed that he could ever win the title. In 2007, he reached another final, though it's likely that Federer himself entered that match not quite believing that the Spaniard could get the best of him at his most favored tournament. As it turned out, he almost did, coming within a pair of tie-breaks and break points in the 5th set from pulling a monster upset a year ago. By the time this year's Wimbledon rolled around, even if he wasn't the chosen pick of EVERYONE to become the latest champion, that Nadal was indeed working toward an eventual title at the All-England Club was no longer in question.

The final obstacle blocking Nadal's rise to power turned out to be hardly as easy to overcome as it appeared it might be early in the day, but by the time the sun had set on the London skyline, July 6th, 2008 had become a day that we'll longingly look back upon years from now, marveling at the suspense it provided as it slowly unraveled a dramatic tale of a successful quest, as well as set up an intriguing test for a revered and respected champion.

After having the match's start delayed by rain, the first two sets of the match turned on what will go down as the missed opportunities -- of which Nadal would offer few -- that Federer will never forget. In the opening set, he played one bad early game. It resulted in a break that he was never able to recoup, even after carving out a break chance with Nadal serving at 5-4. In the 2nd, Federer was serving at 4-2 after what turned out to be his only break of Nadal's serve, but he couldn't hold his advantage. Nadal hustled for back-to-back service breaks of his own to take a 5-4 lead, then hold off another Federer break opportunity to serve out the set. Down two sets to love, Federer had only his second meeting against Nadal in Miami in 2005 (where he'd come from 0-2 sets down to win in Nadal's first hint of what was yet to come) from which to draw encouragement, but it didn't seem to matter. Errors prevented him from converting break chances at 3-2 in the 3rd, and he barely scraped by by saving three break points on his own serve soon afterward. But then, at 5-4, the rain returned, and Nadal's silent palace coup became a bloody, epic struggle.

In a match with several distinct divisions, largely brought about because of rain delays that were as necessary for us to catch our breaths as they were for the players to reorganize their thoughts and right themselves in order to produce a legendary match, the one constant aspect of every moment was the history that dripped from each shot. Every break point felt monumental. Every held serve was a chance for the server's backers to breath a little easier for a minute or two. With Federer trying to outpace the in-attendance Bjorn Borg's shared mark of five straight Open era titles, and Nadal attempting to match the Swede's 1980 sweep of slam titles in Paris and London, the normal weight given to each important moment in a Wimbledon final was increased exponentially the deeper into the night the two men played. The possibility of an all-time great being replaced at the top of the sport by what could possibly be another all-time great in a discernible changing-of-the-guard moment has a way of producing such edge-of-your-seat tension.

With Federer fighting to overcome the imps and naysayers that have dogged even the greatest in the history of the game (there's a reason no one has won six straight titles since Wimbledon champions ceased being automatically placed in the final the next year), the man who will likely one day soon be the sport's all-time slam champion would not go down without a fight -- the depth and size of which turned out to be even bigger than anyone had ever realized despite his longstanding brilliance, an understandable occurrence since there'd never really been reason for it be unveiled before this July day of his twenty-sixth year. Meanwhile, as Nadal stood on the brink of an accomplishment that would secure him a measure of tennis immortality at just age 22, the ghosts of Centre Court and Mother Nature seemed to be brainstorming for new ways to conspire against him.

But the Spaniard stared down them all.

After nearly ninety minutes of weather-related down time, Federer returned with a renewed focus and game plan. By moving forward into the court and ramping up his serve and forehand (especially the inside-out variety), Federer managed to keep pace with Nadal, who continued to run down seemingly impossible-to-reach balls and firing back shots with equal power from both wings. Federer won a 3rd set tie-break to stay alive, and forced another in the 4th after neither man could break the other's serve during the entire stanza. Up 5-2 in the tie-break, Nadal suddenly tightened up. He double-faulted and lost two points on serve, causing him to momentarily consider an uncharacteristic slamming of his racket on the ground. When Federer saved two championship points at 7-6 and 8-7, then forced a 5th set by winning 10-8, it looked as if he might be able to maintain his Wimbledon dominance, after all. He might have, too, had the rain not returned yet again.

After seizing control of the deciding set in the final a year ago, Federer could never do so this time around. A twenty-four minute rain delay at 2-2 seemed to re-focus Nadal on the task at hand. He prevented Federer from getting his second break of the match when he had a shot at 4-3, firing a 124 mph serve and smashing an overhead. As the clocked ticked to and past nine o'clock in the evening, Federer would serve first, barely holding with clutch serves and rescuing games in which Nadal took early leads (Nadal had two break points at 5-5, and led 30/0 at 6-6). The Spaniard never cracked, but Federer finally did under Nadal's intense pressure, which often caused the defending champion to hit two or three "winners" in a point in order to actually claim it.

At 7-7, after going down 15/40, Federer saved three break points but, when a forehand sailed long on the fourth, Nadal finally got the chance to serve for the match. This time, he didn't succumb to the pressure of the moment or Federer. After Federer saved a third match point, the relentless Nadal created yet another opportunity to claim the championship. When Federer hit a forehand return into the net, the match was finally over at 9:15 pm, more than six hours after it had been scheduled to begin, and after four hours and forty-eight minutes of action.

King Rafa had been born on Centre Court.

Nadal earned his ascension to the throne by dueling with Federer in the greatest, most important slam final in recent memory and smiting the graceful gentleman beast with a combination of grit, style and humility befitting a player capable of being compared in every way to the player who has won the awe-inspiring and complete respect of every living great who's ever seen him strike a ball within the confines of a tennis court.

Hmmm... now that I think about it, scratch what I said about looking back on this date and marveling. Who needs the future? We can marvel at this match right now.

It'd be hard to believe that anything that these two could ever produce together could duplicate what happened in this match. With so much at stake, under such unique and trying circumstances at what is rightfully seen as the most grand cathedral that the sport has to offer, what could possibly top it? What could happen between Federer and Nadal after today that would raise the stakes even more than they were at this moment in time?

Oh, pray we find out.

Even with all the memories this match provided, maybe the one I'll hold onto the longest is what happened after it was over. The flashing light that surrounded Nadal and Federer, reflecting dazzlingly off their well-earned hardware while the dark was beginning to envelop everything else on Centre Court, was a sight of great beauty.

And the fact is that we'll never see this sight again.

With the arrival of a retractable roof next year, never again will the weather wreak havoc on a Singles final like it did (ultimately) so wonderfully with this one. While the drama and length of this match may one day be met or exceeded (as difficult as it is for that to be believed right now), it'll never be drawn out over the course of an entire day, with momentum changing due to the whims of storm clouds and well-timed showers. Instead, it'll end on schedule, during the day.

It's actually sort of... sad. Or not.

The roof is a great thing, but for a brief moment it's easy to mourn the passing of the era in which something like the sight we witnessed today is possible.

But I'm sure the first rain delay at Wimbledon '09 will take care of that moment of insanity.

Of course, what this match and all the reverberations that ultimately ring out from it over the remainder of '08 and beyond, will mean will depend on what happens next. Already, Federer and Nadal have met in fourteen tournament finals (fifth all-time), and six times in the deciding matches of grand slams (more than any other duo). Their friendly but fierce rivalry has already produced an impressive collection of achievements that have been elusive for even the most compelling adversaries the men's game has been able to produce in it's long history.

But if we've learned anything over the years, it's that we should never just assume that great rivalries will continue to produce great moments. Sometimes, they simply fade away. For all kinds of reasons, it may never be as good as this again.

Borg's legend hung over this match like a specter, and he could surely appreciate the drama of it all from a different perspective, having lived through a similar experience from Federer's vantage point against a young John McEnroe in 1980, when he barely held off the charging American in the "other" epic Wimbledon final of the last thirty years, and 1981, when he was finally forced to bow to Johnny Mac's abilities. Borg walked away from the sport months later, an act which Federer isn't likely to replicate.

Whatever comes next, though, will forever be bound to what just happened at Centre Court. It will either signal the ultimate rise of Nadal the Great as he fully eclipses Federer, or it will kick-start the next great chapter of Federer's career, as he battles to discover a way to find an answer to the man who took everything King Roger had to offer on the playing field he holds most dear... and still managed to defeat him.

Federer, version 2.0, will no longer have the aura of invincibility that the original did. That era ended the moment that Nadal lay spread eagle on his back on the worn lawn behind the baseline today, celebrating his accomplishing of the unthinkable that two years ago seemed an impossibility but had since, with each passing month, started to resemble something of a fait accompli. Federer can become a great champion again, maybe even before the arrival of fall (he's the four-time defending champ at the U.S. Open, remember), and even the "greatest ever." But even as he would, the question, "What About Rafa?," would be part of the conversation.

While Nadal still has one more hurdle to clear by claiming a hard court slam in New York or Melbourne, Federer's next move might be even more intriguing. Everyone wondered how he'd respond to his thorough destruction in Paris. We found out -- he didn't back down from Nadal's challenge, even if he didn't prevail against it. But the lingering effect of giving his all on his favorite battleground, and it still not being enough, will be something to watch. He admitted after the final that this loss "hurt."

He's never been in this place before.

The post-Wimbledon '08 phase of Federer's career, when he is not just no longer the unquestioned #1 player but generally considered #2 (until further notice, at least), will allow him to recast himself in the role of an avenger. If this match is any indication of what lengths he's willing to go to to reclaim his throne, Federer likely has some more surprises up the sleeve of that cardigan he took to wearing when he walked onto the court at this Wimbledon.

We'll soon see what he's made of... again.

As for Rafa, we already know what he's made of: whatever magical combination is it that produces the best tennis player on the planet.

#7 Venus Williams/USA def. #6 Serena Williams 7-5/6-4

#2 Rafael Nadal/ESP def. #1 Roger Federer/SUI 6-4/6-4/6-7/6-7/9-7

#11 Serena Williams/Venus Williams (USA/USA) def. #16 Lisa Raymond/Samantha Stosur (USA/AUS) 6-2/6-2

#2 Daniel Nestor/Nenad Zimonjic (CAN/SRB) def. #8 Jonas Bjorkman/Kevin Ullyett (SWE/ZIM) 7-6/6-7/6-3/6-3

Samantha Stosur/Bob Bryan (AUS/USA) def. #1 Katarina Srebotnik/Mike Bryan (SLO/USA) 7-5/6-4

Laura Robson/GBR def. #3 Noppawan Lertcheewakarn/THA 6-3/3-6/6-1

#9 Grigor Dmitrov/BUL def. Henri Kontinen/FIN 7-5/6-3

#6 Polona Hercog/Jessica Moore (SLO/AUS) def. Isabella Holland/Sally Peers (AUS/AUS) 6-3/1-6/6-2

Hsieh Cheng-Peng/Yang Tsung-Hua(TPE/TPE) def. #3 Matt Reid/Bernard Tomic (AUS/AUS) 6-4/2-6/12-10

4:48...Nadal def. Federer. 2008
4:16...Connors def. McEnroe, 1982
3:56...Borg def. McEnroe, 1980

6...Federer vs. Nadal
5...Agassi vs. Sampras
5...Lendl vs. Wilander
4...Borg vs. Connors
4...Borg vs. McEnroe

65...Roger Federer, 2003-08
41...Bjorn Borg, 1976-81
23...John McEnroe, 1980-82
23...Pete Sampras, 1994-96
23...Pete Sampras, 1998-00

20...Lendl vs. McEnroe
16...Agassi vs. Sampras
16...Becker vs. Edberg
15...Connors vs. McEnroe
14...Federer vs. Nadal

All for now.

ON MONDAY: "Odds & Ends Between London and New York," with a 3Q Hard Court Season preview, Ms. Backspin update and Week 28 picks
ALSO THIS WEEK: Grass Court Awards


Blogger Diane said...

It was an incredible match. The rain delays, the tension, the momentum changes, the darkness. It will be a while before something like that happens again.

As much as I like Rafa, I was inconsolable when Roger lost.

Wed Jul 16, 10:28:00 PM EDT  

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