Monday, November 29, 2010

Look Who's Back from the Dead, and Making Magic Again

All's well with the world -- somewhere.

Somewhere flags are flying, and somewhere children smile; life's worth living somewhere, and somewhere toil's worthwhile.

For a few brief shining moments Sunday, somewhere was London and what was well was tennis.

On the banks of the Thames, in a big muffin of a building punctured with toothpicks to see if it was done, they staged a world championship of significant sorts, a round-robin shoot-out among the ten best players on the planet to see who'd be the last man standing at the end of the year.

Appropriately, the No. 1 ranked player in the world stood on one side of the court. His name is Rafael Nadal and at 24, he's as boyish and naively charming as he was when, at 19 and wearing knickers, he first burst on the scene beating men many years his senior and supposedly many points his better.

Even more appropriately, the man on the other side of the court was named Roger Federer, and this was the real Roger Federer, the man whose grace and gifts had transformed tennis from sport to art form.  This was not the shabby impostor who had sunk  to No. 3 in the world during a dismal 2010.  Some angel, it turned out, had rolled back the stone sealing his crypt and from it had emerged, after the U.S. Open, the man who floated like a butterfly, stung like a bee and did things on the tennis court that no man had done before him. These things included winning more Grand Slam  championships than anyone and doing so while pulling off on the fly shots so improbable that neither names for nor descriptions of them existed.

In a tense, important Grand Slam match against a Top Five opponent, he ran back for a lob so deep that not even the world's fastest human, Usain Bolt, would have tried to run it down.  Federer not only got there, but hit a shot back between his legs.  A shot that not only cleared the net, but did so with enough pace, spin and accuracy to score a clean winner.  He did this in a tense, important Grand Slam match not once, but twice -- in successive years.

Once I watched him practicing on a side court at Indian Wells, CA.  He was playing points against a favorite practice partner, Gustavo Kuerten, himself once one of the top three players in the game.  Kuerten, still no slouch, ran down a penetrating Federer approach shot to the backhand corner and launched a good defensive lob.  At what seemed like the last second, Federer decided to try something I had never seen before, and have not seen since, which I can only describe as an overhead drop shot. Rather than kicking into the stratosphere, as most good overheads do, this one struck the court and died a quiet but brilliant death.  Neither Kuerten, nor Maria Sharapova, who was waiting  to take the court next, nor any member of her entourage, nor any of Federer's, nor any of the tennis aficianados watching, nor I, had ever seen anything like it.  Shouts of amazement ensued, catcalls at the audacity of this unheard-of trick,  challenges that not even Federer could repeat such a phenomenon.  Roger called upon  Kuerten to serve him another lob, whereupon Federer hit exactly the same shot with exactly the same result.

Early on in London, though he never lost a set, one could not be certain if one were watching an impostor -- albeit a very, very good impersonator -- or the real Roger.  In one match he was winning points launched by 88 mph first serves, causing his opponent to break several racquets in frustration, but suggesting either an impersonator or a refabricated Federer who used wile and spin  rather than matchless skill.

Turns out it was the real Roger, but one with wile and spin and tricks the younger Super Roger  may or may not have had, but never needed.  Like the drop overhead.

The real Roger won the championship match, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, granting the world's best player a glimmer of hope in the second set, then slamming the door with forehand winners, backhand winners, Edburgian volleys and Samprasian serves -- the kind of performance that only the maestro of the most complete game in tennis history could have mustered. Once, after breaking to win the second set, Nadal would have attacked Federer's backhand with massive topspin forehand drives until Roger's weaker stroke broke down.  Nadal chose exactly that strategy again Sunday.  Federer met the nuclear energy of Nadal's attack with topspin backhands even stronger than the missiles Nadal launched against him. 

"This," the rueful and ever classy Nadal said afterward, "was Federer at his best on his favorite surface.  Not much you can do against that, no?"

No. The ruling young monarch of tennis was only second best this day. The once and possibly future king has made it a rivalry again.

We need them both. Each is magnificent in his own way.  Nadal's youth and raw power.  Federer's grace and mastery of every nuance.  Both of them gracious and charming in victory or defeat.

And oh, such tennis.  Such wonderful, wonderful tennis.

 Welcome back, Roger.

"I cannot have spoiled Rafa's vacation today, " Federer said when accepting his trophy. "He has had a year most players only dream about."

One more very important tournament fast approaches: the first Grand Slam of 2011, the Australian Open.

Bring it on.

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