Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tennis Down Under: Another 'Greatest Match Ever"

Who, I wonder, will write the "greatest match in history" book about the Australian Open tennis final I just watched?

Someone has to do it.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia defeated Rafael Nadal of Spain, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 in just seven minutes less than six hours.  It was the longest championship match in a Grand Slam tournament since the phony line between "amateur" and "pro" was erased in 1968.

Searching for a metaphor as I watched, I kept reaching into the history of warfare. I imagined HMS Prince of Wales and the Bismarck side by side in the Atlantic firing every weapon they had at one another for nearly six hours.

But that doesn't capture it, either.  These battlers -- and battlers they are -- were motivated not by warlike animosity but by a fierce desire to be No. 1 in their sport.

Djokovic took that ranking away from Nadal last year, and now retains it. "Congratulations to Novak and his team," Nadal said afterward. "They deserve it. They are doing something fantastic, so congratulations."

Both players did "something fantastic" over and over again in this wonderful match that began in the dead of night and ended well past sunrise for watchers in the United States.  Nadal, whose ground strokes are so powerful that his fellow pros nicknamed him "Popeye," was hitting the ball three m.p.h. faster in the final set than in the first.  Djoklovic was hitting the ball just as hard, and deeper.  Nadal returned balls that no other human who plays the game would even have reached. Time and again the ultimate winner was caught by the TV cameras wearing a look of incredulity that seemed to say, "what kind of Superman is that?"

Was it only four years ago that the last "greatest match in history" was played on Centre Court in Wimbledon?  Nadal was there, too.   Roger Federer, then the No. 1 player in the world, and winner of five Wimbledon championships, lost in five sets and nearly five hours of incredible tennis. L. Jon Wertheim, a writer for Sports Illustrated magazine, wrote the book on that one, Strokes of Genius. Wertheim described the match as "a festival of skill, accuracy, grace, strength, speed, endurance, determination, and sportsmanship."

That was a match between contrasting styles: Federer, the ultimate master of the old tennis, graceful, deft, elegant -- Baryshnikov in Nikes.  Nadal, the new, strong, tireless hitter of topspin rockets and returner of unreachable shots with unmatchable force.  New won and Nadal became king of an era of the new kind of tennis.  No longer would the "T" of Wimbledon's grass be heavily worn over the fortnight by the split steps of the serve-and-volleyers.  Now the grass would go bare behind the baseline, where the New Breed with ever lighter but more powerful racquets slugged both backhands and forehands with bewildering spin and velocity.

Today's was a match between masters of the new tennis and the old king was banished, as Nadal banished Federer.  Djokovic beat Nadal at his own game, pinning him behind the baseline and grinding him down with a relentless barrage of deep, penetrating strokes.

How could they fire those cannons at one another and both remain standing after so long?  While the tennis popinjays in their linen suits prattled on and on before the trophy presentations, I suffered sympathy pains for the two contestants, squirming and stretching to battle fatigue and muscle cramps.  Finally someone brought them chairs and water.  Then, at last, they claimed the rewards for all their suffering.

If I had to wager, I'd bet the two will meet again in the finals in Paris in May, and Nadal will take his revenge on the court that he rules as Pete Sampras once ruled Wimbledon.

And then will come Wimbledon, the royal and ancient pinnacle of tennis.

Don't write that book yet, whoever you are.  The real new "greatest match in history" is yet to come.  I can't wait.

1 comment:

  1. I could not help but feel Nadal was left standing on court wondering and fumbling to find his wallet with a disillusioned look on his face as to say "did I leave it in the bag? the hotel? Mallorca? donde esta?". Rafa didn’t leave it anywhere, but Novak convinced him so. Rafa should have glanced towards Novak to find an answer the question. In fact, he was not robbed, but deftly convinced to concede his resources to his nemesis. The Australian Open final was the ultimate displace of diplomacy; a skill Nadal is loved for, but on this occasion Nadal was too eager to negotiate and too disposed to submit to his own internal voices.

    We heard respectful and diplomatic quotes and statements from Rafa throughout this Open in relation to his opponents and his nemesis. Perhaps Nadal was trying to reduce the pressure he felt to track down, take down, and vanquish Djokovic; perhaps, he on some level believes his own statements. I love Rafa for his sportsmanship and class, but Novak only holds as much power over Nadal as Nadals allows. In tennis you only play as good as your opponent allows you too. On multiple occasions Nadal’s unrequited sportsmanship and respect provided opportunities and more importantly a glimmer of HOPE to Novak. A glimmer was all Novak needed and he certainly did not provide the respectful pleasantries of ‘please and thank you’ to Nadal for the opportunities, he was afforded. As the new spring approaches, I hope Nadal finds himself allocating less respect to his opponents and more to himself. A little disrespect is in order and what a better place than Paris to serve a plateful to Novak!