Monday, July 7, 2008

The Greatest Sporting Event Ever

There is no comparison. No metaphor, no debate, no polls.
What happened yesterday in the men's singles final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal was the most stunning athletic display I have ever seen. From the slow buildup over the past few years, accelerating this summer into yesterday's cataclysmic 5 hour collision, the tennis world and the way I watch sports will never be the same.
The spectacle was so huge, the competition so intense, the level of play so high, the ramifications so far reaching; it is going to take some time for everything to really sink in.
This was 5 sets of the most spectacular drama: jaw-dropping shotmaking, incredible speed, unbreakable fitness, opportunities missed, and in the end, immortality seized.
This is not just about Rafa winning Wimbledon for the first time or Federer losing another Grand Slam, this is about two men with the highest level of respect for each other putting everything on the line in fair competition. This is the closest our society will ever come to bloodsport, because neither of these men will ever fully regain all that they gave yesterday.
This was also one of the rare moments where sport became high art, because the exertions of both competitors under the most grueling conditions with so very much at stake was truly beautiful to behold. The surreal nature of the match's climax added the perfect accent, the sun setting in a clear sky, darkness rolling in. Transition.
And a transition is just what we saw. The passing of the torch, or trophy, as it were, as Federer turned over a title he had held for half a decade to a man who had proved himself worthy on every level.
It took every ounce of will, heart, fitness and talent from both men to get to that spot. There were 2 rain delays to work through. Each had to deal with tremendous opportunities wasted (Federer up 4-2 and serving in the second set, Rafa serving at 5-2 in the 4th set tiebreaker and double-faulting) They had to deliver their very best punches at the biggest moments, and take the hardest blows of the other.
Federer had to find a way to overcome the near-complete neutralizing of his backhand as an offensive weapon, and he rode a huge serve and the greatest forehand in the history of the game right to the precipice of victory. Ironically, it was the forehand that let him down in the final moment as he became Wimbledon runner-up for the first time.
For Rafa, it was steeling nerves that were clearly rubbed raw in the fourth set tiebreaker, and managing to grind through in the end. His unbelievable speed turned danger into offense again and again. From court positions that made me shudder, Nadal would blast crosscourt backhands and forehands down the line, would transition from defeat to victory.
They went back and forth, asking everything of themselves and their opponent, and we just had to hold on for the ride. My heart was pounding, my breathing was fast, I had to pee but I couldn't break away. I watched history write itself, I saw the stuff of books, of legends, of people saying "remember that final?" I was thousands of miles away from the action, yet felt privileged to be a part of it.
I held on with everyone else as these two slugged it out on equal footing, and saw that just as the victor was far from inevitable, so was the idea that the match might finish before sunset. There are no lights at Wimbledon, so the idea that we might have to wait until today for a finish became quite real.
With only moments to go before play would be suspended by darkness, Nadal cracked Federer's serve for only the 4th time, then took the match onto his own racket. As if to show us just how far he's come, that he deserved to be Wimbledon champ, Nadal served and volleyed at 0-15, then hit another volley winner at 15-all.
Rafa closed out his masterpiece 5 set triumph by dropping to the ground amidst the roaring crowd, then rose to meet the man he had vanquished at the net. The interaction there was telling, because both have the utmost appreciation and respect for what the other went through and was feeling.
For Rafa, he was higher than he has ever been, higher even than Spanish royalty, who had to reach up to shake his hand as he climbed through the stands. For Federer, the devastation and loss he felt was clear, as the same tears he shed last year in victory welled up again in defeat. As he spoke with John McEnroe, the interview had to be cut short as the emotion cut across his face.
When the two warriors met again to receive their trophies, their conduct towards each other, towards the fans, and the game itself left me feeling proud to be a tennis player and unending fan of these two men. They spoke respectfully of each other and still showed how much the moment meant to them in both victory and defeat.
As Federer and Nadal turned to face the crowd in the gathering darkness, we beheld the passing of the championship and saw this contest supersede anything that had come before. In the final transition, night became day as the lights from thousands of flashbulbs drenched the men in a molten, surreal glow. The perfect final touch; because suddenly, there were lights at Centre Court illuminating the greatest that sports can offer.

1 comment:

Jenny Weddel said...

I have been eagerly awaiting your post on this, and have been afraid to e-mail you about it, not knowing if you had to work and watch it on delay or something! It was beyond amazing, and a complete privelege to watch.