Sunday, July 6, 2008

Advantage Nadal

Rafael Nadal versus Roger Federer. It was the greatest tennis match in history. I watched it and believe it. More importantly, John McEnroe said it. The longest match ever at Wimbledon, eclipsing the 4 hour 17 minute mark that McEnroe himself set in 1982 against Jimmy Connors. Fittingly, Mac was there to witness this one – an epic battle on the greatest grass in the world and one that dramatically crowned a winner at the last possible moment. The elements were creeping in the players’ minds all day – and evening – as they had to endure not one, but two, elongated rain delays and a flirtation with darkness that tested mental capacities of the two best male players in the world (and assuredly two of the supreme ever).

Merely a few break points separated Nadal and Federer, the former claiming more than the five-time champion’s one. After Nadal showed his Spanish muscle (6-4, 6-4) thanks to an all-around improved game that featured a sensational serve, powerful backhands, and a fresh and feisty forehand, the rains came in and twisted the tournament momentum. Federer regrouped (not to imply that he was crushed, only squeezed a bit by his ultimate foe) and took care of business with his sweet service game in the third and fourth sets, 7-6, 7-6.

The second of the temporary halts in play came in the fifth set when the players were at two games each. The natural question – who was to break first? Would it be the young and intense Nadal, who took Federer to the final round last year only to eventually succumb to Roger’s rule in London? Or would it be the man, the machine, that would hiccup and just miss his date with destiny and his sixth title at the All England Club?

Alas, Rafa made history, finding a way to hold the volatile door open with his fourth championship point on the line. Was it his youthfulness, his dozen swooshes perfectly aligned on his all-white gear, his patience and pesky time between points that allowed him to breakthrough and win the French and now Wimbledon in the same year – a feat, by the way, that had not been accomplished in more than two decades?! According to the soon-to-be new number one in the world, it was a new confidence, a sustained focus, and an ability to stay positive that separated him from the Nadal of last year. And it was also a decidedly frustrated Federer (between scarce points) that impacted the Swissman’s performance, not a sight that we are used to witnessing from the usually calm and emotionally unmoved champ.

What winners. Their respect for each other is refreshing. They are proof that a competitor can be aggressive and yearn for more titles, yet still maintain a maturity and dignity that forces even the fans and family of the loser to applaud the victor. When Nadal performed his “Lambeau Leap” into the mostly civil and serene stands, he was sincerely congratulated by both Federer’s father and longtime girlfriend in choice fashion. It was a breath of fresh air to feel that competition can continue between ultimate rivals and their camps. As McEnroe alluded to at the end of the engagement, maybe this will add to the popularity and admiration of these great athletes and their sport. It was surely a day that will go unmatched for some time.


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