George A. Magalios
July 8, 2008
In the heat and deathly humidity of Florida after seemingly interminable practices (for my 12 year-old body) my little league baseball coach used to say that people only remember who finishes first, and nobody ever remembers who finishes second. In most cases, I agree with this statement for many reasons, particularly as it succinctly articulates the bottom-line ethos of competition: win and you have everything, lose and you have nothing. This is one of the cruel realities of sports: the winner-take-all value system that, like all competitions, is a metaphor for war, where the victor achieves the ultimate glory: adulation from his/her peers, and the vanquished succumbs to a symbolic death: forgetfulness, maybe even scorn and pity. But there are rare moments in sports when a dignified and courageous battle for victory transcends this all-or-nothing equation and becomes a testament to achievement, struggle, honesty, humility, respect, and piety, when glory shines down on both parties of a memorable contest.
Such was the case in the 2008 men’s tennis final at Wimbledon between Roger Federer, the Swiss five time defending champion, and Rafael Nadal, the Spanish upstart and Federer’s principal rival. The match was eagerly anticipated for many reasons: Roger Federer was attempting to become the first man to win six straight championships in the Open era during, what was for him, a sub-par season; and Rafael Nadal, the muscular and impossibly tough French Open champion was attempting to become the first man to win championships at Paris and Wimbledon in the same year since Bjorn Borg accomplished the feat three years in a row from 1978 to 1980. Perhaps already the greatest tournament in tennis, due in no small part to the fact that it is the only major tournament played on grass courts, the only tennis tournament that is not tainted by corporate ads on its courts, and the only major tournament to forego a tiebreak in the fifth and deciding set thereby forcing a player to win the set, and therefore the match, outright by two games, this year’s Wimbledon carried with it an extra sense of historical weight and impending drama because of what was at stake and how differently these two players approached the game. Federer, the elegant and efficient champion who plays with laser precision and the grace and dignity of fairy prince against Nadal, the superbly athletic and humble lefty who brings to tennis, indeed to all of sports, a tenacity and will to win that is as rare as it is awe-inspiring.
What transpired will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it: the final score 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 in Nadal’s favor only tells a small part of the story. But a quick count of the number of games won by Federer (29) begins to reveal the sheer greatness of this match. Twenty-nine games won and Federer still lost! Or, to put it another way, Nadal had to win 33 games to claim his first Wimbledon championship! Another statistic: 209 total points won by Nadal to 204 by Federer, an unbelievably microscopic difference after five sets of superhuman tennis that provides the numerical evidence to back up the emotional intensity of what was evident to anyone watching. For this was more than a sporting event, it was a glorious, honorable, and righteous contest of intelligence, physical prowess, and psychological resiliency. It was glorious because of the mutual respect shared by both players, a respect that was never tainted by their wills to win.1 It was honorable because of the humility and kindness of both players regularly exhibited throughout their careers both on and off the court and continued in this match. It was righteous because of the piety, the honor each player displays to the gods of sportsmanship and tennis every time he takes the court.
Adding to the poetry of the event was the changing state of weather and the process of day turning into night: The match was delayed three times, lasted over seven hours, and was threatened with delay due to the onset of nightfall. It was as if the gods and goddesses of wind, rain, sun, day, and night all did battle amongst themselves like the Olympian gods battling it out amongst those who supported the people of Troy and those who supported The Greeks in the Trojan War.
Ultimately the gods on Nadal’s side prevailed, but not without an effort of unspeakable determination, resilience, and daring by the Swiss champion. Even though he was playing uphill and from behind the entire match, Federer’s ability to bounce back from the brink of defeat with sizzling forehands and devastating serves screamed one thing: I am a great champion! I will not bow down easily! After being obliterated by Nadal in last month’s French Open final, one had to wonder how Federer would respond, especially after losing the first two sets and appearing to be on the verge of a straight sets defeat where he had previously not lost a set the whole tournament. But Federer’s remarkable resolve in winning, not one, but two consecutive tiebreaks, the second while saving three match points with shots that will forever go down in tennis lore, demonstrated the pride and heart of a champion, not to mention some unbelievable skill. With each incredible forehand, serve on the line, running backhand down the line, I would scream and make primal sounds and short words like: goalkd, ahhaguy, and jeeezeqwow. Watching Roger Federer’s performance made me want to invent a new language, a new way of communicating the extremes of awe, joy, nervousness, angst, fear, and hunger that I was experiencing as someone who is a Federer fan a part-time tennis player and a former athlete. In my entire life I have never been so enthralled and so nervous watching a sporting event.
But I am also a Nadal fan, which is why I was telling myself that no matter the outcome, I would be pleased because I knew that Nadal would make a worthy champion, as Federer himself said after the match. Nadal’s machine-like precision and consistency kept the pressure on Federer the entire match and were the ultimate difference. With his speed, quickness, and agility, not seen since the likes of Borg and perhaps McEnroe, Nadal was able to track down and return shots from impossible positions and angles that surely must have frustrated the defending champion. When your opponent returns just about everything you hit at him with powerful counter-punches, it is disheartening and must have contributed to the unusually high number of unforced errors committed by Federer, many on shots that seemed very make-able.
In the end these two heavyweights of tennis entered and left the match, like two warriors in an ancient battle who raised the level of professional competition to another realm of philosophical and spiritual purity and in doing so, demonstrated, both as individuals and as a tandem, an unrelenting will to achieve that never devolved into the arrogance and self-indulgence that is all-too-common among professional athletes today. Just pay close attention to the appalling egocentric garishness of footballers, basketball players, and many in the NFL and you will see what I mean. What make Federer and Nadal superior are not solely their tennis abilities, perhaps the greatest of their generation. It is the way they combine their physical skills with grace, humility, and dignity, their ability to maintain a high standard of respect and professionalism that far transcends sporting culture and reaches into realms of life that teach us all how to live with struggle, victory, and defeat in a wise and graceful manner. For after all, this is what sport teaches us: how to achieve and how to live with and ultimately accept life’s daily successes and failures and hence, to live wisely. It is this combination of traits, this wisdom that makes Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal philosophers of sport.
This is why this was no ordinary tennis match: not just because its level of play and sportsmanship were god-like, but also because the two players themselves, embody many of the ancient ideals of athletic competition: piety, honor, respect, and fairness. During their unforgettable play, with all of the historical implications in the balance, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal reached transcendental heights in both their respective play and their respective demeanor. In having done so they teach us all to be champions. For this lesson, and the memories of the glorious match, I say thank you.
1Witness the events after the match: the way the players congrtulated each other with warmth in light of their respective shock of having played the best match of both their lives, the way both players took the time to acknowledge the support of the crowd by circling Centre Court (something I have never before seen as it is customary for the winner to take a victory lap, and the loser to sit quietly and respectfully), the way Federer accepted his second-place trophy with a smile and a sense of pride I have never before seen in a runner-up, the way both John McEnroe and Federer were breaking into tears during an interview, the way Nadal called Federer “the greatest player ever” during the presentation ceremony, and so forth. What was especially moving about the interview between John McEnroe and Roger Federer was McEnroe’s gratitude. He thanked the Swiss great for raising the game of tennis to such heights and for his competitive spirit when all seemed lost, at which point both players began to cry and the interview ended. This is especially fascinating considering how rude, arrogant, belligerent, and selfish McEnroe so often was in his playing days and further demonstrates the grace, wisdom, and empathy he has now achieved as a commentator who dearly loves and respects the game of tennis.