Monday, July 09, 2007

when your opponent is history

I don't mean that figuratively. When one is playing well, beyond well, and the only players one matches up against are those from that sport's great past; one plays against history more than the man across the court.

Roger Federer knows Rafael Nadal is catching up. It showed yesterday during the Wimbledon final. In the 4th set Federer began to lose his cool, in a way not seen since his younger days. But Nadal took some injury time during that 4th set. And Federer sat there, used that time to gather his composure and focus. Federer was down 4-0 in that set but had a 2-1 set advantage. Unless Nadal couldn't stand up, the match was going to 5 sets.

In the 5th set, Federer seemed to be distracted, trailing 15-40 tied at one game apiece. But he channeled his wandering mind and returned to take the game to deuce and win with four straight points.

Again at 2-2 in the 5th set, again trailing 15-40, he came back to take it to deuce and win the game with another 4 straight points.

That seemed to be it for Nadal. He had Federer ready to be broken at 15-40 twice in that 5th set. Now down 3-2 in the 5th and having held serve for 22 straight games, the weight of playing against a giant was too much for even him to hold.

Federer finally broke Nadal's service. At the end of a return point where Federer hit approximately one hundred lines during his volley with Nadal, the final sideline shot was a return unreachable for Nadal and Federer let out a stream of joy. A sight of emotion usually reserved for those who are human, for those who have been pushed to their limit and have come out on top. It was a sight unseen on the grass courts of Wimbledon for the past 5 years. Roger had owned Wimbledon like a man playing against children. There was no joy in that.

But yesterday Federer, for the first time in a long time, was being pushed. His physical opponent across the net was a 21 year old phenom made from clay. His mental opponents were sitting in the stands watching him. His spiritual opponents were controlling the infallible technology from above and beyond.

At the end, when he was finally victorious, Federer let go. Crumbling to the ground having vanquished his opponents, he covered his face with his hands. Perhaps, at some point, he thought that his opponents would be too much for him.

It was understood that Nadal had the French but Wimbledon was Roger's. That was Roger's home. That was where Roger beat the immortal Sampras and broke Sampras' chance for 5 straight titles away. Perhaps he thought that Nadal has caught up to him as he had to Sampras, and that his chances at pure domination maybe fewer and far between. Who knows what thoughts pass through the minds of those standing on the precipice of history?

As the floodgates of emotion overwhelmed the stoic champion, he returned to his chair and took his time to put on his proper whites. Vest, jacket, trousers.

Nadal sat at his own chair, head down, sweat dripped hair hanging. You could see the thoughts forming in a bubble over his head, "this is what it feels like to lose when you've done enough to win. Remember this feeling Rafa, this is what you will use whenever you feel that you're good enough to win."

We, the audience, sometimes wonder what it would be like for two greats of the past to square off. Soon it may be understood that Roger Federer's greatness not only lay in the amount of majors that he won, but that he had to go through Rafael Nadal to do so.

When it's all said and done, yesterday will be the day that two greats from future's past squared off.

"In my opinion," Nadal said, "[Federer's] tennis level is the best in history."

That's 11 majors for Roger now, Tiger.

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