Even the greatest match ever didn't get Americans interested in tennis again.
Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played, by L. Jon Wertheim (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $24.00)
Tennis has long played a major role in my sporting life. Seriously.
A serviceable high-school second-doubles player, I had a John-McEnroe-like temper but a un-McEnroe-like skill set. From my time as a summer-of-1989 exchange student in Spain, I don’t recall much about the Real Madrid soccer match I personally attended, but I vividly recall seeing Boris Becker win Wimbledon on my host family’s TV.
Fast forward to my European return in ’96. It was August, so The Championships were over, but neither Big Ben nor Parliament was of primary interest. Hopping a train and ambling through a hilly village to lay eyes upon historic Centre Court was. Seeing the scoreboard, even turned off, left me awed. I snapped a roll of film and left with a green-and-purple All-England Tennis Club hat. (I lost the hat in Amsterdam a couple days later, but the pics are still with me.)
Thus, it saddens me that the sport has drifted so far from American consciousness that some folks may know “that Andy guy who dated, whatshername, Mandy Moore” is a pro, but not that his last name’s Roddick. (They’d probably win on Tennis Jeopardy, sadly.)
What I appreciate most about tennis aren’t the physical elements (though Becker’s diving about the court is both what first drew me in and bruised me up). It’s the psychological side of everything from amateur knockarounds to professional ranks. On the court, there’s nobody to blame but yourself and no coaches to offer advice. It’s mano-a-mano (or womano-a-womano); only the mentally stronger survive a given day. It’s competition at its purest, bared for all to see, sometimes cruelly but generally tactfully. A cordial war.
And at no point in the tennis history has that been clearer than last July 6.
Roger Federer, the unquestioned No. 1 player was pursuing the all-time record for Grand Slam tournaments won (actually, coasted to). He faced budding rival Rafael Nadal, who was becoming increasingly successful at getting in Federer’s way and staking his claim to the "Best in the World" title.
I’ve long had difficulty picturing how a single sporting event translates into a compelling book, Ali fights or future Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowls notwithstanding. But tennis? It’s hard enough to describe what hitting the optimal shot feels like, let alone how someone else experienced doing so. Seven hours on the edge of my couch that summer Sunday took care of the translation, though.
Suffice it to say, I was amped to dig into Sports Illustrated senior writer L. Jon Wertheim’s attempt to chronicle the intricacies of what quickly took the mantle of Greatest Match Ever Played. The 206-page book’s subtitle is an accurate depiction of what he delves into: both players’ histories and performances that day, and how the match played out in person both on the court and in the cramped locker room, before, during and after the match.
Quasi-spoiler time: After five sets that lasted nearly as many hours and two rain delays that brought dark skies before the match ended, the young Majorcan defeated the established Swiss Mister. The latter, who was seeking a record-setting sixth consecutive Wimbledon title, was driven to tears after being dethroned at the site of his last stranglehold on the sport. (After all, just two years ago, tennis aficionados wondered whether he would ever meet his match.) The former gracefully didn’t take the celebration into the locker room where his opponent bemoaned his newfound fate as second best. It was a compelling, back-and-forth showdown that even McEnroe said “was the greatest match that I ever witnessed,” a title once given to his 1980 Wimbledon victory over Bjorn Borg.
Wertheim does a splendid job capturing the athletic event’s minutae. The 14-stroke first rally. The marked lack of obnoxious advertising signage. The science behind the replay technology, racket stringing and Nadal’s aching leg to players’ body language and tics (including those that led Federer into uncharacteristic mini-tantrums). Tennis’ extensive drug testing. And Federer’s not clearing the net on Championship Point after 9 p.m. London time.
Stories from their upbringings go a long way to explain why Federer is seen as an almost-regal artiste while Nadal is viewed as a rough-and-tumble wheelhouse of overpowering strength, but also why they’re cordial to foes, media and fans alike.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who loathes either player as disrespectful or arrogant. (Though, to be sure, Federer supporters may have a healthy distaste for “Rafa” since he’s owned the rivalry since 2006.) The two seem to genuinely respect and like one another, a dynamic considered rare if you’re used to America-only sports. (Full disclosure: I’m a Nadal guy, but most Americans aren’t.)
Having gathered a lot of inside details, the book offers depth and intensity to what was a deeply intense event. If I had to complain about something, and it’s probably just me, some aspects depended on observation and impression rather than the science of mentality. I finished the book knowing what they went through physically, but I would have liked to have Federer and Nadal delve into their mindsets during the match. Alas, that’s probably too much to ask for because of everything else we got out of a five-set tennis match.
Writes Wertheim: “Tick off the Classic Sporting Event checklist and this match had it all – skill, courage, sportsmanship, grace, discipline, gallantry, poise, intelligence, humility, injury, recovery, fibrillations of momentum, even acts of God.”
But, was it compelling enough to garner widespread American interest in this year's tournament which starts this week? It should have, but I suspect it won’t.
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