Somehow, in the back of your mind, you knew it was destined to come down to something like this - 9-7 in the fifth, with the champion Rafael Nadal prone on his back in the tawny dirt, looking like he'd been shot to death, which in a way he had been: because ultimate joy is, in the end, not very different from ultimate obliteration.
And if Nadal's exquisite moment of death - the death of wanting, the death of struggling, the death of so much longing and chasing and hoping in a match so full of winning and losing and squandering and earning that by the end all - all - of it was mixed up all jangly and tangled and equally meaningful - and equally meaningless. . . if that moment of utterly still, flat-on-your-back perfected nothingness seemed a scant and perhaps odd reward for what he had achieved, consider the plight of the man he had beaten, Roger Federer.
As Nadal lay there, bathed in the obscene blue light of that crepuscular galaxy he momentarily owned, swaddled in the arms of an absence more pure than feeling (oh, the joy would come, don't you worry about that, it would come flooding and rushing in soon enough), his beaten opponent was suffering a fate far worse than obliteration - he was having to make that long walk to the empty chair beside the umpire's stand. He put one foot in front of the other, head down, his tread just as light as it had been just minutes earlier, when it was the lethal step of an assassin. But now it was just the step of a tired and beaten man, looking to sit down.
The purpose was gone from Federer's stride; he navigated toward the chair, whatever nascent thoughts he was about to entertain were stillborn, unable to punch through the shock and finality and surreal realization that, yep, it was all over - five consecutive Wimbledon titles, the drive for a sixth, all gone, like he knew it would be one day, but what great champion is ever prepared for that day?
The reality slowly washed over him: it was over - finally, irrevocably, irreversibly, no more tiebreaker reprieves or unexpected, unforced errors from his young opponent - and now he let the feeling have its way with him, for the reality never really hurts, not at first. At first, it's a welcome anesthetic.
So why did it have to come down to this? Why 9-7 in the fifth, in the twilight, at Wimbledon?
Well, because there is nothing "easy" about Nadal's game, nor about the mission to which he set himself in recent years. It's always been clear that despite Nadal's proficiency on his beloved clay, the drive to unseat Federer - the man Nadal himself described as the "greatest player in history" in his own acceptance speech tonight - would constitute Nadal's education in tennis. He was both that precocious and that marked. It was, if you will, his destiny. And nobody fulfills a role of destiny without the ritual test; it's a staple of myth, folklore, saga and epic poetry.
For about three years now it's been pretty obvious that in a sharp and vital way, the "test" for Nadal was Roger Federer - more precisely, beating Roger Federer on something other than clay. Nadal was not obsessive about this, nor was he arrogant - if he were, he never would have come close. He never declared that he would be the man who shot Liberty Valence, or set out to lay low the best player in the world so that he might stand over his prostate body and bellow triumphantly. Instead, he saw Federer as the standard against which he might measure himself. As the test; nothing more, nothing less. How might he measure up, against one so lavishly talented and accomplished? That humility of Nadal's, upon which so many people remark? There it is, in a nutshell.
So it has all been a test, or rather a series of tests, to which Nadal has submitted. The parts of the test that he passed, he never dwelled upon or gloated over - has Nadal ever uttered a triumphant phrase or proud boast about his record on clay, or particularly his record against Federer at Roland Garros? Instead, Nadal looked to the grass at Wimbledon and, to a lesser extent, to the hard courts of North America.
After Nadal won tonight, he was asked to describe his emotions about winning Wimbledon, and he said: "Impossible to describe, no? I don't know. Just very happy. Is unbelievable for me have a title here in Wimbledon. Is probably well, is a dream. I always, when I was a kid, I dream for play here, but for win is amazing, no? For any Spanish player win here is unbelievable. For every player, no, but for the Spanish especially, because we don't have a lot of titles here, and have one is unbelievable."
What? No mention of the satisfaction of tagging Federer on his best surface? No fleeting reference to the hunt for the no.1 ranking? No coy allusion to taking his place among the great players of the Open era? No. He personifies that pious chestnut, "Think globally, act locally."
Given Nadal's background and history in the game, his quest to become a force in world tennis, instead of merely European clay-court tennis, has involved an intricate series of tests, all of them overshadowed by the ultimate test that any tennis player in recent years might have concocted - the challenge of beating Roger Federer at Wimbledon. This was the third year that Nadal took that test, and it was only fitting that the closer he came to passing it, the more the test came to seem like one of those Russian Matryoshka dolls. Each test nests in another, seemingly endlessly.
Win two sets, rolling in the third? How about a rain delay? Get Federer down, 15-40? How about an ace and one of those out of the world inside-out forehand placements? Get to match point? Hold on, Rafa. You ever see how quickly a coral snake strikes, when you poke him in the wrong place?
The final test for Nadal was that nasty tiebreaker in the fourth set - the one in which he built a 5-2 lead with two serves to come; he could have won the match without Federer having the opportunity to serve another ball. Up to that point, both men had played well. But that tiebreaker had another test nested inside the test: Nadal had never in his young life blown a match, flat-out screwed it up, the way he did by failing to win a tiebreaker that he led, 5-2, with two serves to come. At least he had never done that on anything like a big stage, against anyone like Roger Federer. If his competitive character was to be put to the ultimate test, this was it.
This is worth savoring. Nadal had never done what so many young players do: put himself in position to win when he isn't expected to, only to fail to win. It's a devastating, enervating, thoroughly awful - and utterly common experience. And Nadal acted out the narrative almost perfectly in that tiebreaker. At 5-2, he hit a let-cord double fault, then made an error on the backhand. Worse yet, Federer - being Federer - took full advantage of that uncharacteristic failure of nerve. Surviving that tiebreaker, he lifted his game, and it would remain at that higher level the rest of the way.
But the reason even that wasn't good enough on this historic day is because Nadal ended up passing the final test. As empty and hollow as he must have felt, or should have felt, after losing that tiebreaker to see the match go to two sets each, momentum to Federer, Nadal never relented. He never lost confidence, or hope. That his level didn't drop, while Federer was serving aces and powdering lines with his big forehand, was the critical difference in this match.
I asked about that in the press conference with Federer; here's our verbatim exchange:
Q. We know how much you respect him (Nadal). Especially after that tiebreaker, were there any points in there where you're thinking, This kid has to fold up now? He has to be a little bit mentally crazy? A couple times you were down, served your way out of some real holes. Did you think at any point that he's got to crack at some stage?
A: "Not really. I was just hoping, you know, or I was seeing that he was getting very nervous, you know, in that, what was it, fourth set tiebreaker where, I mean, I think he should have never lost the breaker in the end, you know. But he was really nervous. He didn't make the returns he usually does. He couldn't play aggressive. I played some okay shots, and it was enough to come back.
"So, I mean, I really thought, you know, that he was feeling it really a lot, you know, maybe the first time in his life (my italics) So I was hoping, like I said, with the momentum going into the fifth set, that it was going to be enough just from my end that I would play a little bit better. But I couldn't really, you know, play maybe my best when I really had to. And towards the end, like we know, with the light, it was tough. But it's not an excuse. Like I said, Rafa served well and played well and deserved to win in the end."
Nadal would later describe his mental state after he lost that tiebreaker like this:
"I was sitting down, and just say, well, I am playing well, I am doing well, I am with very good positive attitude, so gonna continue like this and wait, wait what's happening. I feeled (sic) confident with myself, so for that reason I was confident on the match still, no, in the fifth. So just very happy because I played with very positive attitude all the time, fighting a lot. So win here is unbelievable for me."
Only a fool could have expected (rather than merely hoped for) a win by Nadal in the fifth set. Serving the odd game, Federer was always in the lead. Execution-wise, both me were playing at a high level. But there was the lingering memory of that fourth-set tiebreaker, and the knowledge that Federer was the five-time defending champion. It seemed impossible that Nadal could win, but at the same time an undercurrent of inevitability - the same tug that had so many pundits brazenly forecasting a Nadal win in recent days - exerted a nearly equal gravitational pull. The tension became nearly unbearable, but it also imbued everyone watching with a sense of wonder; we all knew we were witnesses to something extraordinary.
Somehow, we all knew it was destined to come down to this: Rafael Nadal over Roger Federer, in the Wimbledon final, 6-4,6-4,6-7,6-7,9-7.