W: Report Cards

Tuesday, July 08, 2008 /by

RnWhen it was all over, when the only thing left to do was watch Brad Gilbert stand up, touchingly and awkwardly, and applaud for Rafael Nadal in the ESPN studios, I slouched back into the couch cushions, still sweating a little, and said, aloud, to no one: “Now I have to describe this?” Was it possible to do this match justice? Was it possible to give it a grade?

A few minutes later Nadal appeared in the pressroom. He was asked how he felt about his victory over Roger Federer, on Centre Court, after five hours and as many match points, 9-7 in the fifth set, with darkness surrounding him, for his first Wimbledon title. He answered in the only way that made any kind of sense: “Impossible to describe.” I thought: You’re right, Rafa, but you’re not helping.

It’s his job to play and mine to write. And can a tennis writer ask for anything better to write about than what happened at Wimbledon this past weekend? Let the A-pluses flow.

Rafael Nadal
The image of Nadal from Sunday that comes to my mind first is not of him pumping his fist, screaming “vamos!” or belting an inside-out forehand winner, though it’s easy to recall one of those if necessary. It’s of him holding the winner’s trophy in the dark on Centre Court, his face and the top of his white jacket lit up by a hundred flashbulbs, his headband gone and hair loose. This was a new Nadal. In the blink of an eye, he’d shed the pirate look and the beast of Mallorca image and taken on the bearing and style of a Wimbledon champion—albeit one who isn't above biting the trophy. He was no longer the world’s greatest No. 2, no longer the hard-working second-fiddle, no longer destined to be mentioned after the words those grand words, “Roger Federer.” Nadal is now part of the sport’s history and tradition in his own right. That’s what happens when you win on Centre Court. It’s why the all-time greats like Federer and Pete Sampras love this place the most—it made them. I could imagine seeing this photo of Rafa in 30 years, in the parade of Wimbledon champions from Jack Kramer to Roger Federer. “The Spanish great Nadal at Wimbledon,” the caption would read.

I said coming into Wimbledon that Nadal had a new aura about him, a No. 1-player’s aura, and he maintained it right until the end. Or almost until the end. He was the better player in the final, particularly once the rallies began, and could have won in straight sets. But like last year, he got tight at the finish line. Up two sets and tied at 3-3 in the third, Nadal played brilliantly to reach 0-40 on Federer’s serve. He may have let a brief vision of himself holding the trophy pass through his disciplined mind, because suddenly he couldn’t get the ball over the net, even on a forehand return of a second serve. Federer came back to hold, found his rhythm on his serve and forehand, and matched Nadal shot for shot the rest of the way.

Nadal got himself back to the brink again in the fourth set, only to suffer the same last-second nerves. Up 5-2 in the tiebreaker, with two serves coming, he double-faulted and dumped a routine backhand into the net. After the second shot, he showed one of the few traces of anger he would betray all afternoon, whipping his racquet like a fly-swatter. Again he pushed back to the brink, hitting one of the many, many shots of the match, a thread-the-needle forehand pass after a mad dash across the baseline. That brought him to match point, where he went with the percentages—swing serve to Federer’s backhand, swing approach to the same spot—and was beaten by Federer’s own thread-the-needle backhand pass into the corner.

At this point, Nadal could have been forgiven for wondering, Am I meant to win Wimbledon? As Nadal’s last return floated long to end the fourth set, I thought we may finally have discovered a weakness, a chink in the mental armor: Faced with the prospect of fulfilling his dream of winning the world’s biggest tournament, Nadal couldn’t close the deal. A couple points into the fifth set, I knew we'd found no such thing. Nadal came out and hit his first few backhands with the same gusto and confidence he’d shown on that shot all afternoon. By the time he’d held for 1-1, the fist-pumps were back. Somehow, the fact that his lifelong dreams had been horribly, cruelly crushed a few minutes earlier had been utterly forgotten.

The classic example of ice-in-the-veins willpower in tennis is Bjorn Borg’s victory in the fifth set of the 1980 Wimbledon final, after he had squandered multiple match points in the 18-16 fourth-set tiebreaker. His opponent that day, John McEnroe, has often wondered how Borg was capable of staying in the moment. Nadal’s achievement, while almost identical (this tiebreaker was 10-8 but equally heartbreaking), surpasses Borg’s for the simple fact that the Swede got to serve first in that fifth set, while Nadal had to serve second.

This is the equivalent of being the away team in extra innings in baseball. When you have to serve to stay in the match, you’re always just a couple of bad swings away from defeat. Nadal faced one break point in the final set, at 3-4. He took Federer’s return and drilled an inside-out forehand into the corner, then finished with an overhead and a fist-pump. Dick Enberg chuckled at the chutzpah: “Nadal has the guts of a daylight burglar,” he said. The term was apt: If he misses that go-for-broke forehand, he’s most likely just lost the Wimbledon final. He didn’t miss it. In the end, the match that I thought might reveal the limits of Nadal’s mental resources revealed the opposite. He had even more—more willpower in the head, more ice in the veins—than we knew.

What does Nadal’s win represent? Think back to David Foster Wallace’s allegedly brilliant essay from the NY Times two years ago, "Roger Federer as Religious Experience." I’ve brought this piece up before, but it’s worth revisiting because it’s representative of an attitude among traditionalist tennis aficionados, in my opinion. The setting was the 2006 Wimbledon final. Foster Wallace cast the calm, free-flowing, instinctive Federer as the modern-day manifestation of tennis genius. Nadal was summed up, in derogatory fashion, as a “martial” player, limited and earthbound compared to Federer. Could this article appear in a major publication and be lauded the same way now, after Sunday’s final? I don’t think so. Nadal has shown that tennis genius doesn’t have to be cool and free-flowing. It can be martial. It can be grinding. It can grunt. It can be unorthodox rather than elegant. It can have its roots in the grungy clay-court game yet still conquer the genteel grass version. It can wear pirate pants rather than cardigans. It can be all those things and still make you shake your head in awe, just as we do with Federer.

Think about the final game of the match, when Nadal attempted, after all the earlier failures and with the light speedily dimming, to serve it out at 8-7. He nervously sent his first forehand long. On the next point, he hit a serve wide, and, for the first time all match, followed it to the net, where he knocked off an easy volley. From some players, you might call this a bailout option, a way to avoid a nerve-wracking rally. From Nadal, it was the opposite: He saw that when he was trying to finish the match, the dynamics of the points were working against him—he was getting tight, playing the percentages, playing not to lose. So he changed the dynamic. It was a simple and gutsy—instinctive—move. If there’s such a thing as tennis genius, this was it.

What would a genius be without a little luck to help? On the final point, Nadal looked tight again as he popped a sitter backhand to Federer’s service line. It looked like a sure opportunity for Federer, and he closed on the ball. But it wasn’t where he thought it was going to be. It had taken a weird bounce and jumped right. Federer mistimed it and hit it weakly into the net. In the end, Nadal had triumphed on grass the old-fashioned way—with a bad hop.

I interviewed Nadal at Key Biscayne in 2006. He was antsy and guarded most of the time. But when I asked about Wimbledon, he became vehement. He made a fist and said, “I will do well at Wimbledon.” The year before, he had lost in the second round to Gilles Muller. I didn’t believe that this Spanish clay-courter would ever do much on grass. What I didn't know was that winning on clay, where he was supposed to win, didn’t get to the bottom of Rafael Nadal. He wanted to be a tennis champion. That meant winning on Centre Court. The photo proves it: He’s a tennis champion. A+

Men’s Final
Was this the greatest match of all time? SI’s Jon Wertheim had an unintentionally funny line when he was interviewed about it on the PBS Newshour yesterday. He said, “I’m usually pretty level-headed about these things, but I’m going to say unequivocally that this was the greatest match in tennis history.” I know what he means.

Rn2What are the elements that go into “greatest” matches? First there’s the level of play. The highest-quality match I had ever seen before yesterday was the 2007 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal. This beat it. By a lot. The winner to error ratios, particularly Nadal’s, were excellent, and Federer served like a dream. But it was the shots that didn’t become winners that were even more remarkable. So many balls that would have screamed past anyone else were returned, with authority. You won’t find them on the stat sheet.

It was tough to tell the opening of the first set from the closing of the fifth. At both times, Federer and Nadal were running full out and playing forcefully. It was go-for-broke tennis, but within intelligent limits; rallies consisted of a short series of probing jabs, quick moves up and back, and then a haymaker to end it. If one guy left a ball hanging, the other rifled it toward a corner every time. Nadal has improved his backhand from last year. He slaps through it with more flat pace than he gets on his forehand. Federer not only couldn’t break it down, he couldn’t push Nadal into his backhand corner and open up the court. Nadal played a version of the game he uses against Federer on clay, but he was more willing to go into the forehand corner and take risks even when he wasn’t positioned near the center of the court. He mixed up his serve constantly, and went to the body at the right moments. As for Federer, he started slowly but gained traction by giving a master class in grass-court tennis over the last three sets. Wide serve, forehand into open court: This is the modern equivalent of the serve and volley, and no one does it as effectively as Federer. He seems to love serving on Centre Court more than anywhere else.

Beyond the basics of tactics and execution, it was the style with which these two played that raised the match still further. Borg vs. McEnroe in 1980 was a long series of forays and angles; Sampras vs. Ivanisevic in 1998 was a long series of serves bulleted into the frames of the returners; Federer vs. Nadal was a series of topspin missiles that bent and dove in midair and landed in the farthest reaches of the court. For all their differences, if you just watched their strokes and the paths their shots took, you’d have a hard time telling who had hit what. Both swing with a violent upward motion around the head that carries their bodies off the ground. This co-style is how tennis circa 2008 will be remembered.

Of course, it’s the differences that made the match worth watching. Federer’s characteristic winner was a seemingly impossible forehand that he hit inside-out while floating away from the ball. A remarkable shot, since he gets almost none of his body into it. (In his own way, Federer blows up the textbook every bit as much as his opponent.) Nadal’s version of this shot was the crosscourt backhand that he consistently hammered with a completely open stance and his upper body jerked downward, in the opposite direction of the ball. He used this for offense, and also as a sort of goalie-style defensive shot when Federer sent a hard approach down the middle. In both cases, his control with it was uncanny.

In a “greatest” match, the high-quality play must be backed up with drama, personality, history. We had plenty of all three. The personalities and body languages, as always, were polar opposites: Nadal bustled around the court between points, chest out, brows furrowed; Federer leaned back as he flipped his feet in front of him with casual assurance. The history was tied to the same legend, Bjorn Borg, who was sitting in the stands: Federer was trying to break Borg’s modern record of five straight Wimbledons; Nadal was trying to become the first man since the Swede to win the French and Wimbledon back to back. As for drama, it was heightened by the race against encroaching darkness, which lent a wild edge to the end of the fifth set. This match would always have been a classic, but the flash-bulbs that peppered the dusky trophy ceremony ensure that it will be instantly recognizable in the future, its atmosphere as unique as its shot-making.

Then we came to the end. Nadal’s celebration—a helpless, painfully relieved fall to his back, with his legs and arms splayed—was electric. You felt like he was at the center of a current that was circling Centre Court and exploding in flash photos. But there are two moments I’ll remember just as much at that. Before the final point, Nadal’s Uncle Toni finally couldn’t take it anymore. He had to get out of his seat and move down to the front row of the player’s box. He lifted his arm and gestured to his nephew to do it now. The spontaneity and urgency of that gesture captured the excruciating nature of the moment. After the final point, when Federer put the last ball into the net and Nadal hit the dirt, you could see Roger Federer’s father, Robert, proudly sporting his son’s red RF logo hat, immediately stand to clap. He kept clapping as Nadal climbed the player’s box, crushingly hugged his parents and Uncle Toni, and stamped past the Federer entourage to shake hands with Federer’s agent, Tony Godsick. Would you think less of me if I told you I had a tear—or two, or three—in my eye, for Rafa, for Robert Federer, for Uncle Toni, for Mirka, who touched Nadal’s leg as he walked past, and for Mr. and Mrs. Nadal, who sat tormented for seven hours before they could let it out? In what other sport, in what other arena, on what other night, would you see anything like this?

Greatest ever, by a mile. A+

VwVenus Williams
Poor Venus. She rolls through the draw for a second straight year, doesn’t lose a set, and handles a difficult win over her sister in the final with easy dignity. Then everyone forgets all about it 24 hours later. Don’t: This was not just a customarily imperious and focused effort from Venus—the sight of her crazy legs gobbling up ground along the baseline is now as much a part of Centre Court lore as the sight of Pete Sampras bombing aces there—it also felt like a landmark in how the Williamses handle playing each other. It was winner-take-all competition and sibling rivalry at its most adult. The edges, and the awkwardness, weren't as obvious. I wonder: We say it's hard for them to compete because they love each other, but isn't your sibling also the person you want to beat more than anyone else in the world? Has this edge been dulled in Serena over the years?

Either way, it was the best match they’ve played—not a classic contest, but a compelling one. Venus weathered an early Serena storm calmly, and took control of the match methodically. I’ve always thought their matches can be scratchy in part because each runs down shots that would be winners against anyone else. That leads to extra shots and, eventually, errors. This time, little sister looked she had nowhere good to go with the ball by the end. A+

Roger Federer
For a world No. 1 and five-time defending champion, Federer looked oddly aggrieved through much of his final against Nadal. HawkEye had it in for him, the chair umpire annoyed him, a Nadal shot that landed inside the line inspired a wild, hopeless challenge. The force of Nadal’s momentum over the last few months seemed to have put doubt in Federer's mind, and he wasn’t happy about it—why should he, Roger Federer, doubt himself on Centre Court against anybody? But he did. You could see it in the way his shots on break points found the net. You could see it in the way he quickly surrendered a 4-2 lead in the second set and lost four straight games. That just doesn’t happen to him against anyone else.

Which makes his stubborn comeback effort all the more impressive. Federer, as he said afterward, “tried everything.” But he was playing a guy who could match him, jaw-dropping winner for jaw-dropping winner, and who was using his tricky serve to keep him terminally off-balance. Late in the fifth set, Federer opened a return game by hitting a forehand winner down the line. It was an intimidating shot that might have rattled another player. Two points later, Nadal cracked his own, equally intimidating forehand winner and eventually held. Against everyone else, Federer can, and does, assume a natural superiority; he knows he’s better, and that if he plays well, he’ll win. He can’t assume this against Nadal. He has to start on equivalent mental footing with the Spaniard. This leaves Federer, as I said, a little aggrieved and unsure of himself.

Federer was a good loser. He looked gutted and exhausted when he talked to Sue Barker, his hair uncharacteristically sweaty and lank, a far cry from the ebullient winner in the white jacket of previous years. We might have wished that he hadn’t mentioned how dark it was and that the conditions were tough—they were for both guys—but Federer managed to keep it light when he said he played the “worst” opponent on the “best surface.” To ask for perfect grace and no trace of bitterness from him at this moment would be to ask too much.

Federer showed off the runner’s-up plate with surprising, classy enthusiasm, and walked around the court waving as if he were still the champ. What’s that Kipling line we hear so much about at Wimbledon: “If you can meet triumph and disaster and treat them just the same…”? On Sunday, Federer came as close as anyone could expect to living up to that brutal ideal. A

RfThe Cardigan
I began by hating it, especially the big RF monogram. But on Centre Court, after the match, as Federer tried to hide his crushing disappointment, it worked. This is the traditional outfit of the tennis gentleman. And the gentleman, as Kipling says, defines himself by how he handles defeat. Whatever Federer was thinking on the inside, he looked sporting on the outside. A

Serena Williams
She had another Grand Slam resurgence. Let’s hope it lasts. My lasting memory of her will be one of confusion. She couldn’t find the key to beating her sister, and she couldn’t quite believe she was losing. She was flummoxed—by the wind, by the slippery surface,, by Venus, who made her hit better shots than she normally has to and pushed her out of her comfort zone at the middle of the baseline. Even in the trophy ceremony, as her sister was singing her praises, Serena looked distracted, squinting blankly and unsmilingly into her second-place plate. A-

Marat Safin
He showed he still can command the big stage now and then, but, unlike the two finalists, he doesn’t have the ambition to make Centre Court his home. He’s got everything else, and seeing—hearing—that old fabulous backhand walloped down the line again made the tournament a little more fun. A-

Brad Gilbert
I didn’t see much of him, so he couldn’t become grating. But how can you not like a guy, who, right after a 9-7 fifth-set final, states that it will not be Federer who breaks Sampras’ record of 14 Slams, it will be Nadal. Never mind that Gilbert once said Federer would win 20 Slams and recently gave TENNIS Magazine three reasons why Nadal wouldn’t win this year’s French Open. He's a man with big ideas, even if they can be a little hare-brained. A-

Dick Enberg/Patrick McEnroe
The best call of the final was by these guys, for ESPN Classic. Not too much talk, and a couple of good lines from Enberg, who called the match what it was: “excruciatingly entertaining.” A-

Bjorn Borg
The tie, the shirt, the unflappable demaeanor: The guy’s as good at watching as he was playing. Let’s bring him to Flushing Meadows, even if he can't stand the place. A-

Jie Zheng
Enjoyed her short, sharp, low to the ground grass game, even if I won’t see it again until next year’s Wimbledon. A-

Agnieszka Radwanska
Watch the smooth ground strokes, smile at the transparent facial expressions, remember the name, no matter how you pronounce it in your head. B+

Andy Murray
Has the teeth-barer turned a corner and begun to rein in his disorganized game? I’m going to say yes, even though he reigned it in too far against Nadal. The match with Gasquet was hilarious. B+

Chris Fowler
He tries too hard when he calls matches, but he’s a pro in the studio, and I thought ESPN’s post-final wrap was solid and entertaining. It did justice, with a little wackiness thrown in, to the match that had just been played. B+

Amelie Mauresmo
We’ll miss when you go. B+

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
We welcome you, if you want to stay. B

John McEnroe
I thought he had an off day on Sunday. He’s always low-key, but this time he seemed to be restating the obvious more often than usual. Still, I wouldn’t want to hear anyone else call Federer-Nadal. B

OK, I can’t write any more at the moment. I’ll have to say good night to the best fortnight—or at least the best final two days of a fortnight—I can remember.

Who did I forget? Who deserved an F?

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