Olympic Spirits

by: Steve Tignor | August 15, 2008

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TENNIS.com

RnI finally had a chance to catch an extended amount of tennis from Beijing today, and just in time. After a largely fanless week, the men’s semis gave us spectators in the stands, passion on the court, and two moments that will live in tennis infamy.

Let’s start with the more infamous of the two. When I turned on MSNBC—or was it CNBC? USA? Univision? NBCOlympics.com?—this morning, Fernando Gonzalez and James Blake were tied at 7-all in the third set. The tennis was what you would expect from these two: lots big cuts, lots of winners, lots of errors. According to the announcers, Jimmy Arias and Barry MacKay, Blake had had three match points earlier, but I didn’t see those.

I also had trouble seeing what happened on the first point on Gonzalez’s serve at 8-9. Blake flicked a backhand pass that appeared to hit something as it went by Gonzalez at the net and landed just long. Blake raised his hand in apology as if he had won the point. But the ball was called out and chair umpire Carlos Bernardes awarded the point to Gonzalez. Blake argued that the ball had touched Gonzalez’s racquet, but Bernardes hadn’t noticed that. The TV cameras stuck with Blake during this argument, never panning to Gonzalez even as Blake looked at him to see if he was going to admit anything. I don’t know what Gonzo was doing, or if he saw Blake’s glance, but he was clearly keeping his mouth shut. Arias said he was “nowhere to be found.”

Even worse, there was no replay of the moment in question, so at this point I can’t say whether the ball touched Gonzalez’s racquet or not. Arias said it was “definite” and MacKay agreed. Here’s how an AP report put it: “On the first point, Blake hit a backhand passing shot long but contended the ball ticked Gonzalez's racket before landing, as TV replays confirmed.”

For now, these testaments are enough to make me believe that the ball did hit Gonzalez’s racquet. Afterward, Blake called out the Chilean, saying he had “lost a little faith” in him and that the incident was contrary to the Olympic spirit he had been enjoying this week. For his part, here's how Gonzalez responded to questions about the incident:

Can you please talk us through the incident that James was very upset about where he claimed that the ball had touched your racket?

I don't know. I mean, nobody ask me anything. We was on the court like two hours and a half. I was really tired. I didn't feel anything. I mean, I saw the ball coming to my body, and I think he was a little bit pissed in the second set because I hit on his body, and maybe he tried to do the same. I just tried to move from the ball, and I didn't feel anything, you know.

I mean, there is an umpire. It was 0-0, 8-9, I don't remember, after two hours and a half. Almost I didn't feel my forehand. It's my best shot. And I didn't feel anything.

If I'm hundred percent sure about it, I mean, I will give it. But I'm not sure, you know. I'm just moving, that's all.”

I’d like to believe Gonzalez, and when he says, “If I’m 100 percent sure about it, I will give it,” he almost has me. But I can’t imagine a scenario, even when you’re in motion—when are you not moving in tennis?—where you wouldn’t know that a ball, particularly one struck by a pro, has hit your racquet. If he did feel it hit his frame (and I suppose we'll never know for sure), Gonzalez, by any reasonable code of sportsmanship, should have told the chair umpire. Otherwise his victory is diminished, even if, as he says, it was only one point.

JbWhatever Gonzalez felt, it didn’t seem to include guilt about winning that point or the match. If anything, he hit the ball with more ferocity in the closing two games, and when it was over he cried tears of joy. Blake said after the match that Gonzalez engages in gamesmanship on a regular basis. I’ve never enjoyed watching Gonzo—his manner is too stone-faced, his game too vicious—but I haven’t heard him accused of gamesmanship in the past. He obviously cherishes the Olympics, and they’ve made him a national hero in Chile. Is it possible that Gonzalez would have given the point to Blake if this had happened in a normal tournament? If so, it would be a total inversion of the spirit in which the Games are supposed to be played.

On to our second moment of infamy, which came in the form of the most unfortunate botched overhead in tennis history. In the second semi, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal dispelled some of the bad taste that was left over from the first. They did it by giving us another in their series of classic battles of athleticism, shotmaking, and full-throated emotion. For the first time this week, I could see that the Olympics had upped the passions of both players. Finally, the sport seemed to belong at the Games—seeing Nadal and Djokovic referred to as Serbia and Spain on the scoreboard made tennis, at least temporarily, about more than individual glory. The knowledge that this was the last chance either would have to win a gold medal for four years made the stakes that much higher and the points that much more nerve-wracking.

In the end, each guy flirted with collapse until Djokovic finally did, in a spectacular way. The final set felt like a tug of war; the sideline-to-sideline rallies were that visceral. Djokovic had the better of most of them. Nadal’s shots were bouncing up into his strike zone, and he was using his backhand to change directions with the ball relentlessly. But, as is so often the case, just when Nadal seemed about to be run off the court, he pushed back and changed the terms on which the points were played. He fought from 0-30 down at 3-3. On the ad side, he was saved all afternoon by his serve, which he swung out wide and then into Djokovic’s forehand hip. He used both to bail himself out in the third and keep his nose ahead. Even though he had been in survival mode for the better part of two sets, at 4-4, with an Olympic medal hanging between the two players—you could practically see the thing around their necks—Nadal found a way to step forward, take the initiative with his forehand, and play one of his best games of the match.

When Djokovic lost the first point of the next game, I said, “It’s over.” The Serb has become a confounding figure mentally, especially when he plays Nadal and Andy Murray. Djokovic has too much self-confidence to choke in the conventional sense of the term, but he has begun to have trouble facing the moment with equanimity. Rather than getting tentative, when Djokovic feels the pressure he either bombs away indiscriminately or flips up an all-or-nothing drop shot that will end the point right away. He did both at 4-5, losing a point after hitting an excellent drop and then belting a perfect forehand onto the sideline to save a match point.

N_dOn the next one, as Djokovic stared up at a short, sitting-duck lob that Nadal had tossed his way, I was almost sure, against all reason, that he was going to miss it. He did. Credit, one more time, the cussedness of Nadal, who looked capable of tracking down anything. His defense must seem oppressive—there’s so much energy coming from his side of the sourt—to someone trying to time an overhead, no matter how easy it looks. Also credit, one more time, Nadal’s ability to find a way around his nerves without simply going for broke or ending points as quickly as possible. It was the only thing that separated him from Djokovic today.

Finally, credit both Djokovic, who hugged his conqueror at the net and walked away in tears, and Nadal, whose victory celebration was, if anything, more spontaneously joyous than the one he showed off at Wimbledon, for giving us a reason to believe that the Olympic spirit—its fervor and its sportsmanship—can be found even among the world’s richest and most famous athletes.

***

As you may know, Ed McGrogan has been doing the online text commentary for the matches being shown this week at NBCOlympics.com. I'm heading to Connecticut this weekend to take over for him. If you happen to be up at 4:00 A.M. either day, and your TV is broken, pay me a visit.

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