Spartan in a Cardigan

by: Peter Bodo | July 08, 2008

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Well, friends, I suppose it's time to focus on Roger Federer - something I chose not to do in passing, while trying to chronicle Rafael Nadal's epic triumph and Warrior Moment at Wimbledon on Sunday. Long time readers of this blog will know what I mean by the phrase, "Warrior Moment." We use it here to describe the kind of fightback (that's the word our British friends prefer to "comeback", and I think theirs is a better choice) Nadal mounted to win the match against perhaps the most formidable player ever to swing a racket at Wimbledon.

If you're relatively new here, a Warrior Moment is a career-defining (career to date, of course) moment in which a player presents his credentials as not just a great talent but a great champion on a suitably large stage against an appropriate opponent. Think Pete Sampras vs. Alex Corretja, in the U.S. Open of 1996. The tricky thing about a Warrior Moment is that realizing one is a matter of serendipity - being in the right place at the right time with the right opponent.

I've taken this Warrior Moment tack for a specific reason, because one of the outstanding features of the Wimbledon final is that it was, in all fairness, a Warrior Moment for both players. For this match was no mere case of a wonderful player digging himself out of a big  hole to beat a fine opponent, but of two nonpareil combatants playing so well, with so little to choose between them, that the only reason Nadal won was because. . . someone must. Perhaps for that reason, I understand that a shot from the match will be the cover of the next issue of Sports Illustrated, and yes, I know how bitterly ironic that will seem to so many of you.

I wouldn't call it a coin flip, not by any stretch. There is, after all, a reason that people keep score in tennis, as unfair as that may seem to those fans who are less interested in outcomes than the performance itself. But in a better world than ours both players would be equally honored and receive equal measures of respect, not from some misguided "everyone gets a trophy" instinct, but because of how well they played, how close the match was, and the way each of them surmounted obstacles that appeared insurmountable to wend their way, like some bizzare heaven-made doubles team, to that unforgettable 9-7 in the fifth result.

So, whither Federer? A few random observations about the match before we go there:

One of the keys to the match, I felt, was Nadal's ability to get to Federer's backhand. This may seem like a duh! observation, but I was struck by the extent to which Federer, yielding psychological ground in a way that he is usually loath to do, tried to swing the flow of play to his forehand. This is a proud champion who has always played as if he doesn't need to protect a weakness, because in the big picture he has nothing that would pass muster as a weakness. Not against anyone but Nadal.

But in the last three sets, Federer worked hard to keep the ball on his forehand side, and his ability to do so paid rich dividends. It was his payoff for showing the kind of humility it takes to acknowledge a chink in his armor. He hit a pile of forehand winners that looked all the more remarkable because he was playing right into the lefty Nadal's most dangerous weapon, the forehand. The only glitch was that he wasn't able to protect the backhand to quite the degree he wanted, and in that regard, one point in particular stood out.

In the critical fourth-set tiebreaker, with Federer trailing 2 points to 4, but with serve, he engaged Nadal in a crisp rally, giving his opponent very little green space on the backhand side. Federer hit a good crosscourt backhand deep to Nadal's backhand - a shot deep enough, and with enough pace, for Federer to anticipate a safe, cross-court backhand return, right to his forehand. But Nadal played an offensive shot instead, firing a backhand down the line.

Now my notes aren't clear on whether it was that next backhand or a later one that forced Federer to make a down-the-line error, but that's immaterial. The point is that Nadal was quick enough to make a forcing, offensive shot that turned the tables on what looked like an extremely well-played set up by The Mighty Fed. It threw him off balance and the result was that Nadal found himself up 5-2, instead of 4-3.

Granted, it all went bad for Nadal in the tiebreaker shortly thereafter, but in the bigger picture the point was telling. No other player, including Novak Djokovic, has the resourcefulness and skill that Nadal showed in that exchange. Federer reaped great rewards from overplaying to the backhand side, but he paid a price, too. And in a match of this caliber, that can't be discounted.

Largely, though, that inside-out forehand of Federer's was a thing of deadly beauty. One of the enduring images in this final is that of Federer, well inside the baseline, teeing up that forehand to Nadal's forehand corner and hitting it with such precision and force that as he struck the ball he seemed to be traveling backwards - as if he were applying some strange (or perhaps not so strange, from a pure physics point of view) form of counter-rotation, or body english, to get a little extra ooompf on a shot that already had plenty of it. But you know how it is when the other guy is Nadal; there's no such thing as too much oompf.

I also thought that Federer served extremely well and, at times, out-of-sight well. Did anyone else notice that in the final, as well as his semifinal, Federer seemed to start his service motion with a much deeper knee-bend than we usually see? I never got a chance to broach such a small technical detail in the presser following an epic with so many profound dimensions, but it seems to me that TMFs serve was noticeably better at Wimbledon than at any tournament in recent memory.

In the end, though,it didn't quite get the job done. Let's face it, the First Commandment for quality players on grass is Hold Thine Serve, and the second is: Pray to get a decent look at the other guy's serve at least once in the set - or tiebreaker. The critical failure in the match was Federer's inability to hold his last service game, when he was in the superior position (serving the odd game, therefore always being a game up, something that puts enormous pressure on the other guy). It was just another element that made Nadal's ultimate triumph that much more persuasive.

This match was a critical blow to fans of TMF, coming as it did at a time when so many of them were disgruntled by the growing pro-Nadal sentiment of the past few weeks. Was this a case of justified outrage (and a convenient opportunity for press-bashing?), or a classic example of the ancient admonition, Pride goeth before the fall? I don't think it was either, although it contained elements of both. Rather, I think that the grousing by Federer fans was the perfect articulation of the extraordinary situation that has more or less dominated the tennis conversation for about two years now.

Bummer Anyone with an open mind could see Nadal coming, and coming relentlessly. At the same time, Federer deserved all of the deference due the man who is, after all, the multi-year no. 1 and five-time Wimbledon defending champion. It was a no-win situation for Federer, and the only person you could pin it on is Nadal (who happily accepts the blame).  For the record, when I was asked if Nadal would win, I couldn't bring myself to simply say, Yeah, I believe so. I told people that as a simple matter of conscience and respect, I couldn't write off the champ. Like many of you, I was impressed (although some of you would choose a different word) by the degree to which knowledgeable pundits were jumping on the Nadal bandwagon. They turned out to be right, but came about as close to being wrong as is possible.

I'm happily indifferent to  press-bashing, and often agree with the substance of the complaints. But news is a rapidly moving critter, and part of being a good journalist is showing the ability to anticipate what happens next. And for better or worse, the momentum suggesting that what came next is Rafael Nadal was impossible to ignore, deflect, or stop - even if you had wanted to do it. Hate the haters if you wish, but it doesn't get you anywhere. Not when they were right, because about the worst thing to be is a hater who's also wrong.

The biggest question in my mind is how TMF is going to react to this turn of events. Will he prove, like Bjorn Borg, to be too brittle, and too tired of the pressure of his position, to continue playing with his customary degree of desire and focus? Or will he find a way to draw emotional fuel from this loss for the final phase of his career, with such enormous honors at stake? I don't think there's any question but that it will be the latter; the Borg retirement was unique (at least in men's tennis). But I have two caveats: first, he must be willing to go three, four, five majors without winning, and still retain the drive and confidence needed to bag his next one. Second, he has to be prepared to face a relentless barrage of questions about these issues.

Keep in mind that for Pete Sampras, the toughest part of that two-year drought that finally ended when he won his 14th Grand Slam, in New York, was the unending stream of negativity and implied criticism: Will you retire if you don't win a major this year? How long do you plan to keep playing? Do you think you can still beat [Hewitt, Safin,  Nadjoko?]. Don't underestimate the stress potential of this scenario; as Sampras has told me, this kind of negativity gets to you, no matter how hard you try to fight it. Federer, like Sampras, is human.

I wrote in my The Death of Wanting post on the Wimbledon final that the match could be viewed as the ultimate series of tests to which a player in Nadal's situation could be put, implying that by the end of the process, Nadal had answered every question that could conceivably have been posed about his worthiness as a champ. This is, like so many generalizations, a half-truth; the other half of the truth is that this is tennis, an unpredictable game at best; taking liberties with the future based on what happens in the present is an invitation to disaster.

This "test" theme can be applied to Federer, too, although the questions - and the stakes - are different. Just as everyone knew Nadal could beat Federer at Wimbledon, but that didn't mean that he would do it, the critical question regarding Federer is whether he will rebound from a heartbreaker of this magnitude to play with the sand and command he has shown since he rose to the top. My answer to that, based on what we saw in the Wimbledon final, is, of course he will. . .

To that end, the first rain delay in the final may have been far more valuable than we yet know. I felt that in the middle of the third set, TMF looked surprisingly dispirited. If the fight wasn't entirely gone from his heart, it was leaking away out of all the valves. The rain break was a godsend; he did a great job re-grouping and counter-attacking. More importantly, he did a great job in swallowing his pride and making the adjustments a champion is sometimes reluctant to make, for no better reason than pride. Top players will always tell you that they're just going to go out and play their games and let the chips fall where they may. It's a real tribute to the essential humility of a great player when he or she realizes that letting the chips fall where they may sometimes isn't quite good enough.

I expect Federer to come roaring back, and I had just one quibble about his attitude after the match. Granted, he was devastated. It certainly seemed that he was on the verge of tears when John McEnroe interviewed him, fresh off Centre Court. But I was a little surprised by how often Federer, in his press conference, cited the poor light that dis-illuminated the end of the match.

I suppose TMF needed to find some way to soften the pain, and he had certainly earned the right to it. But with Nadal in command and Novak Djokovic plotting in the wings, Federer can't be tempted to reach for rationalizations or excuses. He needs to embrace the opportunity to fight in the dark, in the wind, in the cold, in the heat. He needs to face that he's in a new stage of his career and ask himself some tough questions about where his priorities lie, and what he might do to regain control of the situation.

Or not.

The other way to look at this is that Federer has no reason whatsoever to panic; he came within a point of adding another major to his record, and the next major at which he can meet Nadal again is the U.S. Open - which in ways having more to do with Nadal's history than his own, may give Federer and even greater home-court advantage than he enjoyed at Wimbledon.

One sad aspect of this superb Wimbledon final is that Nadal's accomplishment was so enormous, with so many resonances and dimensions, that it's been hard for me to find a way to express the sympathy I felt for Federer at various stages of the match. In some unusual and counter-intuitive way, he often looked the underdog. At times, he looked grim. He did an admirable job concealing his emotions - was it because they were of the kind that, if revealed, would have made him look more rather than less vulnerable?

When Federer allowed himself self-congratulations following a brilliant shot or critical point, he did it quickly and briefly, as if he didn't quite feel entitled to the demonstration, or felt that the world at large would not feel grateful receiving it. At times, he seemed the reluctant warrior. He would hit a winning inside-out forehand, or ace at 15-40, and just turn away, his body language saying: There, you see that? I can do that. What more do you want from me? This may have been defiance, but if so, it was passive defiance. Perhaps it was also a function of Federer's pride, and sense of decorum. After the match, he was withdrawn, and the word that kept coming to my mind was "wounded" But on the court, he was a spartan in a cardigan, no more demonstrative in losing than he usually is in winning.

I'll be talking with Pete Sampras a little later today, and will post on our conversation tomorrow. Stay tuned, and condolences to all the Federer fans out there.

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