Moment of the Year: Tennis
On July's first Sunday, Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4. 6-7, 6-7, 9-7
It was, one might say, most important match of the most important tournament
It was the match of the year. It was the match of the decade. It was, one could certainly make a credible case, the greatest match in tennis history. On the first Sunday in July, Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4. 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 in the finals of Wimbledon, the most important match of the most important tournament.
The scoreline, of course, tells only a fraction of the story. The match pitted two rivals against each other and the occasion came with all sorts of subplots. While Federer had beaten Nadal in the previous two Wimbledon finals; Nadal had stomped Federer four Sundays prior in the French Open, amplifying whispers that the Reign of Roger was drawing to an end. Had Federer won the match, he would have eclipsed Bjorn Borg's modern-day record of five straight Wimbledon titles. For Nadal, he was not only vying to become the first player since Borg to win on both the clay of Roland Garros and the grass of the All England Club in the same summer; a title would have come with the virtual assurance that he would -- finally -- overtake Federer in the rankings.
Despite the pressure and the stakes, the quality of play was sensationally high. Winners vastly outstripped errors -- and that doesn't include the shots that would ordinarily have been winners but Nadal and Federer somehow managed to retrieve.
There were few lapses by either player. A rejoinder to those dismissing modern-day tennis as a boring "serve-a-thon," dozens of rallies lasted longer than ten strokes. While serve-and-volleying has fallen out of vogue recently, even Nadal, a baseliner's baseliner, practiced this tactic -- in the final game, no less! And you could not have scripted a closer tennis match. After four sets, Nadal and Federer each had won 151 points.
More abstractly, the match featured all those ingredients that are vital to a classic sporting event: strength, speed, power, action, reaction, mettle, discipline, strategy, and fibrillating momentum. When it looked as though Nadal would cruise to an easy win, Federer stormed back to level the match, calling on reserves of courage he'd rarely needed in the past. After squandering two match points in the fourth set, Nadal still found it in himself to suppress disappointment and solider on. That the match finished as dusk bled into darkness only boosted the drama.
But what happened in the aftermath cemented this as the Greatest Match Ever. When Nadal won the final point, consecrating the longest final in Wimbledon history, he dropped to his back in ecstasy. Then, in keeping with tradition, he climbed into the stands to greet his knot of supporters in the Players Box. He was mobbed by family and friends and coaches, but also by Robert Federer --Roger's dad -- who smiled and applauded as intensely as anyone else.
For Federer pere, his disappointment was offset by genuine appreciation for what he had just witnessed. Nadal would ascend to No.1 and win Olympic gold in Beijing, completing a laurelled year. But Federer suffered no post-traumatic stress. Two months after this brutal defeat, he won the U.S. Open, salvaging his season and revealing plenty about his character.
Tennis fans get asked this question with entirely too much frequency: Why do we continue to support a game that can appear to be dwindling in relevance, unable to get out of its own way. We can now refer cynics to this glorious match and, well, there's your answer.