Dispatches: A Post-Wimbledon Dialogue

To recap an exceptional tournament, tack-sharp tennis mind Lucy Perkins has kindly agreed to take part in another dialogue.  (For our pre-tournament conversation, click here.)  Because of time constraints, we’re going to stick to the men’s final, despite the fact that Venus and Serena Williams produced their best match at a major tournament–it’ll have to suffice to say that we both hope they’ll be repeating the exercise at Grand Slams for years to come. 

Asad Raza: Hello Lucy.  I believe “epic” is the only word that adequately describes today’s events, no?  I can’t think of another match that left me as emotionally drained–I’ve been more devastated (Sampras d. Agassi, U.S. Open, 2002), and more euphoric (Ivanisevic d. Rafter, Wimbledon, 2001), but never has a tennis match seemed… larger, of such scope and importance.  Not only did Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer together produce tennis at a surpassing level, but they produced a match with a dramatic quality unseen since Borg and McEnroe squared off in 1980.  This was tennis as the highest form of controlled, dancelike movement and tennis as exhausting, warlike struggle.  It will be hard to come up with superlatives sufficient to describe it.  How are you feeling?

Lucy Perkins: I am utterly drained and highly conflicted: highly disappointed for Federer, who deserved to win, unexpectedly pleased for Nadal, who deserved it more, and filled with admiration for both men.  Like you, I watch a lot of Grand Slam tennis, and like you, I can’t remember any final matching this one for importance, for drama, for sheer quality.  Federer-Nadal, the rivalry, often has the flavour of a classical Greek drama, all thwarted ambitions and tragic flaws, but Federer-Nadal, the matches, are often disappointing.  This one, needless to say, lived up to its billing.  I don’t think it could’ve been scripted any better.

Asad Raza: I think the script would have been thrown out on the grounds of crossing over from drama to melodrama.  But this was real.  At nine a.m. this morning, New York time, a small group of mostly casual fans gathered at my apartment to watch the match.  It was all wisecracks and theorizing about Federer’s royalty and Nadal’s peasantry.  By five p.m., there were teary eyes and a shared sense of having lived through something completely unglib in my living room.  Strangely, even though Federer lost, I don’t know if I’ve ever admired him more.  Of the three shots that I remember most clearly from the match, two were hit by Federer: the stunning backhand pass down the line on Nadal’s match point in the fourth set tiebreaker, and the equally stunning backhand return of serve winner on Nadal’s match point in the fifth.  I’ve never seen a better played match, in several senses.

Lucy Perkins: Funny, that.  I can only clearly remember maybe four or five points of the entire match, but that second one you mention, the crosscourt return with Nadal serving at 8-7, 40-30 in the fifth, is the most vivid.  It exemplified exactly what is great about Federer.  Even down match point, facing extraordinary pressure, and after five hours of play, he has the courage and the skill to come up with a blistering angled return.  In the short term, the stories will be – are already – about the fall of the king, but over the long run, in a funny way, I feel like Federer’s involvement in this match will only heighten the Federer myth.  Even though he lost in the most excruciating fashion.

Asad Raza: But this final also demonstrated how the best tennis matches exceed tennis, and reach some kind of sublime human drama–the strongest memories we’ll all have of it, I bet, are faces: Federer’s wan smile as Nadal accepted his trophy, and his regal acceptance of Rafa’s post-match compliments.  The euphoria that was indistinguishable from sadness on Nadal’s face as he reached his parent’s embrace.  The desperate, nearly unglued look Federer had late in the match, unseen at any other time in his televised life, the transparency of Nadal’s determination.  This was a match that seemed to expose the souls of these two.  And maybe the most remarkable thing about about it, was that it exposed both to be competitors who cared deeply for each other after the struggle: the exchange of pats on the shoulder as they circled Centre Court with their trophies showed me that.  It was pretty glorious.

Lucy Perkins: Right, and that, I think, is why it’s so hard to remember the points in the match, because it was so much more than forehands and volleys and service returns.  The mutual regard between them, and the genuinely conflicted response of both, was almost unbearably touching.  This rivalry is unique, I think, in that it’s become almost impossible to like one without feeling at least some empathy for the other.

Asad Raza: Although judging by thousands of partisan comments on our friend Pete Bodo’s blog, many fans of the players have a zero-sum level of empathy–what is given to one is taken from the other.  Pete, by the way, called this “the best match of of the Open Era,” and he was present at most of them.  (Quoted by the excellent Tom Perrotta.)  As a Federer fan, how do you feel towards Nadal at the moment?  Is he the true number one right now?

Lucy Perkins: Well, if Pete Bodo is saying that, who are we mortals to disagree?  You know, I have some difficulty with the notion of “true number one”.  The number one in the rankings IS the true number one, the player who has gained the most ranking points in the past year, as determined within a transparent, consistently applied system.  So no, he is not the “true number one” until the computer damn well says he is.  But if you’re asking if he is the best player in the world right at this minute, I can say, unequivocally, yes.  He’s beaten Federer in two consecutive finals on two anthetical surfaces.  He is, at the moment, the better player.  My emotional response to him is somewhat more complicated.  On the one hand, I remain a Federer fan through and through, and when the two are playing, I seize on any little peccadillo of Nadal’s.  (“He’s keeping Roger waiting AGAIN while he rearranges his water bottles? Is he serious? This is gamesmanship!”)  But after the match, I was, you know, happy for him.  In a way.  Although I was also pretty busy crying for Federer, to whom Wimbledon means the world.

Asad Raza: Spoken like a very mature drinker of Federer Kool-Aid (apologies for those offended by the reference).  And it’s true, I felt much sympathy for Federer too, in his post-match suffering–but then I remembered how blessed he is to have talent of such magnititude, and how much he has achieved using it.  I don’t go in, anyway, for all the sorrow about the end of streaks and consecutive titles and pursuits of Bjorn Borg, who I don’t think could have competed with these two, just as I don’t think William Renshaw, the man who won six consecutive Wimbledons in the nineteenth century, could have tied Borg’s shoelaces on a court.  Maybe that’s just my presentism.  But the paradoxical lesson I draw from it is that the here and now is what’s important, not victories as data points in a historical case being constructed for Best Player Ever.  Finally, I think that’s what this match showed us: that the battle is really about today, and what’s in front of you, and not legacies and arguments.  Today, Nadal and Federer represented tennis played at its absolute highest level and with its most generous and admirable spirit, and that’s why I think they are the greatest rivalry the sport has known, since I’ve been watching.

Lucy Perkins: Yes, in a way it’s a shame to think of this match as anything other than an end in itself, a magnificent example of sport-as-drama, and a reminder of why we’re so willing to get up at odd hours to watch people hit a ball back and forth.  On the other hand, even while I watch a match like this, part of me starts to take the historical view: imagine what we’ll be saying about this when it’s all done and dusted.  And: I wonder what Borg makes of all this? It’s hard not to do that when you know you’re watching history.  I second your “greatest rivalry” nomination, and am a little sad that we might just have witnessed its apex.  Not because I don’t think they have other great matches in them – on the contrary, I am already excited for the next installment – but because I find it hard to believe anything could surpass today’s effort.

Asad Raza: Until next time, Luce!

Lucy Perkins: In the spirit of today’s match, hasta luego!  (Cheers!)