On tennis, and redefining ‘epic’

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January is in its final hours, but unless Ireland wins the European Championships, I highly doubt I’ll see another sporting event as exhilarating and magnificent as Sunday’s Australian Open final in 2012. Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal gave us a match of such improbable drama and stupendous force that it reaffirmed, once again, that this golden age of men’s tennis is redefining not just sporting excellence, but just excellence in general. Is there any other field of human endeavour where so many of the greatest ever practitioners are pitting themselves against one another, repeatedly, and with such breathtaking results?

It has also given us the best piece of writing I’ve read so far this year – Brian Phillips reflecting on the match, and tennis, in Grantland. Phillips perfectly captures the beauty of the sport and the pain of defeat – it’s not often you can go around comparing athletes to Hector, Achilles and Ajax without sounding like a pompous blowhard, but Phillips makes a convincing case that the travails of the Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer over the past five years, the sustained excellence of the winners and the unbearable pain of the losers, makes it seem like the only analogy worth making.

“The cruelest thing about this glutted golden age of men’s tennis is that it keeps producing astonishing matches, matches that actually expand your idea of what sport can be, and someone has to lose all of them,” he writes.

On the game itself, he gives the most pithy, and accurate, description imaginable: “It was the longest Grand Slam final ever, a match that felt like old-school naval warfare, just two ships cannonading each other until they both started to sink.”

There was a pang of self-recognition reading Phillips’ assessment of Nadal: “I admired what Nadal had done, and I loved the insanity at the top of the men’s bracket. But deep down, in some atavistic corner of my sports fan’s heart, I kind of wanted him gone.”

I often fell prey to the same atavistic desire to see him gone, to see Federer reign supreme and unchallenged, a benign monarch at the top of the sport. For me, the fact that Federer failed in the greatest challenge of his career, besting Nadal, is one of the great sporting disappointments, up there with Van Basten being forced to retire in his prime. But Federer always seemed like the least confident overdog in sporting history, too often wracked with self-doubt when challenged by his nemesis. Van Basten just got kicked to shit.

(Phillips’ essay on Federer’s gradual decline from last year is another must read. But spare a thought for poor Andy Murray – his semi-final against Djokovic last Friday really was epic, once; now, already, it’s dimly remembered. It is the ineluctable pattern of his career encompassed in a few days.)

The drama on Sunday might have been improbable, but an unmistakable sense of inevitability hangs around Djokovic these days, the air of certainty that he will triumph. I’m not sure I ever believed Nadal was going to do it, not even when he went a break up in the fifth. At that stage, Djokovic looked like he was just coming out of a coma, his movement awkward, his concentration gone, his energy sapped. But I was, in some subconscious way, just waiting for that burst of determination from Djokovic, the sort of last-gasp act of defiance that almost-dead superheroes always summon forth at the end of the movie. And when the break back came, it felt like an oddly pre-ordained turn of events – there was a calm inevitability to the way Djokovic began to control points and dictate the game to Nadal. I think Nadal had that subconscious expectation too, and I suspect he was broken as much by that expectation as by anything Djokovic did.

The only other sportsman who can conjure that sense of inexorable genius is Lionel Messi, playing for Barcelona, of course. In the big matches, the magic moment he finds a way through the defence always feels just a minute away. But losing is a collective burden in football; Nadal has no such consolation. As Phillips wonders, “How does it feel to die at the end of the book, this many times in a row?”

The thing is, the book isn’t over; there will be many sets and chapters and stories and tournaments to come before this story is done being told. 

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