The Inside Mag's First Annual Tennis ArticleWritten by Vincent Narducci
The list of circumstances that can coalesce to reasonably force me out of bed on a Sunday at 7:00 am is a short one. In fact, a major championship tennis match may represent 9 out of the 10 times I’ve ever attempted the feat in the past decade (pretty sure someone had to go to the airport once, though that could have been a Thursday). In recent years, this bleary-eyed curiosity has mostly led to resignation and disappointment—not for the lack of epic tennis, which has easily been some of the most transcendent sport spectating I have ever witnessed, but instead because it has largely featured one Mr. Roger Federer, the greatest tennis player to ever wield a racquet, succumbing by an impossibly small margin to his lone kryptonite, Señor Rafael Nadal.
For those who don’t know or don’t care, (almost all my articles seem to warrant that disclaimer) Federer’s spot at the paramount of the tennis Pantheon was at one point basically unquestioned. In 2009, he surpassed the great Pete Sampras as the all-time Grand Slam Champion with 15 instances of Total Victory. Even Pete himself acknowledged that Fed was, “the best Jerry, the best.” It looked for all the world like Federer would continue to shatter that record, until the supremely athletic and younger Nadal, a transcendent player in his own right, began routinely dispatching Fed in Major Finals.
At first, this had happened only on the French clay of Roland Garros, and could be dismissed as the obvious result of the Spaniard’s comfort and specialization on the surface. However, when Nadal began taking Fed out on concrete and grass too, most notably at Wimbledon in 2008, in what is correctly considered to be the most exquisite tennis match in history, it led many to wonder how Federer could be called the greatest of all-time, if he might not even be the greatest of his own generation.
At its highest levels, tennis is a uniquely and intrinsically lonely sport. Bereft of teammates, coaches, or trainers, a great tennis match, despite its country club connotations, is comparable only to a great fight. It is a battle of precision, violence, wills, flurries, and momentum shifts, with haymakers in the form of serves and groundstrokes—albeit without the blood. Like fighting, it has its great champions, its great falls, and its competitors that hung on for too long. Like fighting, it is a gentlemen’s sport that requires a ridiculous level of fitness, training, and repetition.
I can remember a profound sadness upon reading a Grantland piece on the brutal, slow decline of the 30-year-old Federer from his confident perch at the top, to merely the second or third best player in the whole world:
The first loser. Once great. Also-ran. Twilight.
The piece read as a metaphor paralleling the decline of our own human lifespan. The writing on the wall emphatically said that a slew of runner-ups and third place finishes were all to expect before a hopefully graceful exit that would precede an ever-more precipitious drop-off. As the 2012 fortnight at the All England Club began, obscured by daily baseball highlights and post-Heat celebration, a message over gchat: “Nadal bounced early”. “Best last chance then.”
Despite a tournament that now promised to be gloriously free of Nadal's pre-point ritual of picking his wedgie out of his capri-pants, I chose not to watch, as to avoid being the jinx. Fed ended up being pushed to the absolute brink by a bad back in the early rounds himself, somehow surviving to eventually overcome world #1 Novak Djokovic, the other transcendent player of our generation, in a four set semifinal. On the other side of the draw stood world #4 Andy Murray, the unfortunate man who has to play in an era that features the three greatest tennis players ever. Adding to the intrigue: the fact that Murray was the first British male to make the Wimbledon final since 1936, rendering him the overwhelming sentimental favorite, with the hopes of the host-country crushingly thrust upon his shoulders. This all somehow added up to a rare championship moment in sports, a victor that anyone could root for, with history to be made, regardless of the outcome.
The pair traded breaks early in the first set. Riding the crowd and aggressive execution, Murray broke late to take the first set 6-4. The spectacularly tight second set that followed culminated with a ridiculous backhand volley by Federer, following a 20-shot rally, to even the match. Stalemate. Cue rain delay.
They shut the roof to continue, which apparently favored Federer, although the momentum had already clearly switched. Federer's first serve velocity rose 5 mph to 125s with the stadium closed, and he began running around Murray’s predictable backhand placements, eschewing that fluid motion for his legendary forehand. At 3-3, he forced 6 break points and 11 deuces, while Murray fell to the turf 3 separate times on critical points. A similarly machine-like 4th set and Fed captured his 7th Wimbledon, simultaneously tying Sampras for the most victories at the world’s premiere tournament, and the most total weeks with the #1 world ranking, a record he will break this Sunday.
Following the match, Murray was essentially speechless with tears, the heart-breaking realization that he had unfortunately let an entire people down, even though they all knew he was bringing a knife to a gunfight. Even a die-hard Federer apologist like myself kind of wished that Murray had won. For his part, as always, Federer showed refreshingly real emotion as well, humble and gracious in victory, as he has always been in defeat, promising that the young Murray will eventually win Majors--all of which solidified his spot in my mind as not only the greatest tennis champion ever, but actually one of the greatest sports champions that we have ever seen.
Consider the facts: the guy’s game can only be described properly as high art. Unlike Nadal or Djokovic, his shots exude an effortlessness and perfection of motion, rather than brute force or athleticism. Exhibit A: the utilitarian two-handed backhands of the other two, as opposed to the sweeping one-handed arc of the latter. Exhibit B and C: He has never made a grunt, nor much less a sound, nor does he ostensibly even appear to have even ever sweat during a match. It literally looks like he is not trying to the point that painters are a much more apt comparison than previous tennis players. Exhibit D: 17 Major trophies and counting.
Exhibit E-H: Unlike other dominant athletes, he has no taint or even whiff of steroid use (*cough* Lance Armstrong, et al.). He has no unfortunate arrests or sex scandals, (*cough* Tiger, Kobe et al.) Unlike other dominant athletes, he is married to the same girl he dated before stardom, a very pretty, yet un-Brooke Shields looking woman that he has twin daughters with (*cough* Tom Brady, et al.) Unlike other dominant athletes, he does not come across as a total asshole (*cough* Michael Jordan, et al.). Like other dominant athletes, he could have walked into the sunset and counted his millions, but instead chose to work his tail off to get back to the top.
Perhaps most tellingly, the great John McEnroe, teamed up for the telecast with his brother and the stellar Chris Fowler, unabashedly agreed that Federer is the best of all-time. Johnny Mac and Patrick, two men who have been around the game their entire lives, lauded Federer as the one tennis champion that truly cherishes and respects the sport—for the love of the game--more than any other player ever has, including themselves.
Long live Fed.
Previous articles by Vincent Narducci