Monday, July 07, 2008

The pretender hath arrived.

All hail the tooth marks on the Wimbledon trophy! All hail the new king of grass. All hail the man to have tamed clay and grass in the same year, only the second after the legendary Bjorn Borg. All hail the muscleman of Mallorca.
Last night saw the clash of the titans. On a green rain ravaged Centre Court at Wimbledon. Tipped to win for a sixth consecutive time, the grass court great, Roger Federer met more than his match in the new kid on the block – clay Kaiser – Rafael Nadal. In what seemed to be a match between two level playing individuals, skill and most importantly endurance were put to the test. At the start of the tournament, Bjorn Borg (whose record Federer wished to surpass and Nadal wished to equal – two altogether different records – number of titles and same-season wins on grass and clay respectively) had tipped Nadal as his favorite Wimbledon 2008 Champion. However, after looking at Federer’s sublime performance against Safin, Borg was forced to retract his statement. In spite of everything, all those who witnessed the Wimbledon 2008 final match, were treated to a visual phenomenon, tennis of a different level. Some years ago, when Michael Schumacher was scorching up race tracks across Europe, winning race after race, Start Sports commentator Steve Slater had remarked, “All the retractors of Michael Schumacher, who have been going on and on about how boring the sport has become, thanks to Michael’s dominance, please sit back and look at History in the making.” Well, yesterday’s visual treat was nothing short of spectacular. Those who have seen the past 2 encounters between these two players, would definitely agree that Nadal has managed to elevate his game to a higher level. Many kept saying yesterday that Federer was not playing his natural game. And to a large extent, that did seem very true. In fact the number of times the ball hit the net, the number of faults. Each service game had at least one fault. In a crunch final, such unforced errors cannot be condoned. Well, I would just say that we must also give kudos to the fact that Nadal was playing a good, typical grass court game. If he managed to notice chinks in Federer’s armor and capitalize on the opportunities provided, what is wrong? Aren’t these qualities key to success anywhere? Observation and favorable conversion of all available opportunities! Definitely yes. It was clearly evident that Nadal was on top, both physically and mentally, since for the first time, super-cool Federer’s countenance betrayed the contrary!
The duel began with Nadal bagging the all important break of Federer’s serve. That, and the fact that he never let his serve be broken, saw him cruise to a 6-4 first set victory. The second set saw Federer breaking Nadal’s serve to go up 3-0 and Nadal in turn breaking Federer to again bag the set 6-4. So the 5 time champion is 2 sets down with Nadal serving into the third set. No one is still ready to accept that Fedex is going down. Star sports displays a banner that shows that Federer has resurged from being 2 sets down to go on to win the match, not once or twice but 3 times! Wow… Nevertheless, neither of the players is willing to let the opponent win. And then suddenly a huge grey cloud looms over Center Court, foreboding rain! Play resumes after a while, but you can only imagine the tension that the players would be under as they wait in the dressing room for the rains to abate. The set is inevitably pushed into a tie-breaker. Ace man Federer cannot be beaten in tie breaks! His serve is literally lethal. However, we did get to see some high quality serves and returns as the tie break progressed. But the 2 service points that Nadal lost spelt the loss of the third set. Fourth set begins and Federer seems to have found his lost charm. Supreme serves and returns, all in all spelt another thrilling fourth set. Again… Tie breaker. But here, when Nadal converted 2 of Federer’s service points, it looked that we were looking into the eyes of the new Wimbledon champion. Of course if you are leading 5-2 in the tie breaker of the fourth set and you are on serve, most people cannot expect much else. But perhaps God wanted the match to stretch on for 5 sets. Perhaps that was the minimum courtesy for a gentleman, THE gentleman of the gentlemen’s sport! Whether it was the excitement of the imminent decisive win, or the overwhelming emotion of being at the threshold of finally achieving what he had set out to achieve, each time coming so close yet so far, that played on Nadal’s nerves, we may never know. But he lost 2 match points and Federer again clinched the set. Now it was all down to the final set. No tie breaks, just the game.
Set 5 – the play starts, they are 2 sets each, 5th set 2 games all, 5th game on deuce…… RAIN!!!! I know I would have screamed NOOOOOOOOOO or WHYYYYYY looking up at the sky! I know my nerves would have been frayed at the edges. I know my energy would have flagged, I know I may have thrown it all away when play finally resumed. Maybe that is why I am here toying with the English language with a pen and paper and there, they are world champion and the new pretender….. But they play and they play hard, till finally nerves win. Many analysts have spoken that Federer believes in the grace of the game and such is his command over the sport that he never goes the extra mile to clinch a point. Well, when you have an awestruck opponent, and all the points available for the taking you don’t really need to bother about each point. But this is where yesterday’s game was different. Federer for the first time was facing an opponent who was agile and aware. He was in total concentration, completely involved in the game at hand. Continuously on the lookout for a slip up. At the end of the day, with two players so perfectly matched in ambition and determination, as also skill, the duel almost always boils down to the war of the nerves and mind games take center stage. Brain rules over brawn here. This strategy finally paid off for Nadal, as he finally clinched the ever elusive Wimbledon victory. A true fight indeed.
Now, the question remains, what happens next?
Well, can Federer now make a real challenge on clay? Given the fact that he has lost to Nadal in the past in 3 sets, or a maximum of 4 sets, it seems highly difficult. Besides, Nadal is still very young and the energy is still very much with him. Having quite clearly perfected the technique of taming the bounce of grass, this victory has also helped boost his confidence, going forward. Does this mean the end of the Federer era? Decidedly no. Federer is truly an artist in tennis - one of the few players whose game looks beautiful and graceful on court. Many of his strokes resemble the artistry of the tennis of yesteryears. Unfortunately the grit and the pace of power tennis today have made it difficult for anyone to just be artistic and win championships. Pat Rafter, Goran Ivanisevic are all cases in point – all famous for their unique shots and strokes. But the art coupled with power creates a unique form of tennis stroke play, of which Federer is a master. However, if Nadal perfects his service and holds on to his energy and spirit, while at the same time avoiding injury, I think we are at the threshold of one of the most rewarding periods in modern day tennis.
All hail the new era in Tennis!!!!!

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