First Serve: Triumph in The Dusk

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It’s the greatest stage in sport; a cathedral that inspires. Beloved Wimbledon, which, according to Virginia Wade, combines the enthusiasm of a teenager and the wisdom of a grandmother, is our Mother Church, an arena that rarely falters. Plus, with its new roof set to be in place next summer, this was to be the last year Centre Court would be at the mercy of London’s moody skies. Certainly, the tennis gods would bless us.

Little did we know.

History is a jealous mistress and many a supposedly compelling Slam final proves to be merely a dreary, anti-climatic dud. Still, few observers bristled when Pat Cash predicted that the final “could be one of the great matches of all time.” All week, Boris Becker informed us that Federer wanted to break every record in existence and Roger himself openly admitted that, for him, history was a key motivation. In fact, there was so much history on the line that John McEnroe (semi-correctly) quipped, “We’ve got to go back to 1886, when Geronimo was surrendering and there were just 10 people, including Geronimo’s cousin, in the draw.”

All the while, tennis tealeaf reading reached new heights. The final was challenger vs. champion, hunter vs. hunted, Ali vs. Fraser — the Gold Standard. Tennis was at a point of no return. Could Roger The Magnificent, with his astounding 65-match grass-court streak in place, become the first ever to win Wimby for the sixth time, retain his more-than-four-year ascendancy and purge himself of the bitter taste of a humiliating defeat in Paris? Or would Rafa “The Bounding Bull” Nadal become the first Spaniard since ‘66 to win at the AELTC, the first guy since Borg in ‘80 to win the French and Wimby back-to-back? Could the appealing muscle man, just 22, unleash his increasingly potent bazooka weaponry to subdue the Sultan of Subtlety, who melds power and art like no other in the history of our game? Could the pant-picking Popeyed pirate, with his bulging biceps and linebacker eyes, at last culminate his quest to subdue Fed and to do it on his foe’s home court, no less?

For nearly three sets, it seemed we were in for a faux classic, a straight set win by the Spaniard. For this — in effect if not form — was Paris all over again. For Rafa’s punishing forehand — a lethal bender which is quite as potent as David Beckham’s celebrated free kicks or Sandy Koufax’s curve ball — was again dominating.

Yes, as the London Times noted, “Federer in decline is better than practically anyone who has picked up a racket.”

Still, there is something unsettling when we see the Magnificent One struggling. Tennisdom seems askew when Federer is not in orbit. And now, Lord Cardigan showed little resemblance to the revered gentleman whose six-match journey to the final had seemed but a pleasant stroll through an English country garden. For now, both the man’s inner and outer calm were stripped and as his serenity was denied, so too his poetry vanished. Rally forehands flew long. Simple backhand slices lost their bearing. One break-point opportunity after another (which he normally converts with a thief’s delight) slipped away into the dust. After Fed muffed a standard volley, lip readers imagined him to have said a not-so-civil word. “We’re hearing howls of anguish,” Radio Wimbledon reported. “We’ve never heard him so vociferous on court.”

Looking flustered, picking Lendl-like at his strings, he threw up his hand in frustration. The Alpine Prince was no longer plucking leaves off a daisy. All the while Rafa — the man who stays in points longer than anyone in history — looked fierce, focused and remarkably error-free as he captured the first two sets and seemed poised to take Fed to a third-set tiebreak and a possible straight-set triumph. Then the heavens did the Swiss a favor.

During a 90-minute rain delay, Fed was fortunate enough to consult with quite arguably the best coach in the game — himself — and returned a new man. A zip in his step, a zap in his strokes, miraculously, Federer had found Federer. Now he inspired the Centre Court throng, as the loud but clipped chants of “Rah-jerr, Rah-jerr” at first seemed only to be countered by the plaintive calls of Rafa’s near-desperate seven-year-old nephew.

Feeling the moment, Fed flashed his Herculean will and lithe athleticism and served huge to wrench control to gain the third set and force a monumental fourth set tiebreak, where Rafa The Bold sprinted back to gain a 5-2 lead.

Suddenly — all 15,000 fans — stately gents in subtle tweeds and handsome ladies beneath their generous shawls, gray-haired Cornwall grannies and misty-cheeked teens — melded together as one, a congregation united. Every back nook, every cranny was jammed; the ancient arena a delicious showcase, each point a mini-epic revealing its own destiny. And far more than all the piercing screams and gasping groans, there was Wimbledon’s cherished gift: a symphonic silence — deep, defining, deafening — which descended as each point teed up, only to be inevitably shattered — AHHH-UGGHH — by the unmistakable macho marker of Nadal’s guttural grunt, which resonates loudly as he unleashes his serve.

But, as Paul Weaver noted, Rafa’s aggression “is devoid of hostility because there is a humanity about everything he does.” Rather than mocking Wimbledon, as many a claymeister has done, the Spaniard embraced it. Rather than cursing his fate — playing Avis to Federer’s Hertz — he’s showered his older foe with bouquets of respect and admiration. And rather than sit content with his considerable skill set, which propelled him to dominance on dirt, Rafa literally stepped forward (on court) and upgraded his serve, his backhand and volley, all the while reaping the benefits of his rising sea of confidence. No wonder when he blasted his way to that presumably commanding 5-2 lead in the excruciatingly tense fourth set tiebreak, he seemed (just three points from his coveted prize) to be on the brink of destiny.

But he blinked, allowing Roger to rise from the dead.

Now we saw a flash of that transformative Federerian pride — the defining force of our era — as he unleashed, when twice down on championship points, an ace to the corner and then a brave and beautiful (“Don’t mess with Fed!”) down-the-line backhand passing shot for the ages: two strokes of fearless virtuosity, which enabled him to win the tiebreak.

Now the noose tightened even further. For the second straight year, we would have a five-set final. But this year the match would attain a Borg vs. McEnroe intensity. Here bright, rain-washed skies long ago had given way to somber, slate clouds on an island where the summer dusk lingers long before it jealously surrenders to the night.

Thrust and parry, sublime shot-making, in-a-flash momentum shifts — this match had everything. And all the while the light faded. Mad dashes, astounding defense-to-offense transitions, near whiffs and brain-cramp blunders. And all the while the light faded. Surviving break points, psychological warfare and slight chinks in the Fed backhand. And all the while the light faded. Another maddening rain delay, memories of Sampras’ great triumph in the gloaming as crowds gathered from pubs in Ireland to airports in Illinois.

Now even the Duke in the Royal Box shivers, the elder Indian fan with the gray beard and blue turban is transfixed and more than cynical reporters exchange glances, knowing “this is the place,” a transformative moment. Who has more fire in his belly? Is the fifth set really just all about the mind? Who wants it more: monarch or insurgent? In your gut tension gathers.

But now, as each combatant holds, the on-serve marathon navigates the treacherous passages of overtime. As the light at last slips away, a last shadow, all that is clear is that this is grass court (“in a flash it’s over”) tennis. But both soldiers defend their fortresses and hold serve with military ferocity. Neither warrior blinks. Then at 7-7 in the fifth, the mighty Fed errs when, after fighting off three break points, he suffers his fourth forehand error of the fateful game. The light is gone, a nobleman’s reign teeters. Moments later, the master, who is said to have the best forehand in the universe, dumps one into the net. The Spaniard now is King. His quest achieved, he drops limp to the hallowed sod. Relief, ecstasy and joy embrace. A roar marks the moment, flashbulbs explode and Wimbledon’s new Lord rises to scamper triumphant over seats and quirky outcroppings to embrace dear ones and mighty Royals. Tears and sorrow, such a blessing to be present.

True, there is too much to absorb. Still, the words are clear — “And the Wimbledon Gentleman’s Champion for 2008, “says the oh-so-British announcer,” Rafael Nadal.” The bronze man-child tells us of his dreams. The gracious Swiss speaks of “the worst opponent and best court.”

As thousands of images are shot, I know I must do my job and track the after-story.

Up on the lawn, by the players’ lounge, the delirious chants of Spanish fans, draped in flags, ring while I quiz Rafa’s uncle/coach Toni, a burly wise man who sings of the focus and concentration which provided for his nephew’s greatest triumph.

By the broadcast center, Johnny Mac strides by: “Hey, Mac,” I ask. “Was this the best match since Borg-Mac in ‘80?” “Nah, it was the best match ever.” By the interview room, Brad Gilbert echoes that sentiment, telling me, “No question — that was the best match I’ve ever seen with these two eyes. What a roller coaster.” In the interview room, I ask Roger, “You have such a deep love and respect of the game. The match today had so many elements…Commentators are already talking about it being the best in…”

“Look,” he replied, “it’s not up to us to judge if it was the best ever. It’s up to fans and the media to debate. I’m happy we put in a great effort…It was a fair battle…We both played tough till the very end…With the fading light the victory became even more special, similar to when Pete won his 13th Slam against Rafter in the fading light. That looked incredible. I wish obviously it was me with the trophy, but…”

“Was this the toughest match of your career?” I followed up.

“Probably my hardest loss, by far,” he replied. “I mean, it’s not much harder than this right now, so…”

In the press interview with Rafa I asked, “Can you just express your feelings as the match went on and on and became tighter…What was going through your head?” He responded, “Just focus in every point. Is impossible to think too much, because if you think too much you not gonna play well. I just focus next point, have point by point, no? I don’t want to think about the title.”

But now, as reporters filed hundreds of stories for readers from Casablanca to Calabassas, millions around the globe were pondering his 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7 triumph. And for me, the best place to reflect upon it was back on Centre Court.

So at 12:27 a.m. — three hours and 11 minutes after Rafa had prevailed — I return to my press seat in Row J. Once puffy white clouds now have given way to a rose darkness. The roars of the packed throng are but echoes. Only the clangs of the cleaning crew above Exit 23 break the quiet. Now the scoreboard is blank, the tiny broadcast cubicles sit vacant and the court — stripped of its net and free of combatants — is just a maddeningly simple rectangle marked by seemingly random lines.

Amidst the emptiness, only the umpire’s chair — lonely and abandoned — stands as a distinct witness to what was. True, the night winds whirl, whispering, I imagine, of an island boy with simple tastes and an unshakeable will who, armed with that dipping forehand, pursued an untenable dream to triumph on this very lawn.

But now the court lies flat and silent: its turf tattered, its job complete. For on this night it has enriched us with memory. Memory of the greatest happening this game has ever offered, a moment still and compelling; a riveting triumph in the dusk, sublime and sweet, sport at its best — a transcendent wonder.

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