Monday, July 7, 2008

Best Tennis Ever

On Sunday I spent 7.5 hours watching the most amazing tennis match of my young tennis career.

On Monday I imitated the "instant classic" with my own epic tennis battle-- on a much, much, much smaller scale.

I woke up Sunday morning excited about the Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. After two weeks of having to TiVo every big match at Wimbledon and then hearing who won from various people before I got a chance to watch them, I was determined to watch this match live.

There were so many different ways to dissect this exciting match-up that I couldn't decided who to root for. Should I go for the guy who's been ranked #1 in the world for four and half years (Federer), who has won this particular tournament five straight times and was going for a record six straight, who has made it to an amazing 17 consecutive grand slam semifinals, and who is chasing the record of 14 overall grand slam titles (he's currently at 12)? Or the younger Nadal, who has been ranked #2 to Federer for three years, despite having a winning record against the champ, who himself has won the French Open four straight times (at the expense of Federer), the last time a month ago when he shellacked his rival 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the finals?

And that's just the tip of the drama iceberg.

I didn't know who to root for, and I didn't really care. I was happy to be watching the match in real time. After the first of three rain delays and interruptions, the match started, and I found myself rooting for Federer. I'm not sure why this was, but the sports fan's heart wants what it wants, and I wanted Federer to win.

Over the next 7.5 hours I watched some great tennis, punctuated by rain delays that allowed me to do laundry, vacuum, eat lunch, and do other chores. Almost my whole day was taken up by the match, which I don't think has ever happened with a sporting event before. The match had everything that makes a great sports contest: two likable but competitive opponenets, amazingly hard-fought points, beautiful shots and displays of athleticism, a comeback, a choke or two, close scores, the tennis equivalent of overtime, and an outcome that was not determined until the very end. There were times when points would go three or four shots beyond amazing. I mean, one amazing "get" was followed by another two or three. It kept me on the edge of the couch, and I told my cat, who slept nearby, "Katya, you are missing an awesome match!" She shrugged and shifted her position.

In the end, Nadal unseated the five-time champ, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7. As someone who loves scores and numbers, I'm impressed with the score alone. I didn't care who won, it was such a great match. Each of them was gracious in victory and defeat, respectively. Both cried, but for different reasons. John McEnroe, who was calling the match, thanked both of them for giving us (the fans) such a great display. McEnroe even hugged Federer, and both of them started to tear up. I almost did, too, when I saw Nadal run up into the stands after the match to hug his family.

I've seen some headlines that say things like Nadal "stunned" Federer. That's misleading. It implies that Federer was a heavy favorite who got upset. Not true. Nadal's been gaining on him recently, and since Federer is about five years older, it was inevitable that Nadal would surpass him at some point (if any of the other upstarts like Djokovic didn't do it first.) The question was only when and how. And the "how" was as awesome as a tennis fan could hope for. This rivalry win continue, no doubt, but it feels like this was a watershed moment for Nadal; a usurpation of the crown.

Inspired by the Wimbledon final, Monday evening I met a new tennis opponent for a friendly match in the humid heat of Urbana. I wore my new sleeveless Rafa shirt so I could intimidate my opponent with my bulging muscles, just like Rafa's. I'd played this guy once before, in my tennis league, and beat him 6-2, 6-4, so I wasn't afraid of him. But this time it was much closer. We played the first set to a 6-6 tie, and then I won the tiebreaker, 7-3. Tough set.

It was easily my sweatiest match of the year, since it was so humid. Despite my headband and cap, the sweat was rolling into my eyes and flying onto my glasses. In the second set we traded games to 3-3, but then I finally took two in a row to go up 5-3. I served for the set, and was up 40-0 when I totally choked. I had four match points in that game, but lost them all. He came back to win the game and two more to go up 6-5. I felt like I didn't have any energy left, but then it was his time to choke. He had set point at 6-5, but I battled back to win the game and force a second tiebreaker.

I must have had a second wind, because I came out to a quick 4-0 lead. I stayed ahead and had match point at 6-4. It was my fifth match point of the evening. I hit a shot to his backhand and come up to the net. He tried a pretty good passing shot, but I got to it in time and was ready to hit a winning volley. The ball hit the cord and bounced over my racket onto the court. Dammit! Now I felt like maybe fate was against me. I was 0-for-5 on match points.

But I put away the next point to win it, 7-6(3), 7-6(5). I was happy that it was over, because I don't think I could have gone another set. The match lasted two hours.

Two sweaty, athletic, fun, victorious hours.

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