There was a single point during Sunday’s Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer match that actually made me shudder. I don’t often shudder during sporting events. To be honest about it, I don’t often shudder period. I am lucky enough to live a pretty shudder-free life.
But there was something about this point — well, I was rooting for Federer to win (like always). This has nothing at all to do with the personalities. I Rafa Nadal very much. I like the way he kind of blushes and protests whenever people ask him if he’s the greatest tennis player ever. I like the quiet way he knows how much he intimidates. I like that he’s a huge fan of other sports. I like the time he puts into charity. And, if you like tennis at all, you cannot help but be overwhelmed by the way he plays. He is like a blend of some of the giants of the game — a little bit of Connors, a little bit of Borg, a little bit of Agassi, a little bit of Laver. He plays with passion but he also plays with control. He is a fighter, but he’s also an artist. He hits ridiculous shots all the time. It is impossible, I think, to watch him play and not feel awed.
Still, I root for Federer every time. That’s from the gut. I don’t know that I can explain it, but I guess it might be this: The way my life turned out, the most perfect athletic representation of my ambition is Roger Federer. That is to say … I probably played tennis at a higher level than I played any other sport. It was a pathetically low level, but we can only work with what we have. Tennis was the last sport I gave up on as a dream. I realized young that I wasn’t going to be tall enough to play basketball, and I wasn’t going to be strong or fast enough to play football. I clung to my baseball dream until my early teens when it became clear that my incessant fear of getting plunked (and my Tony Pena Jr. like average) did not bode well for my Major League future.
Into high school, though, I believed I had a chance to play professional tennis. I banged tennis balls against the brick wall of the local supermarket for hour upon hour. My highest ideal was Roger Federer. Of course, I did not know who Roger Federer was then — heck, he was 3 or 4 years old at the time. But what I daydreamed about was playing with his sort of artistry, his sort of grace, his sort of touch. What I daydreamed about was combining the baseline power of Ivan Lendl with the brilliant touch of John McEnroe. It seemed a silly thing, an impossible combination. Then, when my ideal had long faded, Federer came along. And watching him … well, you know how the right song can trigger a precise feeling, can almost physically take you back to a certain time and place?* Watching Federer has long taken me back to that parking lot, and that supermarket wall, and those unrealistic childhood dreams that I held on to for longer than seemed practical.
*One of those songs for me is John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Ain’t Even Done With The Night.” I don’t even think I like that song. But when I hear it, I’m 14 years again and walking with friends under a bright sun.
So I was rooting for Federer, as usual, and there was this point during the French Open Final … it was pretty clear by then that Nadal would win. There had been some hope for Federer in the first set when he broke serve and had a few chances to win the thing. But the truth is that when they are both right, Federer cannot beat Nadal. It has been talked about time and again: Federer is the greatest player of all time. And he’s not the greatest player of his own time. This was the 25th time they faced each other, and Nadal has won 17 of those matches. It was this way from the start — Nadal beat Federer the first time they played in 2004, and then after losing a five-setter to Federer in Miami (he actually led two sets to love), Nadal won the next five.
It should be said that there was a brief time, from Wimbledon 2006 through 2007, when Federer won five out of seven matches against Nadal. He even beat Nadal on clay during that stretch — he’s only beaten Nadal on clay twice through the years. But excepting that stretch and the odd upset or two in Madrid or London, the best Federer can hope to do against Nadal is extend him. Federer’s game is scissors. Nadal’s game is stone.
Once Nadal came back and won that first set, the result was determined. All Federer could realistically do was keep the match going and hope for Nadal to break, which is no hope at all. Nadal does not break. Federer played some inspired tennis, I thought. He broke Nadal’s serve in the second set to force a tiebreaker. He won the third set. It was wonderful to watch, and it showed — like Federer’s upset of Novak Djokovic showed — that Federer still has some fight and brilliance left in him. But even while he was doing it, he seemed only to be postponing Nadal’s trophy ceremony. And he was.
And there was this point — I’m sure, looking back it would blend in with a dozen other points — when Federer was blasting away against Nadal. He must have hit four or five shots that would have been winners against almost anybody else. And every one of them came blasting right back at him.
And that’s when I shuddered. There is something about intimidation in sports that is hard to define. There is, of course, blatant intimidation — a pitcher throwing fastballs high and tight, Dick Butkus talking about knocking somebody’s head off, Patrick Ewing purposely goaltending the first two or three shots of a national championship game. Nadal does some of that with the muscle shirts he wears* and the way he carries himself.
*If I had Rafael Nadal’s arms, I’d wear those shirts all the time. I’d wear those shirts to funerals.”
— Michael Schur on this week’s emergency replacement Poscast. More on this later this afternoon.
But there’s a whole other kind of intimidation — a much scarier kind to me — that comes from someone or something being inescapable. The thing that made the original Terminator such an intimidating movie character, I think, is that he would not stop. He could not stop. He was programmed to kill, and this goal took up 100% of his circuitry. He wanted to kill Sarah Connor more than she wanted to stay alive. That feeling of no escape is suffocating in ways that sheer force and will and power is not. Andy Roddick hits perhaps the hardest serve in the history of tennis. But somehow that doesn’t feel as intimidating to me as a player who runs everything down and and never stops and returns the ball harder than you hit it in the first place
For that moment, during that point, while watching Nadal return shot after shot against Federer — this bloodless pummeling of Federer’s body — I imagined myself in Federer’s place on the other side of the court from Nadal. I imagined hitting the best shots available in my imagination. I was hitting lines. I was moving him side to side. I angled a brilliant forehand to hit to the deuce court. Then, upon the inevitable return, I hit the perfect backhand off the line on the ad court. He reached that too. Back and forth. I hit the ball so hard it turned into fire. He returned it. I overhead slammed the ball so the bounce went to the 23rd row. He ran into the crowd and hit it back. Even in my imagination, even with only my own mind to hold me back, I could not figure out away to put away Rafa Nadal.
I think, when he’s done playing, he will be universally accepted as the best who ever lived. He will need to win at least seven more Grand Slam titles because that’s how many he needs (right now) to pass Federer on the list, and we do base our greatness on numbers*. But I suspect he will retire with the Grand Slam record He’s 25 years old. He is all but invincible in Paris. He has won the last two Wimbledons he has played. He has won 10 Grand Slam events. At 25, Federer had won eight.
*I keep having discussions with people about Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus — if Tiger falls a major or two short of Jack’s 18, could you still make the argument that he is the greatest player in the history of golf? Of course you CAN make the argument and make it pretty convincingly. You could argue that Woods had a more dominant peak. You could argue that Woods played in an era when the quality of the fields went much deeper. You could could argue that Woods succeeded under an intense scrutiny that Nicklaus did not face.
But I still think that if Woods doesn’t catch Nicklaus in the majors race, then Jack is the best ever. I think this because Woods set the terms very early in his life. He set them when he was just a kid and he had a poster of Nicklaus on his wall and a chart showing all the major championships he had won. For Tiger Woods to achieve the goal of undisputed greatest ever, I think he has to win 19 majors.
If Nadal passes Federer on the list, I don’t think there’s a legitimate argument to be made for anyone else as greatest ever. Nadal has won Grand Slams in the heat of Australia, on the Paris clay, on the Wimbledon grass and in front of the New York crowd. He has won an Olympic Gold Medal. He has carried his team to Davis Cup victory. He has dominated the man who was widely viewed as the best who ever lived. He has won 83% of his matches, imposed his will against any and every style. It seemed that Novak Djokovic, who as on that incredible unbeaten streak, was ready to topple Nadal at the French Open, take over the No. 1 spot in the world, become the most dominant player in the world. And he might still do that. But players have had great streaks before — I’m not making the comparison but I do remember that a player named Jose Luis Clerc once won 27 straight matches and four tournament in A SINGLE MONTH.
Nadal has still won four of the last six Grand Slam titles — losing only in Australia, which is the least comfortable place for his game. If I had to guess, I would guess Nadal will be the best in the world for a while longer. If I had to guess, he will win more than 17 Grand Slams. If I had to guess …
But this isn’t about guessing or the best in the world or the best ever or any of that. This is about the shudder. I always used to say that John Elway is probably not the greatest quarterback ever, but he’s the one who scared me most in the fourth quarter. Gary Sheffield probably wasn’t the best hitter in the game at any point, but he’s the one that would spark nightmares for me if I was a pitcher who had to get him out. Michael Jordan IS the greatest player ever (see this week’s Point After in this coming week’s SI for more detail) AND he is the scariest basketball player ever because you know he would do anything to win.
In this way, Rafael has already won. Whether he becomes the greatest tennis player ever or not is beside the point for me now. He is the one player I could not beat even in my dreams.