Unforgettable Memories

ATP World Tour Finals, London

The ATP World Tour Final redeemed itself at the eleventh hour – of course it would – and a hasty re-relocation to Shanghai probably won’t be necessary. That’s the good news. Actually, it’s all good news. In the final three matches of the regular season – there’s still the tiny matter of the Davis Cup final – we’ve been treated to the match of the year, Roger Federer in full vintage flight, and a final between the two greatest players of the era. To paraphrase Mark Petchey, we now have so many memories we’ll never forget.

The manner in which it all unfolded was strangely satisfying, like life imitating art, or at least sport imitating the tales we tell about it. The weekend panned out exactly as someone who almost never watches tennis might expect it to. That’s what made it so surprising, and satisfying. The Big Four made the semifinals, then the Big Two made the final in contrasting and wholly characteristic fashions. From there – on a sluggish, low-bouncing indoor hardcourt – it was anyone’s game. We were treated to Rafael Nadal in full warrior mode, battling manfully like a Cimmerian reaver of yore to secure a gripping win deep in the final set tiebreak, leaving a cocktail of essential fluids out on the court surface amidst the detritus of discarded match points. Meanwhile Federer did not so much turn back the clock as unearth a bunch of old calendars. He has been in fine touch for months now, but this week was something else, as he deftly walloped the rest of the top five for the loss of a single set, with the redoubtable David Ferrer thrown in for good measure. Like I said, if you only know a little bit about men’s tennis, you probably think this is how it always is. But while clichés usually boast the uneasy virtue of being true, they never tell the whole truth.

Lest you were curious what a retired Argentinean soccer great with a penchant for controversy thought about it all, well, this week you could have that, too. There was clearly a cameraman assigned to Diego-detail all week, and no matter where Maradona lurked in the murky hordes, he was duly discovered and paraded across the Jumbotron. Presumably next year it will be taken further, and a full time Diego Cam will be deployed and inserted into the corner of our screens. For now, they’ve probably gathered sufficient footage for a smashing commemorative DVD. WTF: The Many Moods of Diego.

Semifinal 1

Nadal d. Murray, 7/6 3/6 7/6

There’s no question that 2010 has been a year of memorable matches, ranging from the bizarre (Isner d. Mahut at Wimbledon, Garcia-Lopez d. Nadal in Bangkok), to the dramatic (Djokovic d. Federer in New York). But truly classic encounters have been strangely rare. Prior to this electrifying tussle, the finest had probably been Soderling and Llodra’s superb semifinal in Paris a few weeks back. This was better. It was unforgettably memorable, so to speak.

Naturally, for Nadal to perpetuate the whole El Toro vibe he has going he must win these battles, meaning that someone has to endure an Honourable Loss. It’s hard to imagine a more honourable loss than Andy Murray’s, but it’ll still feel worse than a win. He’s surely tired of Nadal’s reassurance that he’ll win multiple Slams, though it’s a small but welcome counterpoint to the mounting British dread that he won’t win any. He certainly looked about as comforted as Andy Roddick did after his Honourable Loss at last year’s Wimbledon, when Federer blithely declared he knew just how the American felt.

For me, this match provided a lovely bookend to 2010, one of several this week. In terms of sheer quality, it is probably the finest ball-striking I’ve witnessed since this pair contested the quarterfinal at the Australian Open back in January. I recall being stunned by Murray’s aggression in that match, at the way he could boss Nadal around the court, until the Spaniard blew out his knee and defaulted in the third. This time Nadal’s body held up, and he scrapped like El Diablo. Afterwards, his reaction was not a primal roar but a beaming smile, dazzling and genuine.

Semifinal 2

Federer d. Djokovic, 6/1 6/4

Just as Nadal’s legend requires honourable losers, so does Federer’s demand humiliated ones. We are endlessly reminded by commentators how interesting it is to see Federer ‘challenged’ – and blowing matches from matchpoint up has certainly been that – but is that actually why we watch Federer? I’m pretty sure it’s not why I do. I watch because I love tennis, and Roger Federer in the full bloom of his powers is tennis in its purest form. It is the beautiful game at its most beautiful, elegance triumphant, reducing the next best players in the world to necessary extrusions from the mise en scene. Djokovic yesterday found himself in the unenviable position of having his best look irrelevant. Perhaps he could have played better, but really he played fine, and it just didn’t matter. Regardless of where he directed his shots, he was merely feeding Federer balls to crush winners from. It occurs to me that subduing The Djoker has been an ongoing theme of Federer’s late season revival, which makes him kind of like Batman.

Final

Federer d. Nadal, 6/3 3/6 6/1

The final was consequently the culmination of these two great counter-narratives in the men’s game: the unstoppable force and the immovable object. (Another cliché, naturally, but not a falsehood.) They’ve collided 21 times in their professional careers (18 of those in finals), and on 14 occasions the immovable Spaniard has prevailed. This was the final we’ve been waiting for, although it turned out it wasn’t, quite. For Nadal it was perhaps one battle too many, and Federer was murderously good.

In A Champion’s Mind, Pete Sampras notes how valuable Paul Annacone proved late in his career by reminding him that above all else, he is Pete Sampras. I can imagine a similar pep-talk before this match, a similar exhortation to impose his will no matter what, to make a clear statement: he is Roger Federer. The first game of the match was certainly declamatory. Three ferocious winners: forehand, backhand, ace, hold to love. Today’s final would feature few rallies, not because both guys aren’t supremely good at it – they are – but because Federer is so good at not rallying, and Nadal isn’t. In this kind of form, no one else can end a point so quickly from anywhere on the court.*

Apparently Federer at 29 the second oldest player to ever claim this title. It’s been a while since a tennis player reminded me that 29 is not actually very old by any reasonable standard, and hasn’t been since the Late Middle Ages. He’s been insisting for a while now (probably because people keep asking him) that he’s keen to go on playing for years. There was even talk of the Rio Olympics this week. That’s almost six years away. Imagine how many unforgettable memories we’ll have by then.

Commentary of the Week, again from Jason Goodall: “And here’s Andy’s brother Jamie, with his new wife . . . I hope.”

*Actually, I can, but Federer’s shots land in.

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