The Stories They Won’t Tell

Washington, Second Round

Blake d. (8) Nalbandian, 6/2 6/4

In the dew-smeared eyes of the sadly uninitiated, it probably seems as though the last decade of men’s tennis belonged to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Champions, both, and champions define the limits of normal history. Ho-hum. This is the truest truism we have. But through that chasm between the past and history, which is to say between life and narrative, is where the vast hidden mass of other histories flow. The conceit of modern scholarship is to value these histories equally, presuming every life vouchsafes an invaluable glimpse into the time through which it passes, but the truth is that the deeper you go, the more forgettable it gets. Peer just below the choppy surface, however, and things remain pretty interesting.

A perverse history of men’s tennis in the last ten years might willfully omit Federer and Nadal, but it would still be fascinating if it gave us Nalbandian, Blake, Haas and Gonzalez. It might even be better for it. The players themselves might even wish it had actually played out that way, but that is past, and only history can be changed. All four are or were at their toils in Washington this week, evoking sepia-tinted heydays. Gonzalez and Haas have apparently played several times since their utterly non-epic Australian Open semifinal in 2007, but I don’t remember it. It was a rematch for me, a delayed chance at redress. But then the Chilean had to withdraw for a hip replacement or something, and so fed the unlucky loser Amir Delic to Haas.

Blake versus Nalbandian was a rematch, a twisted echo down the ages. Veterans each, and their combined comeback count numbers in the teens, but somehow the last time they met was the first. It was Shanghai 2006, in the semifinals of the Masters Cup, with Nalbandian as defending champion. Federer and Nadal played out a staggering first semifinal, one of the finest displays of tennis ever witnessed. Blake and Nalbandian had to cap it, somehow. They didn’t, but that’s what the secret history will say. Blake allowed the Argentine just five games. He used to be that good. Today, half the world and half a decade away, with their aggregate ranking clearing triple figures, Nalbandian won six games. That’s progress. He was again the defending champion. He has never defended a title. They are now sufficiently venerated that strong performances can be called vintage. Today Blake gave a vintage performance. More grist for the narrative, the stories they won’t tell.

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