Federer/Nadal: the joy of watching perfection

Jul 11, 2006 4:43 AM

I played tennis as a kid and enjoyed it, to a point. That point was remembrance of my last high school match, against a star of the school’s football team, a boy named Walter Griffiths. He blew me off the court.

Not long after Walter was blown off the earth when a Japanese mortar shell landed in his foxhole on Guadacanal, and ever since a trip to a tennis court has brought back haunting memories of his face across the net.

Then, last Sunday, a different view of why tennis is a great sport. It is not just the idea that two or more can enjoy playing, that you can do it with convenience wherever a court is squeezed into the landscape, that you can improve your game markedly with instruction and practice, that it is one of the best forms of athletic companionship.

It is because you can watch and fully appreciate what greatness looks like. Golf does that, but not with the immediacy of tennis. Long walks between holes are not conducive to excitement.

Basketball and baseball and football do not do it because they are not participatory sports for most. They lack the personal relationship that tennis provides, and the pros in those games make it look so easy dunking or chasing down a long fly ball or running a broken field that unless you have done it you can’t fully appreciate how brilliantly talented these guys are, and how blessed physically.

You certainly can enjoy watching them, perhaps with the vicarious illusion that you are out there, or merely watching for the pure enjoyment of physical skills at the highest level.

But last Sunday, watching Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal play tennis, something different was at work. Their supreme mastery of the game came shining through”¦.and they did not make it look easy.

Watching these two serve and volley and send smashes into inaccessible corners and play chess on the worn grass of Wimbledon sent chills down the spine.

Nadal, victor over Federer , the world’s number one player, five straight times on clay, obviously wanted this one more than any of the others, to show he could play on grass as well. When he failed to take the crown, the look of youthful disappointment showed on his 20-year-old face, and he was preoccupied with defeat throughout the starchy Wimbledon ceremonies.

Federer, unflappable and immutable and seemingly without emotion throughout the match, finally showed some humanity when it was over. He had allowed himself only the faintest of smiles in the final game of the match, knowing he had Nadal at last. He is not a modest player, fully aware of his skills and dominance, but he is not smug or overbearing.

Of all of the tennis greats of the last three-quarters of a century, Federer reminds me most of Don Budge, my first tennis hero as a kid, the world’s number 1 player for six straight years and the first ever to win the four championships of the Grand Slam in a single season. Budge won Wimbledon in 1937, not only the singles but the men’s doubles with Gene Mako and the mixed doubles with Alice Marble. The following year he won Wimbledon again, this time without losing a set. He did all that as an amateur, before tennis made millionaires of its stars.

Federer reminds me the least of the cocky Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe. He plays without apparent temperment, but the fires of competition clearly burn within him, as the clenched fist after a powerful point indicated clearly.

As for Nadal, he is the coming superstar of the sport. Federer was his master this year on grass, convincingly the better player on that surface now. Nadal outplayed him consistently on clay, and the hunch here is that it will not be long before he catches up with him on grass. The kid from Majorca loves to play and hates to lose, a winning combination at any level of the sport, let alone its lofty top reaches.

Watching these two, the best tennis players in the world, brought a sudden realization of what they offered.

It was the sheer joy of watching perfection.