Sunday, July 6, 2008

Crazy Good: Nadal takes his first Wimbledon Crown

2 Set's down and on serve at 5-4 in the 3rd set in the Wimbledon Men's Singles final, the rains came. They came for the last time (Wimbledon's Centre court will be sporting a brand new roof next year), and they came unabashedly. One had to wonder: was this a cleverly orchestrated squall invented by Roger aka our heavenly father Federer to give him precious time to recharge his batteries, reverse the course of this one-sided match, and vault him into the singular unequivocal status as the all-time king of grass? Or was this rain just simply delaying the fact that Federer's reign of excellence over the field at Wimbledon was finally over?

After nearly 3 sets of tennis, Federer seemed very close to cracking. The rain, perhaps, would be the divine intervention that he so badly needed. At the time of the delay he was in dire straits, having failed to take advantage of 6 break point opportunities in the third set, including 4 in a very deflating 6th game. Each time Federer made a brilliant shot to get himself in position for the break, the human backboard known as Rafa would sprout legs and run down his very best offerings to keep him at bay.

As Federer continued losing the big points, it seemed strange, even a little sad, because as long as we can remember, and especially on the grass at Wimbledon, these were the points that Federer would save his most death- defying tennis for. Federer has always been the player that could paint his opponent into a corner when it really mattered. But not in the first two plus sets before the rains came. The virile specimen Nadal, relentless in his consistency, power, and footspeed, would not take his foot off the pedal.

And then the rains finally came. It was as if the vaunted champion had been granted a repreive; given time to reconsider his approach, to strengthen his resolve. But would he make use of it? One had to wonder, what would happen when they continued? Would Federer go down without a fight, as we saw him do in the French, where he was mercilessly pummelled by Rafa, or would the much more palatable outcome take place - would he use this time to gather himself, and make this the definitive match we curious observers so badly wanted it to be?

After a record 4 hours and 48 minutes of gut-wrenching nerve-frazzling tennis, these questions have been answered. Or at least we think they have been. But really there are only two people who know what the heck actually happened out there on Centre Court. The rest of us - fans, coaches, and commentators alike, are still in a daze. We are completely mystified. Maybe awestruck is a better word. The only thing we're sure of is that Nearly 7 and a half hours after the schuduled start of this match, Rafa Nadal is the new Wimbledon champion, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7.

But it wasn't the typical Nadal bloodletting. For a while it seemed as if it might be, but then the rains came and the great champion emerged ready to do battle. As the players started play after a 1 hour 21 minute rain delay in the third set, it was a different Federer who appeared. Actually it was the same Federer in body, but unlike the Federer who started the match by losing the first two sets and blowing several break point opportunities, this version of Federer appeared to have more determination, more will, and more courage.

The new and obviously improved Federer immediately got to work and virtually minutes after play had started again, Roger had taken the third set by storming his way through a tiebreaker, 7-5.

In the fourth set, neither player relented. There was not a single break point in the set, but there were some tense moments. Federer was down 0-30 while serving at 4-5, but he stiffened his resolve and hit remarkable winners to hold.

As they moved into a 4th set tiebreaker, things quickly went from captivating to utterly amazing to the best tennis you could ever imagine. Magnificent rallies ensued and each player somehow was able to channel the magic within him while under wicked pressure. Early on, it looked like the Federer Express had been derailed as the ever-opportunistic Rafa stormed to 4-1 lead. When Rafa pulled another miraculous return out of his bag 2 points later it looked like Federer would finally have to taste the bitterness of defeat.

The crowd meanwhile, wanting nothing less than their money's worth, tried to urge Roger on. As Nadal held the ball to serve at 5-2 the look on Federer's face was a strange mix of agony and determination. His eyes were glazed with purpose; Watching him prepare to return serve, the immense gravity of the moment was palpable.

3 Dazzling points later, almost miraculously (considering the ominous phenom at the other end of the court) Federer was still alive, at 5-5! Specators were now holding their breath, their alabaster skin turning even whiter as the pressure mounted. After another mini-break Federer was in the drivers seat with a set point of his own to work with. But Nadal had an answer for that. He leveled at 6-6 and won the next point to gain his first ever Championship point. But again it was Federer's turn for heroics, and again they were tied, 7-7! Many nails were being bitten in the gallery, and many oooh's and aahh's were utterred, but all the while Federer and Nadal remained remarkably calm and focused, poised and athletic - both proving over and over with each passing point that they are worthy of every bit of respect that has ever been given to them, and both, based on their exploits today, are deserving of even more.

After fighting off a second Championship point, Federer's next flurry of improbable shots were too much for Nadal. Roger made a backhanded pass of Nadal at 8-8 that had to be the most perfect shot in the history of the universe. One point later, the tiebreaker was over, and the match was dead even at 2 sets apiece.

It was much of the same for the 5th set - remarkable, almost unimaginably excellent tennis. Neither player, again, would budge (neither could afford to). 14 games were played, and in the waning light of the 9 o'clock hour, still they were dead even. For a minute I thought to myself that it would be fitting if they just played forever, on and on for eternity.

But it was not to be. Federer's chance to break came in the 8th game of the set and it was a one time offer from the surly Spaniard. Quickly the door closed, and Roger had to sag a bit there, knowing that of the thirteen break point opportunities he had earned, he had only been able to finagle one from Nadal (in the 2nd set). For the rest of the set it felt like Federer needed miracle after miracle just to remain on level ground.

At 5-5, down 15-40, Federer served 2 masterful aces to get back to deuce. He won the game and the drama continued; the tension heightened and the players wore expressions of both terror and passion, until finally, just as the lack of sunlight threatened to delay the conclusion of the match until tomorrow, Nadal managed a break.

In the ensuing game a scrambling Federer tried to save his crown. He fought valiantly, negating 1 Championship point, but in the end the task finally proved too tall. As Federer's last ditch forehand flopped harmlessly into the net a dominant run had finally come to an end - 5 years in the making and 65 straight wins, dating back to 2002, on grass.

The longest men's final in tournament history is already being called by many the greatest tennis match they've ever seen. Others remain silent for they are just plain speechless. It was that good. Crazy good.