Strokes of Genius

Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played
By L. Jon Wertheim

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Copyright © 2009 L. Jon Wertheim
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-547-23280-5


Chapter One

Centre Court

There was a notable absence at Wimbledon in 2008 Gone were the pigeons that used to nest in the Centre Court rafters and girders and then alight on the court, drawing spasms of laughter from the crowd, no matter how many times they had seen this spectacle before. All the nooks and crannies of the building made for deluxe accommodations; all that high-quality grass and seed on the court made for fine dining. Centre Court was a natural pigeon habitat, and the lead-colored birds had been as much a part of the tournament tableau as the Pimm's Cups and the all-white attire.

But the pigeons distracted the players, and as All England Club officials put it, in their delicate way, "Their detritus could be problematic." So the club enlisted Rufus, a Harris's hawk, natural predator of pigeons. Each morning, Rufus would soar menacingly above the grounds, and by the time the matches began, the pigeons would have vanished, been expelled from their homes. This bit of Darwinism was as good a metaphor as any for the tennis that would unfold on the courts. The theme of the tournament: the predator instincts of Rafael Nadal pitted against the territorial instincts of Roger Federer.

Asserting that Federer had won Wimbledon for five years running would, while true, have somehow understated the case. Federer owned Wimbledon during that time. No, check that. He was Wimbledon. As he accumulated trophies and tied Bjorn Borg's record of five consecutive titles, all the while fitting in so flawlessly, Federer came to overtake the event. The grass underfoot accentuated his fluid movements and his singular - which is to say, multiple - abilities: all that graceful volleying, those brilliantly angled flicks, those imaginative pieces of shotmaking. And Federer's conservative, decorous behavior played pitch-perfectly at an event dripping with tradition. This wasn't one of those ornery sluggers with a baseball cap turned backward, a display of tattoos and jewelry, mispronouncing the tournament "Wim-bull-TIN." He was a kid the adults at Wimbledon - Wim-bull-DUN - could love. Here was a classicist nostalgic for an era that predated him. Here was a European stylist who embraced all the quirks and customs and formalities of the tournament. When he won, he was so filled with reverence and appreciation (and adrenaline) that he would cry when receiving the trophy. This transparent emotion endeared Federer to the fans even more than the preceding Wimbledon monarch, Pete Sampras, who while comparably successful was stiff and exacting, not brilliant and elegantly charismatic the way Federer is perceived to be.

If Wimbledon came to represent a veritable Federer jubilee, he was just as successful and popular at the other stops on the tennis caravan. Federer became the top-ranked player in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) in 2004, ushering in the Federer Era, the most dominant regime in tennis history. In four years he won eleven of the sixteen Majors - or, to use the bastardized term, Slams - the sport's four bedrock events. He won on all continents, on all surfaces, against all opponents. Entire forests would have to be felled to reprint the gaudy statistics supporting the dominance of the Federer Era. To limit this exercise to one such example: from 2004 to 2007, his match record was 315-24.

More remarkable still, Federer won not with unanswerable, might-makes-right power, but with flourish and flair. His game relies on precision and nuance and opulent talent. For all the modern touches, his style is mostly a throwback, what with his one-handed backhand, his simple handshake grip, his fondness for net play. It is a rare sports marriage of style and substance. The descriptions of Federer's game are often pulled from art and light: it's poetry, ballet, a renaissance painting, a symphony. He's an artist, a calligrapher, a maestro, a virtuoso on a stringed instrument. He's luminescent, phosphorescent, incandescent. The lowbrow observer who termed Federer's style as viscerally enjoyable "tennis porn," well, he was onto something too.

Major titles are the measuring stick for tennis excellence, and Federer began 2008 with an even dozen for his career, putting him two away from the all-time record that poor Sampras had established a few years back and, it appeared, would be afforded precious little time to savor. Federer had never won the French Open - the one entry missing from his CV - but unlike Sampras, he was hardly allergic to clay. Put all the factors in the cement mixer and, in the eyes of many, myself included, Federer was at least on the precipice of taking the mythical title of tennis's Greatest of All Time, the GOAT, in message board shorthand.

Yet in 2008, the Federer Empire was, if not crumbling, showing some troubling signs of decay. A bout with mononucleosis had cost Federer twenty days of practice during tennis's winter off-season (inasmuch as you can call a six-week winter break an off-season). In his first tournament of 2008, Federer lost in the semifinals of the Australian Open to Novak Djokovic, a self-enchanted, bristle-haired Serb who, unlike many of his peers, is thoroughly unawed by Federer. After the match, Djokovic's mother, Dijana, crowed to reporters, "The king is dead. Long live the king." This bold pronouncement of regicide was (a) absurd, (b) tactless in the extreme, and (c) strikingly at odds with Federer's grace. But as the 2008 season unfolded, more and more observers came to share, if not to fully articulate, her thoughts.

Still a step slow, Federer slogged through the next few months. In March, he played an exhibition against Sampras in New York's venerable, dilapidated Madison Square Garden, a match, Federer confided to a friend, that was "a million-dollar stopover" between tournaments in Dubai (where Federer has a residence) and Palm Springs. The evening was great fun, a much-needed boost for a sport with a diminishing profile in the United States. New York's tennis scene turned out in force, as did Donald Trump, Tiger Woods, Luke Wilson, and the rest of the canapé-eating celebrity set, to watch the two hegemonic male players of the Open Era, when amateurs and professionals played together. There was, however, this minor inconvenience: Federer required a third-set tiebreaker to subdue Sampras, then a thirty-six-year-old full-time father who hadn't played a sanctioned tennis match since 2002. Though the match's outcome didn't appear to be fixed - as is sometimes the case with "exos" - neither did it appear that Federer was playing anywhere close to his customary level.

In the spring, Federer developed a hideous pimple on the right side of his face. In a mustache-on-the-Mona-Lisa kind of way, it was jarring to see a scrupulous and handsome athlete wearing the type of unseemly turbo-zit that ruins junior prom night. (A real "Yahoo! Answers" discussion topic: Does anybody know what that is on R. Federer's face?) The blemish was symbolic of Federer's season. His spring was pocked by losses to mortals (Mardy Fish? Radek Stepanek?), to creditable opponents (the Andys, Roddick and Murray), and to his nemesis (Nadal). Apart from the losses, there were other indications that Federer had misplaced his muse. Usually a model of poise and sportsmanship, he was so overcome with frustration in a tournament in Hamburg, Germany, that he smacked a ball out of the stadium. Playing against Djokovic in Monte Carlo, Federer became enraged by the vocal midmatch chattering of Djokovic's omnipresent parents, who were seated behind the baseline. After they objected vocally to a line call, Federer turned to them and snapped disdainfully, "Be quiet! Okay?" Of course, any other mega-athlete in a similar position of power would have yelled something more emphatic and profane. But still, it was out of character. For Federer, this was the equivalent of "Fuck you."

On sheer talent, Federer carved his way through the draw of the 2008 French Open. He was to face Nadal, the three-time champion, in the final. It was beautifully scripted. If Federer could summon his best tennis and defeat Nadal - invading his rival's kingdom, as it were - it would mark perhaps the most significant title of his career. He'd complete the so-called Career Slam - winning all four Major titles - and in doing so cement his legacy as the Greatest of All Time. Case closed, discussion over. This was precisely the kind of scenario that the Great Ones relish.

If Federer laid an egg in the final, it was of the ostrich variety. The same rational thinking and self-awareness that make him such a likable champion can serve him poorly on the court. Midway through the match, he became convinced it wasn't his day. And he could not or would not try to trick himself into thinking otherwise. Federer shook his head, furrowed his considerable eyebrows, and scowled as he lumbered to his chair on changeovers. Once he gave himself no chance to win, he figured he'd do the next best thing and get the hell off stage as soon as possible. Operating at an auctioneer's pace, he made only halfhearted efforts to retrieve balls. The third set flew by in twenty-seven minutes, a soufflé-like collapse that ended 6-0. It was strictly a cover-your-eyes affair.

To his credit, Nadal gave Federer no chance to reconsider his thinking. Almost merciless in his accuracy, Nadal went entire games striking the ball perfectly. Nadal claimed that he barely noticed Federer's vacant effort. Not so the rest of his entourage. Before the match had ended, Toni Nadal, Rafael's numinous coach and uncle, nudged his neighbors in the stands and used the word "bizarre" to describe Federer's disposition. "I must read the papers tomorrow to find out what was going on in his head," Toni said after the match. "I never sensed any determination. He never put himself in that state. I was watching his face. Closed. He wasn't sending any messages to Rafa. He didn't have a winner's mentality. It wasn't the real Roger."

At some level, Federer had fallen victim to his own dizzyingly high standards. By any objective measure, he was having a very respectable year. But, be it on account of the mono, his advancing age (almost a doddering twenty-seven!), or simply the finite shelf life of excellence, it was all so ... un-Federerian. When you win ninety-two percent of your matches and then suddenly reach the halfway point of a season with only one title (a rinky-dink one at that, the Estoril Open) to your credit, the contrast is conspicuous. In Federer's own words, he had created "a monster" with his unsurpassed success and the expectations it wrought.

Even the more sober analysts, not quite prepared to issue a coroner's report on Federer's career just yet, conceded that the 2008 Wimbledon was freighted with significance. If he won for the sixth straight time, well, all was right with the world. If he lost, maybe it was time to table that GOAT talk for a while. And if he lost to Nadal, for all intents relinquishing the No. 1 ranking in the process, it was this simple: after a glorious four-year term, there would be a new administration in men's tennis.

Federer's grass court campaign began auspiciously enough. The week after his French Open debacle, he won the Wimbledon tune-up event in Halle, Germany, running his winning streak on sod to fifty-nine matches. But when he arrived in the village of Wimbledon and settled into his rental house a few miles from the All England Club - a mansion owned, coincidentally, by a family with the surname Borg, no relation - the dirges began anew. "Is Fed Dead?" asked one London tabloid. Djokovic, the brash arriviste who had been lacking from the ATP's cast, declared that Federer was "vulnerable." Boris Becker, the three-time Wimbledon champion, tipped Nadal to win and gave Federer "only a small chance." Bjorn Borg - whose record of five straight Wimbledon titles Federer was attempting to surpass - picked not only Nadal but Djokovic ahead of Federer. Borg also asserted that, no, it would not surprise him if Federer were to lose the title and disappear from tennis altogether.

Federer traversed the high road. During his conclaves with the media, he shrugged off intimations of his mortality. "I haven't been reading and I haven't been listening to what's been said about me," he lied. Asked specifically about Borg's uncharitable remarks, Federer winced. "I mean, look, it's his opinion. I don't mind what he says. Obviously at the moment he has a microphone under his face and people ask him many, many things. Once he'll sound more critical, once he'll sound more positive." Did he ever consider confronting Borg? "Oh, no," he said a few months later, "I would never approach him with something like that. I don't want a problem with the King."

But this Wimbledon deathwatch, tinged as it was with so much schadenfreude, infuriated Federer. He wins everything in sight for four years, makes all the right moves, and brings all sorts of dignity and honor to the sport. Then this? A couple of substandard months and all these slings and arrows? Is there no accrued goodwill? "To be honest, I was surprised by how extreme it was. I was hearing, 'He's not going to win a thing anymore.' You try to ignore it, not let it bother you, but . . ."

He was in an unwinnable position. If he defended himself from the critics, downplayed his slump, and pronounced himself, as he did, "the big favorite obviously for Wimbledon," he risked coming off sounding arrogant or, worse yet, delusional. If he fought back and pointed out the hypocrisy - Borg? predicting someone else would walk away from the sport after a loss? - he'd be diminishing himself. Tellingly, it was Federer's colleagues who took up his defense and offered voices of reason. Asked if he agreed with the premise that Federer was vulnerable, Nadal rolled his eyes. "Yes, a lot. He didn't lose a set [last week]. And he's won fifty-nine matches without a loss. Come on!"

Surrounded by a swelling entourage, Federer spent his downtime at the rental manor. He visited the London Zoo and went shopping and dined at a few trendy restaurants. But unlike past years, he spent as little time as possible at the All England Club. Early in the tournament, as Federer tried to make a hasty getaway from the players' patio, a pair of hangers-on cornered him and asked him to pose for a photo. "I wish there were two of me," he muttered. Federer being Federer, he dropped his bag, draped his arms over the man and his wife, mustered something approximating a smile, and waited for the flash.

Then there was Nadal. After winning his fourth straight French Open title, he didn't linger in Paris. It was as if once the coating of clay had been washed off his body in the locker room shower, the memories went with it. He and his camp shared a subdued celebratory dinner that Sunday night, then it was on to grass. Nadal's long-avowed ambition, despite his clay court provenance (and success), had always been to win on the lawns of Wimbledon. He'd come close in 2007. Now, playing the best tennis of his life and with Federer appearing a bit, well, vulnerable, Nadal figured, "Maybe it's my time." Though it was superfluous, he had an added motivation: if he could win, he'd be virtually assured of ascending from the No. 2 position he'd held for a record three straight years. No longer would he be the middle manager trapped under Federer's glass ceiling.

When Nadal defended his French Open title in 2006, he was scheduled to play the Queen's Club event in London, a grass court tune-up that begins the day after the Roland Garros final. Worried that Nadal might be so exhausted that he'd lavish himself with a week off, the Queen's Club tournament director offered to charter a helicopter to shuttle Nadal from Paris to London. Cool, thought Nadal, who'd never considered pulling out of Queen's anyway. Not cool, thought his uncle Toni. They had already booked their tickets on the Eurostar, the high-speed train that runs from Paris to London under the English Channel. "We're not wasting that money," Toni said flatly. They declined the private helicopter and took the train.

For Nadal and his camp, the Eurostar ride from Paris to London had hardened into ritual. So the day after winning his fourth French Open, Nadal trudged through the Gare du Nord alongside the other commuters and businessmen. He posed for a few photos and signed some autographs, but otherwise he was just another independent contractor heading off on a Monday morning to do some business in London. After two hours aboard the train spent napping and playing cards, Nadal arrived at King's Cross St. Pancras station, having overcome his fear of traveling underwater.

By early afternoon, less than twenty-four hours after winning the most esteemed clay court title, Nadal clocked a two-hour practice on grass, altering his footwork, hitting his returns of serve earlier, flattening out his strokes, slicing his backhand, guiding the ball to stay low to the ground. Nadal's making such material adjustments to his game was another indication that his stated goal of winning Wimbledon was no talking point, no bit of agent-inspired misdirection. The next day, heralding this quick transition to grass, a breathless tabloid headline read: "Nadal: You Won't Like Me When I Turn Green."

The Queen's Club courts, players say, are even faster than Wimbledon's lawns, which made Nadal's seamless transition all the more impressive. In the course of five days at Queen's Club, he beat five opponents, including some of the most accomplished grass court practitioners. Against Ivo Karlovic, a six-foot-ten Croatian whose serves appear to travel as far on the vertical axis as they do on the horizontal, Nadal played better in the tiebreakers and won 6-7, 6-7, 7-6. Against Roddick, the thunderbolt-serving American, Nadal played opportunistically and won in straight sets. Betraying emotion that hadn't been offered into evidence earlier in the week, Nadal, clearly motivated, beat Djokovic in the final. It marked the twenty-eighth title of Nadal's career and his second in seven days. And he became the first Spaniard to win a grass court event in thirty-six years. It had been an ideal week. He got in his grass court prep work. He sustained his swollen confidence. He put the rest of the field on alert. An afterthought, perhaps, but he also pocketed nearly $150,000 for the week. And then he left England to fly home to Majorca for a few days, to fish for tuna in the Mediterranean with his dad.

(Continues...)



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