A Rivalry to Remember

Written by  //  June 20, 2011  //  Sport  //  4 Comments

On 6th of July, 2008, the technicians at the UK’s electric power transmission and distribution company, National Grid, noted a huge surge of power at around 9.20 p.m. The 1.4 Gigawatt surge was quite unprecedented, and for some time, unexplained. Gradually, over the course of the night, it became clear what caused the huge surge:

The single greatest tennis match ever played.

Apparently, so many people were transfixed by the spectacle unfolding at Centre Court that day that they no longer noticed the passage of day and forgot to turn on the lights till after the match was over. Millions of households turned on the lights at around the same time, leading to the surge. Viewers were probably still shaking their heads at what they had witnessed.

At least, I know I was.

The late hour tugged at my eyelids, the rain breaks tested my patience, the tension slowly tore my nerves to pieces and after a while, I was no longer able to sit down in one place in the living room to watch the match. I moved from the comfort of the sofa after the first set, wandered around the room, back and forth into the study as the second set seemed to confirm a lopsided mismatch that would end soon, almost forgot about the match during the rain breaks, got closer and closer to the TV as Federer came back to take one set, then another, and ultimately found myself a few inches from the TV screen egging Roger Federer on in the last moments of the last games of the final set. The subsequent year’s Wimbledon final by comparison, followed in the bright evening sunshine of Oxford in summer, despite being just as close as a contest, seemed a positive let-down.

Suhrith’s last post got me thinking about my own interest in tennis. My introduction to the wide world of Grand Slam tennis was also through the eyes and experience of my grandfather, himself a tennis player of no small skill and a connoisseur of fine tennis on the telly. The era of Sampras dominance and the end of Steffi Graf’s career, however, saw me drifting away from tennis until, like others, I was drawn back by the magic and genius of Federer. What keeps me glued in to tennis now, like others, is the immortal rivalry between Federer and Rafael Nadal.

I shall make no secret of the fact that in this rivalry, I back Federer. It seems to be a very guy thing to cheer Federer over Nadal – a straw poll over twitter confirmed it – as Federer seems to be the favourite of male fans, and Nadal, female fans. Why and how is another subject for another day, but I want to dwell on the rivalry itself in this post.

On the face of it, the statistics would suggest that it is not so much a rivalry as the domination of Roger Federer by Rafael Nadal. But statistics never tell you the whole story, and anyone who’s followed this great rivalry would tell you as much. Why does this particular rivalry draw so many of us to the game so often and with such passion?

Tennis, like any other sport, can be enjoyed and appreciated by fans at many levels. On one level, one’s interest can be purely parochial; one can cheer one’s fellow countryman/woman taking on the best in the world and doing well (i.e., Indians cheering Sania Mirza). At another level, one can appreciate the great skill and talent that goes into performing feats that seem beyond the capacity of mere mortals, such as, say, Usain Bolt’s breathtaking 100m and 200m runs at the Beijing Olympics. Or one can appreciate aesthetic beauty in sport; a cover drive by VVS Laxman timed to perfection finding the gap between four fielders with what seems to be perfect ease and grace.

In a sense, however, these are only limited ways of understanding and appreciating sport.

Does one give up on a sport because no one sharing the same nationality/race/ethnicity play the game? Do we even want to reduce the appreciation of sports on such narrow bases? Nationalism in sport has reared its ugly head on many an occasion (the end of Monica Seles’ promising career, and Eden Gardens, 1996 to name but two) and the nationalistic sports fan is at best, tolerated.

Superhuman feats, whether in athletics, cricket or tennis, reach natural limits very quickly and beyond a point, become mere statistics. Professionalization of sport has also meant that the great feats of yesterday have become mundane and run-of-the-mill in our day and age as improved knowledge and training methods has raised the bar of the average. If every miler can expect to beat the four minute barrier and scoring at 8 runs an over becomes routine, what joy remains in attaining these feats? It is true that there are some barriers that probably will never be broken for all time to come (99.94) but such feats are fewer and further between these days. Interest in a sport cannot be sustained only on the hope of spotting the next Bradman, Beamon or Bolt.

Aesthetic quality in sport is also not an end in itself. Not married to the efficient attainment of the goals of that sport, it becomes a mere frippery and just showmanship. The point of a game is to win; to score more goals, points or runs, or as the Olympic motto urges, go faster, higher and stronger. The sportsman who survives in the highest league is one who adds efficiency to aesthetic ability, or more likely sacrifices the latter for the former. Rare is the genius such as Maradona, Federer, or Tendulkar who combines ruthless efficiency to artistic finesse to take viewers to the higher plane of ecstasy.

Whatever level one may enjoy sport, sport’s ability to truly elevate occurs when it presents to us a compelling story. If we honestly ask ourselves, what does it matter if someone is very good at hitting balls across a net, or has the capability of swimming a distance of 100m in so many seconds? These feats, examined in isolation, and devoid of context, mean nothing to anyone but the ones actually involved in the feat. What draws the rest of humanity (or at least that part of humanity capable of appreciating sport) into finding meaning in these acts is the context. Really, we are asking ourselves, what does this feat, this victory or this achievement mean? or how does it fit into a larger narrative to form a whole greater than the sum of is parts?

One can appreciate sport so much more when one understands the narrative underlying the action unfolding. To know that the two teams on the pitch have just fought a war that has created resentment among the defeated adds an edge to a simple game of football. To know that one team is being driven to terrifying excellence in response to the opposing captain’s reminder of their shackled, colonial past adds so much more colour and poignancy to the proceedings than a dry recollection of scorecards ever will.

As I’ve said before, sport is at best when it does this spontaneously; unscripted and untrammeled by convention. The stories of sport are really, the stories of our lives. Being unscripted drama, it allows us to experience all of life’s passions, sorrows and emotions at a safe distance, yet close enough for it to have an impact. The underdog victory, the search for excellence, the shot at redemption, are all stories we want in our lives, and sport gives us a chance to live these stories out by proxy through our sporting heroes. (The skeptics’ attention is invited to Beyond a Boundary and “Fire in Babylon“)

It is this aspect of enjoying a sport that allows a non-Spaniard, non-Swiss person to appreciate the compelling rivalry between Federer and Nadal. It is the story of an absolute, acknowledged genius striving to overcome the one challenger who stands between him and unquestioned immortality. It is also the story of the challenger himself striving towards immortality by confirming his dominance over the genius. In the process, it is also the rivalry itself which has entered the halls of immortality. In that sense, this rivalry is also a rivalry just between two humans, albeit two extra-ordinary humans. Here, the “story” is the sport itself, or rather the quest of two individuals playing at their peak in around the same time, each trying to prove that he is the greatest player of the sport, not just in his era, his generation, but for all time.

Each match played out between the rivals is filled with dramatic potential. Will Federer overcome the inevitable decline brought about by age to beat a stronger, younger, opponent? Will Nadal sustain his excellence for any length of time and get rid of any last doubts about his greatness? Will Federer be rid of his clay-court bogey? Will Nadal repeat his grand performance of 2008 by beating King Federer on his grasscourt kingdom (so to speak)?

It may seem a bit of a disservice to the other magnificent players in the tournament but the French Open final has confirmed for us the most anticipated tennis event of the year: the Federer-Nadal final at Centre Court, Wimbledon.

About the Author

A Supreme Court/Delhi High Court lawyer who writes a bit with a potentially fatal weakness for hyperlinks, tags, and the reader's approval. Follow @alokpi

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4 Comments on "A Rivalry to Remember"

  1. Anony June 20, 2011 at 12:49 pm ·

    Exquisitely written!

  2. Aarthi June 21, 2011 at 6:25 pm ·

    Re male/female straw poll – Nadal’s the feisty Rottweiler to Federer’s ballet-like perfection (yawn) and which girl doesn’t like a pretty puppy? Loved this post!

  3. Rohan Bagai June 21, 2011 at 7:14 pm ·

    A riveting piece of writing…

  4. Pritish Gupta June 22, 2011 at 8:23 am ·

    David Foster Wallace wrote an amazing article on why federer is the greatest.Read it.

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