Everyone bar the upset loves an upset. So inexorable does the fastening of sporting hierarchies seem that its disruption is always at least mildly shocking. It awakens the Marxist in us: tendance Karl, by allowing us a glimpse at what a proletariat uprising might look like; and, more importantly, tendance Groucho, by showing up the pomposity of the elite, like someone egging a cardinal.
Take, as I believe is obligatory when discussing this issue, the FA Cup. The Cup is running on the fumes of its history — fumes which, were they to irritate the right set of lungs, would result in the words THE MAGIC OF THE CUP being spelled out in phlegm on a Setanta studio backdrop. The upset is an irresistible part of Cup lore, key to understanding its appeal. Yet the mantra of "That's what the cup is all about" has become all too literal and tinged with desperation. The football landscape is being reshaped by would-be gods who are little more than children with who have found the dynamite. The FA Cup was the state religion. It has now been de facto disestablished. In the new football universe, the reel of old cup shocks becomes more like a holy relic whose dust is inhaled by the faithful each January.
A Cup upset these days does not mean what it did. It cannot. It can still mean plenty for those causing the upset. But the meaning for the competition as a whole is diminished when certain of its participants have more invested in other belief systems: only attend this particular church out of habit or duty, see it as to be endured, would rather concentrate on spending time at the lodge or trying to gain entry to a church they don't even want to be a member of so that their kids might get into a decent school. And when the big clubs have so little invested in it, they stand to lose little. So, while a shock is a blow struck for the smaller club, it barely registers on the face of the bigger club. What inherent value the Cup had is waning, and the injury to the giant is ever less real and ever more symbolic. The cardinal retires to his palace and washes the egg from his face in his gold-plated sink.
On Sunday, there was an upset at Roland Garros. I was going to post about it, but all I ended up with was:
Soderling defeated Nadal?Now here was an upset that mattered, like an earthquake. The distance between the FA Cup's mythology and its reality has never been greater — not merely because the competition's value has been devalued, but because of the concomitant retreat into ancestor worship and a belief in the magical properties of the Cup upset. The downgrading of the Cup and the superstitious faith in it tend ever more towards their respective extremes. Chelsea's defeat to Barnsley in last year's competition, for example, could never mean to them what it would have in times past. It certainly meant little next to their loss in the Champions League final. (The joke is only funny when the victim has something to lose.) And their successes in the 2007 and 2009 editions of the Oldest Competition would be as nothing next to a Champions League title, because that's what Chelsea (here standing in for any club of their stature, or with pretensions towards such stature) have opted to believe in. Söderling's win, meanwhile, was a candidate for Greatest Sporting Upset of the Decade because it struck at the very heart of the sport, and was more than just a fun but sideshowy happening.
Soderling defeated Nadal?
Soderling defeated Nadal?
Soderling defeated Nadal?
Soderling? Defeated? Nadal?
True, the Söderling-Nadal match and a typical FA Cup upset share certain qualities, provoke certain similar responses. 'Upset' and 'shock' are virtually synonymous in sport, after all, and disorder is always fascinating. The disorder in the case of the tennis match lies in what remains of the tournament: a seething pot which may spit out in almost any direction. It lies in what feels like the interruption of a line of succession: Rafael V's coronation has been postponed. It lies in seeing something we're not supposed to see, something extraordinary.
And it is because of this quality, this extraordinariness, that, for this selfish sports fan, Nadal's defeat was a bad thing. Like everyone else who watched it, I was agog at how well Söderling played, at how he made Nadal look like one of Nadal's opponents, as if he was controlling Nadal's movements (which, of course, he was to a large extent). This wasn't meant to be happening, and how thrilling it was to witness it. But its occurrence brought to a halt Nadal's run at the French Open, which was even more extraordinary than Söderling's win, even more at odds with what was meant to be. Nadal's dominance on clay has been so other, and this otherness only increased as the dominance continued. Far from being a monotonous procession, far from being bland in its apparent predictability (and a fat lot of good predictions were here, as so very often), Nadal's Parisian tyranny was more compelling than nearly anything else sport can offer. The discombobulation caused by Söderling is all well and good, but history was being written before our eyes, and now the author is dead (or winded, more likely).
The worship of the god of the FA Cup upset may be based less in reality than in wishful thinking, but that is not to say that it is beneath consideration. It still exerts a powerful force. And here we hit upon another difference between Söderdämmerung and a Cup shock — perhaps even between tennis and football themselves. The Cup draws its power from football's version of the class system, and the potential for that system's subversion, or the illusion of the potential for the system's subversion. The system is formidable because it is so deeply entrenched. And it is so deeply entrenched because the clubs are historical entities. Players are sold, managers are sacked, directors sell their sakes and fans die off; but the club remains, in some way, the same as it was when it was founded. It has, for want of a better cliché, a soul, which retains the club's essence through the generations. There is a sense in which a club's status is determined not merely by their results on the pitch, but by privilege/lack thereof, and being in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time. This sense, subtle though it may be, feeds into the delight taken at an upset.
Tennis, meanwhile, renews itself constantly. Players turn pro, players retire: the tour looks completely different now to how it did twenty years ago, and to how it will twenty years hence. So, there is no heritage, or baggage, directly attached to the players. Add to this the naked meritocracy of the sport, and the "upset=good thing" equation loses the crisp certainty it retains in the FA Cup. Seeing the mighty fall in tennis does not come automatically accompanied by a glass of Schadenfreudebräu. A player is the best because he is the best, because he has proved it time and again. He has not bought his talent from lesser entities, nor was blessed enough to be in the upper echelon of the sport just as said echelon decided to screw the rest of the game over. With this is mind, what is left is a sense of sadness when a great player leaves the stage, because (here's the selfishness again) we are most likely being deprived of seeing greatness in action.
In other words: YES I'M BLOODY WELL PISSED OFF THAT I — YES, I — AM NOT GETTING THE NADAL-FEDERER FINAL I'VE BEEN LOOKING FORWARD TO FOR MONTHS. Yep, I made you read 1250 words when I could have written all this in twenty-four. I mean, there was going to be a liveblog and everything! You'd have loved it! I think, by now, we know the custom for when our manifest destiny has been thwarted: send your death threats to Robin Söderling, c/o...