08 July 2008

Our song

As I convalesce after having my brain surgically repaired following repeated sweet assaults over a seven-hour period on Sunday (this is looking like becoming a series: Over-Emotional Reactions To Major Sporting Events), perhaps it's time for some sober reflection on Sunday's events - though there may still be traces sloshing around my bloodstream (way to kinda mix metaphors, F.!).

Maybe the old-timers are right and things ain't what they used to be. I'm not about to make any grand proclamations about where the Nadal-Federer rivalry fits in among the greats of yore (besides, I already somewhat slyly did so on Sunday night). It's all too easy believe you're in love with the last pretty thing you saw, as we know from painful experience.

But I for one am not all that bothered about the issue. It's not that I don't have a sense of history - I quite like to think the contrary is true - but I wasn't around when Borg and McEnroe, or Nicklaus and Watson, or Ali and Frazier were duking it out. One can read all the books and watch all the sentimental retrospective documentaries, but to run with a theme expressed several posts ago, the vital charge that gave these contests their essence faded with their passing. Sure, as long as those who witnessed them are around, their presence will linger, and their remains won't fossilise. But practically, they're gone.

Nadal-Federer, on the other hand, is alive - living, breathing, rampaging (flexing, grunting, adjusting the precise position of the bottles in front of the chair, sprinting to the baseline, bouncing the ball...bouncing...bouncing...bouncing..., etc.). We were there at its birth and we're proudly watching it grow into the leader of the pride.

To re-iterate: this is not a cover version of 'history is bunk'. The past is not something to be dismissed, nor to patronisingly pat on the head and say "I love hearing your war stories, Grandad, now here's your mashed bananas with your sleeping pills mixed in, there's a good soldier". But you have to step away from it and see the present in its own light. It's perhaps easier said by a relative novice such as myself than done ; no doubt as I get older I'll accumulate such memories as to be unable to resist pitting them against one another for my affections. As it is, I'm enjoying this here and now, on its own terms, for what it is rather than what it isn't.

At the risk of contradicting myself, on some level it is about its relation to times past. The oldies had their great occasions to savour, and they've told us about them often enough since that we at once feel due awe at their enormity and an anxiety that maybe these things really do belong in memories and other more mechanical data retrieval systems. Now that something comes along that our minds and hearts tell us bear some correlation to these tales, we instinctively put it in the same volume and decorate it with the most florid language we can find. But this is ours, something that has taken root in our hearts and is blossoming as we live and breathe. This is the verse we'll come back to and linger over. This is the song that was playing when we our eyes first met, and luckily it wasn't Coldplay or Maroon 5 or some such.

It needn't be oppositional, of course. Those who've been around the block more often can still revel in it. Indeed, their experience will probably allow them to take it in more fulfillingly should they wish it to be so. In the case of Nadal-Federer a consensus seems to be forming that this is indeed the acme of tennis history.

The caveat in this is that we're all still a bit dazed after Sunday and even the wise are not necessarily exempt. We need to see how it plays out over the next few years and then let it ferment for a while before we call it. It certainly feels like we're seeing something seismic: Federer appears to be on the wane, and he is certainly faced with a novel (for him) predicament, whereas Nadal improves and has proved that he can pass muster on unfamiliar territory. But Nadal might remain allergic to the plains of Flushing Meadows and Melbourne Park, or his knees might give way; Federer could show that he really is the greatest champion of them all by staring the monster down. All I know is that it's happening now, and we're watching.

Some points I'm still too woozy to develop properly:

  • Tiger Woods is extraordinary, and watching him in full flow is a privilege, but I wish there was another human being who could properly and consistently challenge him. It must be a bit embarrassing for the other golfers that Tiger's toughest opponent is his own cruciate ligament.

  • Margaret Court apparently hated every opponent she faced. Mike Tyson wanted to eat his adversaries' babies (or was that Drederick Tatum? I literally can't remember which). The latest issue of World Soccer contains a feature on the greatest derbies in football, reminding us how much football is driven by bitterness, whether stemming from sporting-political slights or profound social faults. By all accounts, Rafa and Roger get on very well. Their rivalry is based on their encounters on the court and a deep mutual respect. Lest I come across as some kind of hippy or 19th century French aristocrat, I'm not saying that football should shed its feuds; they are intrinsic to the game, for good and bad. It's just nice to know, especially when the meeja are ever keen to play up any perceived animosity in certain sports, that such greatness is capable of emanating purely out of sporting deeds rather than fighting talk.

  • On a similar tack, all those 'there are no personalities in sport anymore'-types can go hang. Nadal and Federer may be uncontroversial, respectful of their opponents and no doubt tend to sickly stray animals they find on the road. They may not swear at umpires or smash their racquets over line judges' heads. But seriously, watch that match again and tell me that all that matters. Sure, it would be a shame if all athletes really were match-winning automatons (which they of course are not, despite what some say). But take John McEnroe, someone I admire greatly: did it not get a bit boring the 932nd time he threw a hissy-fit? 'Personality' is not the be-all and end-all. Again, watch that match.

God, this blogging lark is easy. As long as a sporting event of major significance comes along, say, every week or so, I'm sorted...


Richard Whittall 8/7/08 10:47 PM  

We may think we're through with the past yada yada yada.

Now you've made me depressed about my whole series. But I will push onwards.

And anyone who thinks Nadal/Federrer wasn't as good or fanciful or poetic a tennis match as any we've seen, is a crank.

fredorrarci 8/7/08 10:58 PM  

Oops. Sorry, Richard.

I didn't mean it quite like that, though. I think I was just trying to put across my giddiness at seeing something truly monumental. As I said, I don't want to write off history; it's just exciting to see it happening live rather than on a thirty-year tape delay.

And in fairness, I probably set up something of a straw man with gentle ribbing of those hypothetical old-timers - everything I've read about the game has been totally, but totally positive.

Richard Whittall 8/7/08 11:08 PM  

I was only rhubarbing you...I have met many of these straw men in the flesh (?) and those crank-ish sentiments are never in short supply. And I would give most of the right side of my face to have seen Bayern Munich's disallowed goal in the '82 European Cup final, so I'm with you there.

You're right about the positivity -- that Foster Wallace NY Times piece was ridiculous -- but then I remembered that tennis was integral to that little novella he wrote, Infinite Jest, so the pieces fit.

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