03 June 2009

Söderdämmerung and the power of the powerless

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?

Soderling defeated Nadal?

Soderling defeated Nadal?

Soderling defeated Nadal?

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.

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...


Red Ranter 4/6/09 12:52 AM  

I tuned in to the game (during the third set) after rising rather late -- as would be expected on a weekend morning -- and although my interest was piqued by the scoreline there was that nagging feeling of inevitability of Nadal getting his rhythm back. But it didn't happen. Such was Soderling's command over the proceedings, and when he continued his dominance, I went over to wake my oversleeping tennis-mad-federer-fan roommate to tell him what he was missing. He muttered this in his sleep:

"Nadal lost. 4 sets. Checked score on my laptop few hours back... zzzz..."

"You? What? ... Nadal lost?"

There was happiness, shock and then the draining of the excitement and anticipation that accompanies watching a live event. Anyway, I semi-cursed him, but didn't venture to know the score.

The good part about tennis is, despite the knowledge of the result, it still allows you to enjoy the little battles that happen within individual rallies, games etc. So it wasn't too bad.

I guess I don't know why I wrote all this, but suppose that's keeping with the mood of the post.

Fredorrarci 4/6/09 1:03 AM  

I guess I don't know why I wrote all this, but suppose that's keeping with the mood of the post.

Not just this post -- that's how I feel about nearly every post...

The good part about tennis is, despite the knowledge of the result, it still allows you to enjoy the little battles that happen within individual rallies, games etc.

True. I don't know how many times I've watched the highlights of last year's Wimbledon final (though, granted, that's an extreme example. A waaaaaaaaaaaaay extreme example).

Red Ranter 4/6/09 1:20 AM  

I didn't mean the first one as criticism, just to be sure. It happens a lot, and most of the time it's delightfully fun writing the whole piece.

Re: the second part, another sport that allows for enjoying the little battles along the way is Test Cricket -- but then I may not be making much sense explaining it to an Irishman. :)

Fredorrarci 4/6/09 1:25 AM  

No offence taken whatsoever. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

As for cricket...I like watching it in short bursts, but I can't muster the commitment to stick with it for long enough to appreciate those battles. That said, I could watch Shane Warne bowl all day.

Fredorrarci 4/6/09 1:29 AM  

Oh, and:

...most of the time it's delightfully fun writing the whole piece.

Very true. It's always interesting to see where an idea will take you. For example, this post started off with just a couple of notes about Nadal's defeat, and then the FA Cup somehow came into it, and all of a sudden, 1,300 words appeared...

Mark 5/6/09 2:49 PM  

It was just like David and Goliath, except this time David won.

I've mixed feelings about upsets like this. On the one hand, it's exciting to see new faces in the last stages of tournaments, and Soderling didn't have the match handed to him - he wrested it from Nadal's desperate grip.

On the other hand, there's something about watching the very best make history which is so compelling. Could Nadal win each of his first five French Opens? Would he ever be beaten at Roland Garros? Would he have to do it against the best of all time in Federer? What sort of legacy will he leave on the game that I have to tell my grandchildren about?

Federer should win from here, but there'll be something ever so slightly hollow about the fact that he didn't have to do the slaying of Nadal that may just take the veneer off the trophy, should he win.

joao jorge 6/6/09 3:30 PM  

Still, Mr. Fredorrarci,

"the Federer Odissey" to the parisian final has been one of the great stories of the year.

It's as if, for once, the road as transcended the goal. (it hasn't, of course, because it will only matter if he wins it in the end, but still)

Watching Federer play point after point after point, with the weight of the People's (in it's more marxist interpretation) expectations on his back; to listen to his opponents willing him to win; to read the analysts dissecting every play as a foreboding sign of good or bad news; all this has been the most poignant story of sports in this year of 2009.

It's as if, the result of this tournament will define people's relation to "destiny" and it's place in sports.

This is not really a matter of good vs. bad (as the Champions League final), but sort of a affirmation of the collective will, as a motor of destiny.

Fredorrarci 7/6/09 2:04 AM  

Well, I did write, after the Australian Open, that I believe that the most interesting thing about about men's tennis this year will be how Federer recovers from being usurped from the best-in-the-world spot. It was my contention that if Federer were to claw his way back to being the undisputed no. 1, it would take him to a level of greatness beyond that which he has already earned. So yes, I've been enjoying his journey to the final at Roland Garros, and I'd love to see him win.

And this is the main reason I'm sad about Nadal's exit. (I should have made this clearer in the post.) There would have been so much at stake with a Nadal-Federer final: Nadal seeking to maintain that extraodinary clay/RG dominance, break Borg's record for consecutive French Open titles, and secure his alpha-male-of-tennis position; and just imagine if Federer had won! In a single match, he would have brought a halt to the Nadal express, redefined the relationship between the two players and set the rest of the season up to be something extraordinary.

As it is, I think what follows Paris could still be extraordinary. It's just that the role of this tournament in the story is different to what it could have been: a step along the way (albeit a significant and enjoyable one) rather than the hugely cataclysmic event it could have been. But such is life; one should be grateful for what one gets. And we could well be getting something wonderful today.

Fredorrarci 7/6/09 2:21 AM  


Would he ever be beaten at Roland Garros?

This, for me, was almost the coolest thing about Nadal at the French Open. Before Soderling, his record there was 31-0. The longer that zero was there, the cooler it got. I know that in reality it would have been no less impressive had the 31 consecutive wins been preceded by some failures, but the purity of that record intensified the perception of Nadal's achievement -- and, therefore, of his defeat.

joao jorge 7/6/09 5:02 PM  

Now that Federer has won, i can't help but feel how right you are.

It was anticlimactic. It was not emotional roller-coaster that it deserved to be.

Still, the story is not the winning of the tournament. It's the constant struggle of Federer to find his place in history. How, despite (and because) of Nadal's premature exit, every point he played carried an additional pressure. It was his shot at the title, and he did not fail.

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