Sunday, July 5, 2009

Winners and Losers

Perhaps today's Wimbledon final was not quite the equal of last year's Federer-Nadal classic, where both men exhausted one another staving off break points in epic rallies. No, today was a leisurely paced, low-error marathon in which Federer in particular got away with more aces than he probably should have. Before the match began, some might even have argued that he had gotten off easy by not having to face any of the other top four players. But the score speaks for itself; this was anything but easy. Roddick was not going to pull a Soderling and roll over in straight sets. He made Federer earn this feat by ensuring that the path to history lay through one of the greatest Grand Slam finals ever.

Indeed, as that fifth set dragged on and Roddick not only hung in there but matched Federer shot-for-shot, history became an afterthought, and I realized that I was no longer watching to see Federer break a record or reclaim Wimbledon and his No. 1 status. I was watching the other guy playing beyond himself to stun the world, including his opponent who had gone in with an 18-2 record against him. Whatever doubts Federer needed to quell, they were nothing compared to what Roddick has been facing for years now. Nobody, myself included, took him seriously as a contender, not even after he beat Murray, but today he played as though he were the equal of the man who was supposed to set himself apart as the all-time greatest. It didn't seem fair that, after such a monumental effort, Roddick should still come away a loser.

This was the guy who, at the 2003 Australian Open, played to 21-19--a singles record in a Grand Slam tournament--against Younes El Aynaoui. At the time, a part of me thought he was just sandbagging instead of playing to win. But this time it was Roger Federer on the other side of a 14-16 fifth set. If even King Roger could find no way to break that serve in fewer than thirty-eight games, Roddick must deserve some credit. I don't see how there can be any doubt that he was the second best man at this tournament. The Hewitt five-setter was not some duel of fossils, and the win over Murray was not luck. Nadal may have been injured, but that too is a part of sport. If anybody else deserved it more, they would have been there.

Yes, Roddick has millions of dollars and a swimsuit model wife, but the bigger the life, the bigger the expectations and demands. I can scarcely imagine what it feels like to be on the wrong side of a historic match, knowing that Pete Sampras did not show up at Wimbledon for the first time in seven years to watch you.

It seemed a nice gesture for Sampras to fly all the way from California to watch Federer surpass him in career Grand Slam titles. But then Roddick won that fourth set and it became a real contest. Suddenly, Sampras's surprise appearance did not seem so classy anymore. Frankly, I was almost offended by the implication that he was giving his fellow American no chance to win. In fact, it reminded me a little of Sampras's final match against Andre Agassi for the 2002 US Open championship. Despite Agassi being himself one of the greatest and most popular players of all time, the crowd cheered him only insofar as they were glad to have such a distinguished contemporary and rival to fittingly fill the role of final runner-up to punctuate Sampras's more illustrious career. For all the praise that we give Sampras and Federer, it is easy to overlook that it is men like Agassi and Roddick who really allow us to see the greats for the champions that they are. As a runner-up, I don't think Federer himself earned the cheers as well last year as Roddick did today.

The way things have turned over these last few months, I wouldn't be surprised to see Federer extend his own record by a few more titles. I think, years from now, though this match may be recognized as the one that first cemented Federer's status as the best, I will remember it better as the greatest match Andy Roddick ever played.


Czardoz said...

Nobody took Roddick seriously? Wrong - I took him seriously as soon as he beat a very good Lleyton Hewitt.

I called it here first, on your very blog. A dream match-up of Roddick vs. Federer, but a Roddick that could push Federer to the very limit. Well played, A-Rod. Now that Federer is the top man on the Slams totem pole, I'd love to see a rematch in the U.S. Open final, with Roddick finally topping Federer in a match that really matters. At last, a second major on his home turf, six years and millions of doubters later. That would be one of the greatest sports stories of the year.

Mark it! I called it here first!

Henry said...

What if Roddick and Federer end up on the same half of the draw? Or what of the off chance that Nadal might make it back in time and in shape to go for his own career Grand Slam? I'd think that would entirely reshape the men's game just as his absence had.

Czardoz said...

1) A-Rod and Federerer in the same draw would just be wrong and inexcusable.

2) Nadal hasn't shown anything at the U.S. Open yet, but maybe this long layoff is what he needed. Then again, people usually don't come back from injuries as good as before, at least not at their first big tournament back.

Let's say Nadal did come back to win. Good story, but I still prefer my Roddick story.

Czardoz said...

A better injury comeback story than Nadal would be Maria Sharapova winning the U.S. Open.

I mean, the Williams sisters were the best before Henin, and they've been the best after - is that really interesting to watch? I know other ladies have won Slams over the last few years, much more variety than the men's game has had, and yet it's far less compelling.

Sharapova was the one player after Henin who seemed unintimidated by the Williamseses, so it'd be nice to see her step up and bring some pizazz back to the women's game.