How i learned to stop worrying and watch Roger win again

[ Note: I’m going to try to be a sports blogger tonight, inasmuch as I found myself in a strange position : the alignment of having a sports-cable channel in front of my presbyopic eyes, and the Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Final scheduled.  That’s nearly a Venus transit for me, so please indulge my sports bloggerness just this once, thanks! ]

THERE WERE TWO supreme ironies in the only Wimbledon match I viewed this year, the final.  There were other ironies but only two in my mind were supreme.

The first was that a multi-millionaire, 16-time (now 17) major tennis championship winner, all-time record holder in tennis major quarterfinals, semifinals and finals appearances, Olympic medal holder and many other categories held the genuine sympathy of millions of tennis fans, save perhaps those of Britons who were rooting for their own.

The second is that a billion-dollar enterprise such as professional tennis, much more the crown jewel of its four cornered season, the Wimbledon tennis tournament in London , can be at the mercy of one of the most unreliable forces of nature, specifically rains during England’s summer.

Of course you know the person referred to in the second paragraph.  Roger Federer is probably one of the most likeable persons not just in tennis, make that in all of professional sports.  In a world of political correctness, thinly-disguised mutual contempt among professional athletes and the relentless pursuit of the endorsement dollar, Federer is a throwback to aw-shucks genteel sports when you played your heart out and after a hard game shared a beer with your rival.

Not many realized it, but the two  acknowledged icons of golf and tennis, Tiger Woods and Federer, were both almost invincible in their respective fields, went through a non-performance related event that caused them to suffer considerably in performance, and have gone through roughly similar periods without winning major championships (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open for tennis and the Masters, US Open, British Open and PGA Championship for golf).

The difference is that while both are dead serious on the comeback trail, the public reaction to Woods’ attempts to reclaim glory is mixed, while Federer’s restoration to Number One status is almost universally welcomed.

Watching the final, I realized that every attempt to continue playing under the open sky will be exhausted, and only if the rains persist will the umpire call a temporary halt to the match, during which tents will cover maintenance staff’s efforts to dry the grass.  If the rains don’t stop, the Centre Court stadium cover will be activated, and the remainder of the match will be played under such roof.  That’s why I realized how variable game conditions would be, depending on whether it would rain at all, whether an intervening rain would last long enough to halt the match, and whether the same rain (or a subsequent shower) would change the nature of the game from being an outdoor match into an indoor event.  See how uncertain a billion-dollar event such as the Wimbledon Gentleman’s Final can be controlled by Mother Nature?

Roger was such an easy favorite for me.  He started his career during the turn of the century when I was still a rabid sports fan, his style was effortless, graceful and relied on working the angles rather than brute force.  He almost never complained, was respectful to his opponents, linesmen, umpires and referees, practically unheard of from a player of his stature.  And yet he wore his heart on his sleeve, and never hesitated to offer words of support to the losing finalist, beyond the usual hollowness of formal congrats and you’ll do better next time.

But as the match wore on, and it was becoming clearer that as Andy Murray stumbled, Roger grew stronger, I could feel the weight of 80 million Brits hoping against hope that Murray could yet be the first Wimbledon male champ in over 80 years.  My eyes moistened when Murray tried, but failed to give the losing finalist’s speech; he felt so bad to have disappointed his countrymen.  He tried a second time, and seeing his girlfriend sobbing only made him feel worse.  After the euphoria of seeing Roger win, I now felt miserable seeing this irrepressible lanky Scotsman attempt to do the impossible : apologize to millions for reaching the brink of success, only to falter.  After giving it his very very best, which of course wasn’t nearly enough.  It was both painful and sublime to watch, if you could imagine it.

Just as the final post mortems of Wimbledon 2012 were being delivered, I realized yet two more notable things : that both the victor and the vanquished shed copious tears, although obviously for very different reasons.  Roger had fallen to a level in 2009 where it was debatable that he would ever win a major again , and despite family responsibilities, more formidable and stronger opponents in Djokovich, Nadal, Murray and Tsonga, and nagging tendrils of complacency and self-doubt, he conquered the mountain anew.

Soon after his serve was broken in the third set, Murray knew he was in for a meltdown, saw himself self-destruct in slo-mo, knew that his best efforts to save the match would not be enough, and wept angry tears for himself, and for the Welsh, Scots, Brits, and everyone else on the British Isles.  Not even the champion’s reassurance that he would win at least one major could mollify him.  The first major, if ever it comes, is always the hardest.

The second notable thing was that professional tennis enjoys something select few other spectator sports enjoy.  You cannot watch athletic excellence divorced from partisanship, you can’t just appreciate strength, speed and endurance as things of awe-inspiring beauty.  You have to invest emotion and support for your favorites, be they crazy charismatic sports savants, or ultra-devoted flag-carriers of the national colors.

Sport cannot be followed in isolation, like art, literatre or scientific achievement.  It must be championed by champions, otherwise it is an empty exercise in physiological and kinetic narcissism.

Which in so many words, is why I loved seeing Roger Federer win his 17th Grand Slam, so poetic that it had to be Wimbledon, thanks for reading !


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