International Blog – Michael Dickens
For those of you who just received a copy of Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played in their Christmas stocking and don’t remember who won the epic 2008 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, it doesn’t matter. Asked recently via Twitter by a reader if he should find out who won before reading, or if the book would be better if he’s in the dark, the book’s author, L. Jon Wertheim, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, tweeted: “Tennis won.”
Through the years, Federer and Nadal have formed the most dynamic rivalry – not just in tennis but in all of contemporary sport. Thanks to the built-in collegiality of tennis, the two are good friends off the court and show tremendous respect for each other while on the court.
As 2017 nears its completion, looking back on the recently finished tennis season, it’s pretty remarkable that Federer, 36, and Nadal, 31 – two of the oldest and longest-tenured players on the men’s professional tour – were most dominant this year. Federer won the Australian Open and Wimbledon championships while Nadal captured titles at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open. So, I thought, what better time than now to dust off my copy of Strokes of Genius and read it not only to bridge the gap during the tennis off-season, but also to relive the memory of “the greatest match ever played.”
As it happened, back on July 6, 2008, Federer and Nadal met on Wimbledon’s Centre Court in the Gentlemen’s final and – together – served up a seminal event in tennis. The Swiss maestro Federer, the Wimbledon champion for five consecutive years, was right on track to take his place as the most dominant player – male or female – in the history of tennis. And, yet, it was during the fading daylight of this five-set epic journey, won by Nadal, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7, that the swashbuckling Spaniard met the moment. As the author described it, their captivating match was “essentially a four-hour forty-eight minute infomercial for everything that is right about tennis – a festival of skill, accuracy, grace, strength, speed, endurance, determination, and sportsmanship.”
As Mary Jo Murphy wrote in her review of Strokes of Genius for The New York Times in 2009, what we knew about the match was this: “We knew its likable protagonists, its trajectory, its feats, its outcome, its brilliance. If we didn’t, chances are we wouldn’t be reading about it.”
Like John McPhee’s Levels of the Game, Wertheim deconstructed the 2008 Nadal-Federer showdown “using it as the backbone of a provocative, entertaining look at the art, psychology, technology, strategy, and personality that go into a single tennis match.”
From his unique inside vantage point at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Wertheim writes, “the top players – most of the highest seeds and former champions – share a locker room separate from the rank and file. It’s not unlike one of those plush, fresh-smelling lounges at the airport, dividing the elite first-class fliers from the great unwashed in coach. Tastefully appointed with birch lockers and high-definition TVs on the walls, this enclave is not much bigger than your average living room. A player sneezes or belches and the others in the room know it. It’s here that the top players gather when they’re not on the court. High school wrestlers, junior college fencers, intramural soccer players, they wouldn’t imagine sharing a locker room with their opponents. Yet at Wimbledon players get dressed alongside the same counterparts whom they’ll engage in combat later in the afternoon.
“So it was that at 13:00 Greenwich Mean Time on July 6, 2008, an hour or so before they were to face each other in the 122nd Wimbledon final – the most important match of the year’s most important tournament – Switzerland’s Roger Federer and Spain’s Rafael Nadal came face to face. Federer was sitting in front of his usual locker, No. 66, relaxing on a pine bench, when Nadal trudged in and headed for locker 101 maybe a dozen paces away. Inasmuch as one man considered the other an interloper or a space invader – the groom spying the bride in advance of the wedding ceremony – they suppressed any outrage. Federer smile wryly as if to say, ‘So, I guess we meet again.’ He looked genial and unthreatening. Nadal nodded in response, neither coldly nor warmly. Then each went back to pretending he had the room to himself.”
Beyond the records, we learn, the Federer-Nadal rivalry was heightened by their clashing styles. “One could spend hours playing the compare-and-contrast game,” writes Wertheim. “Federer versus Nadal embodies righty versus lefty. Classic technique versus ultramodern. Feline light versus taurine heavy. Middle European restraint and quiet meticulousness versus Iberian bravado and passion. Dignified power versus an unapologetic, whoomphing brutality. Zeus versus Hercules. Relentless genius versus unbending will. Polish versus grit. Metrosexuality versus hypermasculinity. A multitongued citizen of the world versus an unabashedly provincial homebody. A private-jet flier versus a steerage passenger. A Mercedes driver versus a Kia driver.”
And, yet, as Wertheim states, “the tennis salon’s comparison of Federer’s evolved beauty with Nadal’s Neanderthal drudge is as unfair as it is crass. You can accept the premise that they’re both artists even though they’re of decidedly different schools. Federer is a delicate, brush-stroking impressionist, and Nadal is a dogged, free-wheeling abstract expressionist.”
Throughout, there is so much to like and admire about Wertheim’s prose. For instance, in describing the appearance of both players as they prepared to walk out on Centre Court, he writes:
“Federer and Nadal walked out of the locker room, wended down a long carpeted hallway, and slowly descended a set of stairs leading to the court. With Nadal walking ten feet ahead, they passed a photograph of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe’s Wimbledon final in 1980, the match against which all other tennis clashes are judged.
“Here again, the Federer-Nadal differences were italicized and in boldface. Having outgrown the cream, gold-trimmed Great Gatsby blazer he’d worn without irony (and, miraculously, pulled off without mockery) in past years, Federer was now clad in a cream, gold-trimmed cardigan straight out of Brideshead Revisited – conservative attire that represented a sense of respect and history. The sweater, made by Nike, was sold in the Wimbledon gift shop for the larcenous price of £260, and only 230 had been produced, an inventory made to correspond with the 230 consecutive weeks Federer had spent ranked No. 1.
“Nadal, who would sooner wear a grass skirt than a $500 cardigan sweater, donned a white warm-up. Federer wore classic tennis shorts cinched with a belt; Nadal wore his customary clamdiggers that sagged below the knees, no belt required. Federer’s ration of hair was carefully styled, while Nadal’s simply draped down hi olive-skinned neck. They both wore Nike headbands and white Nike socks that poked out of white Nike shoes.”
In further setting the scene of the final, Wertheim reminds us that “for all the small, quaint rituals that make professional tennis at once so thoroughly endearing and so thoroughly easy to mock – the church-like quiet of the crowd, the outmoded terminology, the players’ insincere apologies after hitting winning shots off the frame of the racket – here’s a personal favorite: the players carry their own rackets and bags onto the court. Tennis’s top stars are among the most recognized athletes on the planet, wealthy to the point of abstraction, flush with entourages and Gulfstreams at the ready. But when they go to work, they lug their own crap, looking less like celebrities than itinerant backpackers in search of the Budapest youth hostel. The underlying symbolism is unmistakable: the minute your feet – shod as they may be in Nikes you’re paid millions to endorse – hit the ground, you’re on your own. In tennis, self-sufficiency is everything.”
Wertheim takes time to painstakingly describe the crowd attending the 2008 final. “The capacity crowd of fifteen thousand parishioners filed into Centre Court of Wimbledon, a venue inevitably, but accurately, described as a ‘tennis cathedral.’ Most of the crowd wore its Sunday best: the women in Lilly Pulitzer dresses the color of jelly beans; the men with their Oxbridge good looks and Paul Smith shirts. (It was, by all appearances, a big year for vertical stripes.) But – more proof that Wimbledon has evolved from a garden party of the British landed gentry to an international sporting event – walking the concourse one also sees turbans and yarmulkes, and hears many tongues other than English. Inasmuch as crowd shots tend to look like pointillist paintings, Wimbledon’s canvas is unmistakably multicolored.”
In describing both Federer and Nadal, Wertheim’s choice of words provides readers with a lasting image of each. “Federer is the picture of seamless efficiency. There’s virtually no wasted movement. Like all great athletes, he has a natural mind-body connection. Whatever his brain imagines, his body executes.” Meanwhile, Nadal is “all exertion. He thrust and pounded and unfurled his left-handed sidewinding strokes, punctuating his shots – his practice shots – with an onomatopoeic fwwwwuuumph. Already his white tank top was irrigated with sweat.”
Suffice to say, there are so many memorable passages that time and space does not permit sharing everything that’s worthy of sharing. However, Wertheim’s narrative follows the chronology of the match, set by set. So, it is perhaps best enjoyed in this fashion and not by skipping ahead. However, you will be forgiven if you do sneak a peak at the match’s conclusion. Along the way, no stone or nuance is left unturned.
“As the match unfolded and evolved into a classic, there was less and less talking. In the various Centre Court broadcast booths, commentators let long measures elapse without saying a word. John McEnroe (commenting for NBC Sports to a U.S. audience), not generally known – or, for that matter, hired – for his restraint, sometimes spoke so seldom that viewers could be forgiven for checking to see whether they’d inadvertently activated the mute button. As McEnroe would later recall, ‘Nadal and Federer were so eloquent out there with their tennis, I mean, what were any of us going to add?'”
As the epic match neared its conclusion, Wertheim described the scene playing out on Centre Court this way: “The court may have appeared reasonably well lit on television, but this was a distortion; in reality, it might as well have been illuminated with toy flashlights. Yet when Nadal, on his third championship point, spun another serve to his backhand, Federer, as if wearing night-vision goggles saw the ball perfectly. He turned and flicked a delicate, sharply angled backhand crosscourt for a winner. In retrospect, there was something terribly poignant about this shot. It wasn’t a cold-cocked, nothing-to-lose blast. It was less a hit than a massage. It was one last flourish, one last dash of artistry, one last display of Soft Power, before the mighty king was deposed.”
Soon after, the voice of the chair umpire could be heard, reminding us what we had just witnessed: “Game, set, and match. Rafael Nadal. Six-four, six-four, six-seven, six-seven, nine-seven. … It was 9:16 at night when the scoreboard finally froze.”
A short time later, both players took turns holding their trophy hardware aloft for the crowd to appreciate. “Dusk having morphed into full-on darkness,” writes Wertheim, “Federer and Nadal were backlit only by the popping flashbulbs. White-clad figures amid the blackness, they looked like a pair of ghosts. The thunderous applause continued. In the unfamiliar position of Wimbledon runner-up, Federer was interviewed on court. He cobbled together the following: ‘Yeah, I tried everything. It got a little late and everything. But, look, Rafa’s a deserving champion. He just played fantastically … Yeah, (the darkness) didn’t make it easier, but you got to expect the worst. And it’s the worst opponent on the best court. No, but it’s been a joy again to play here. A pity I couldn’t win it under the circumstances, but I’ll be back next year.’
“Fittingly, Nadal matched Federer grace note for grace note. Did beating Federer in such an epic make the occasion more special? ‘Well, for sure, you know, win Roger here after five years, I lost the last two finals, close finals. But he’s still the number one. He’s still the best. He’s still five-time champion here. Right now, I have one, so for me it’s very important day.'”
For once, Federer would experience the unfortunate truism of tennis, writes Wertheim. “128 players will enter a Major tournament, and 127 will start the next event on a losing streak. And he would experience this irony: for years he did virtually nothing wrong. Yet all those casual fans were going to know him as the loser of the Greatest Match Ever. … He was gaining more renown in defeat than he had for any of his triumphs.
“It was almost unendurably sad seeing a champion so thoroughly damaged. But Federer had shown plenty in defeat. He had scraped and fought and revealed himself to be so much more than merely a gifted artist.”
As for Nadal, Wertheim notes that he had finally won Wimbledon, “his career ambition, and had done so in front of his family and friends and royalty from his country. He had prevailed in a competition that would reset the standard for tennis excellence. It was made all the more meaningful by his opponent, his rival, his conjoined colleague, the player who pushed him and tested him like no one else on the planet. As Nadal replayed the day, splicing a personal highlight reel in his head, he felt the sweetness of having surpassed his own expectations.”
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.