One For the Ages

I've recently found solace in a sporting event that's often overlooked because it is so early in the year. No, not the Super-Bowl because honestly who gives a s**t? I am referring of course to the Australian Open Tennis Finals where we saw four of the greatest competitors of all time (well 3 and a half) compete to hold up the trophy like the Lion King baby.

I am not much of a sports fan, and that is to say unless your team has Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna I want no part of it. Tennis however, was somewhat engrained in me. I was dragged to my brother and sister’s tournaments for countless weekends of my childhood where I usually ran off to find a four-leaf clover or draw something in the dirt. The ability to play was unfortunately lost on me as I went through five years of tennis camp without ever harnessing the ability to serve. I’ll admit I mainly stayed for the social aspect, plus I had a crush on several of the male counsellors.

My first moment of actual interest in the sport rather than indifference or at times resentment came in 2008. It was the Wimbledon finals between #1 seed Roger Federer and #2 seed Rafael Nadal. At this point Federer was still dominating tennis with five Wimbledon trophies and twelve grand slams in total. Nadal, five years his junior, was already emerging as his greatest rival destroying him in their clay-court match-ups but falling short in the two prior Wimbledon finals. I was rooting for Federer, a decision I’ll admit was initially intended to annoy my Nadal obsessed sister who was practically having a panic attack every time he missed a shot. This rivalry used to be quite a point of contention, but now I remember she voted for Hillary so we’re all good. Anyways, as my family gathered around our basement TV it was evident we were watching a historic match. Amidst several rain delays it lasted 4 hours and 48 minutes with Nadal eventually claiming victory at 6-4, 6-4, 7-6, 7-6, 7-9, and it is now considered by many to be the greatest match in the history of tennis.

 

My love of Roger Federer grew beyond a ploy to irritate my sister into deep admiration. If I’m having a bad day sometimes I’ll watch a compilation video of his greatest shots and I instantly feel inspired. To steal a line from Aaron Sorkin it is like seeing Shakespeare the way it’s meant to be done. His racquet is his instrument and with it we all get to hear the most beautiful melody ever composed. And this is why Nadal makes a perfect rival: if Federer is Mozart, Nadal is James Brown. What Federer exudes in grace, he exudes in passion. It is almost comical to see them stand together after a match is done because while Federer looks like he could leave the court and head to a black tie event, Nadal looks like he needs to go to rehab. In recent years as both players have aged their meetings have become fewer and further between with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray becoming the new top dogs. A development that thoroughly displeases me as I find both of those players uninteresting and not worthy of a musical metaphor. Nadal’s vigorous playing style is perhaps not the most enduring as he is constantly out on injury and losing in early rounds of tournaments. Federer has often made it to the final rounds of grand slams but has not held the trophy in quite some time.

Tennis is perhaps the only sport where the women’s side gets as much if not more mainstream attention. This is of course because of the force that is Serena Williams. I hope I don’t lose my woman card by saying that women’s tennis has never grabbed me in the same way perhaps because of the reason that makes it so popular. Don’t get me wrong Williams is indeed remarkable; with 22 grand slam victories she is without question one of the best athletes of all time and the best female athlete of all time. But there’s no rivalry to really sink your teeth into because no one is on her level. It’s usually just her playing against some Eastern European lady I’ve never heard of. I’m not excited to learn Serena has won, I just assume she has.

Perhaps, the player who has come the closest to rivaling Serena is her sister Venus. The two came up together, played doubles together, and have competed against each other 27 times. I believe my first racquet had a cover with the Williams sisters on it - an affirmative stance of girl power. While Venus falls short of Serena’s tour-de-force the two together as tennis iconography are massively important. Two ass-kicking black women genuinely inspired by the other’s success was a sight to behold.

However, we have come a long way since the good old days of the Bush administration. The only one of these four that still maintains world-domination-total-awesomeness status is Serena. Federer’s last grand slam title was 2012, Nadal 2014, Venus 2008. That is until January 2017 as I was contemplating finding a spinning needle to prick my finger on to fall into a deep sleep for the next four years. Nadal was coming off an awful 2016 where he hadn’t managed to crack a grand-slam quarterfinal, meanwhile Federer had just taken six months off on injury, and Venus to be perfectly honest I thought she had retired. Serena won Wimbledon, appeared in Lemonade, and got engaged to the Reddit CEO so she was doing just fine, but she hadn’t faced her older sister in quite some time. In the Australian Open Women’s Finals she did. I can’t say it was a particularly exciting match, Serena won pretty handily at 6-4, 6-4. But what happened after was pretty remarkable; as they embraced after match point, Venus looked at her with such pride, and as she accepted her runner-up plate, she said in disbelief: “That’s my little sister!”

Federer and Nadal now seeded respectively at #17 and #9 both achieved the impossible to get where they ended up, both conquered through five set semifinals as well as back pains and fatigue as they are now old men. But it happened; we got a Federer-Nadal final for the first time since 2011. I did not watch it live because it started at 3:30 am and I do not care enough about any sport to endure that sort of torture, but I watched the whole thing. Unlike 2008, I did not have the company of my family to annoy with my commentary on how much Nadal is balding. Like 2008, it was an intense, gripping, suspenseful five set match. In the end Federer sealed it with a final score of 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 winning his 18th grand slam and cementing his status as the GOAT. I was of course thrilled, it was a moment five years in the making, it was a moment I had grown to believe would never happen, it was a moment Federer had grown to believe would never happen. (Like the commentators I have decided it’s my place to psychoanalyze the players.) I went on twitter expecting everyone to join me in my celebration, then I remembered everyone was a little distracted because the President banned Muslims from entering the country.

The joy from Federer’s triumphant win wore off in the next few hours when I confronted the reality surrounding me, and rightfully so. Unfortunately it is not really a time to be really excited for tennis tournaments or award ceremonies, even though I’ll inevitably watch both. Looking back on that 2008 Wimbledon final we were in such a different place. Sure we were on the precipice of an economic collapse, but we were also on the precipice of electing the first black president. Everything felt hopeful and optimistic. Perhaps that was just because I was eleven and like all eleven year olds extremely ignorant of the world around me, but even so this match felt like a symbolic book-end of that hopeful era. This match will not be remembered the same way as that five-hour saga. When we look back on 2017, I doubt we will look back on this tournament as a bright spot amidst all the chaos. But we saw four champions compete, two rise above, and two fall short with tremendous grace. It is of course the least of President Trump’s offences in his tenure thus far, but it is an offence and a real shame that this is yet another thing he is taking away from us. Because this was one for the ages, even if the ages forget it.