Monday, July 7, 2008

The Once-a-Year, Too-Long Tennis Post: Rafael Nadal as Tiger Woods

It's a little strange to poke around the internet today and see so much blotter Real tennis. Not oh-look-what-she-was-wearing-DAMN! tennis, but real on-court tennis.
As a tennis fan, I couldn't be happier. Will yesterday's epic Wimbledon final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer bring the sport more attention? Who knows. It was exciting to have so many people text and call yesterday, insanely and idiotically wondering are you seeing this wimbledon match?! Duh. I once wrote this. Of course I was watching. I watch any televised tennis. Hell, I spent all week watching Somdev Dev Varman win the Futures of Pittsburgh (correction: annihilate everyone in the field).
For me, the effect the match has on the sport's popularity is minimally important. In some ways, it resembles Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals for Pens fans: yeah, sure it would be nice if such a great game brought the sport more notoriety, but the most important side effect was a Penguins win that would serve as one of your greatest sports memories.
And yet beyond being a great personal sports memory, yesterday's Wimbledon Finals has the eerie potential to serve as one of those retrospective ground shifts within a sport. Such a shift is, I think, better understood by an observation my brother made a number of years ago at the Masters of Cincinnati ATP event.
We arrived at the courts absurdly early that day, because one of our favorite things to observe about professional tennis players is their practice habits. So it is probably 7:30 or 8 a.m. (no matches until 11 or so...hard to remember, this was about five years ago) and only one other person is wandering around the facilities: a young, lean Rafael Nadal. He's jogging around the confines (we follow him) and eventually he winds up at the large grandstand court adjacent to the main stadium. We'd heard euphoric whispers about this 17 year old phenom, so we sat attentively as the only two people in the stands, watching Nadal put himself through a grueling early morning workout that would probably make other players too tired for their match. Halfway through, John McEnroe shows up to watch him practice, too. Our conjectures about his potential were validated by his presence.
After watching him undergo a series of situps and pushups (after already playing and running), my brother dropped the bombshell: "he is the next Tiger Woods of tennis". Ludicrous, I said. We already have Federer. He is our transcendant figure. He is the sport's definitive talent. "I'm not talking talent," my brother says. "I'm talking fitness. Desire. Focus. No one on tour looks like this kid. No one is this muscular. It's just like how Tiger is a better athlete than every single player on the PGA. This guy is going to be just like that."
Five years later, not only does my brother seem frighteningly insightful, but it seems impossible to think that this sort of evolution wasn't expected all along. Of course the best athlete will win. Of course the strongest and fastest shall overcome. For a sport draped in tradition and customs and antiquacy, it is a startling revelation.
There is no clay-courter any more. There is no grass court specialist. There is only the exquisite talent of Roger Federer and the Tiger Woods-like shadow of physicality cast by Rafael Nadal. Everything in between must evolutionize as these two entities have done. All hail the post-modern era of professional tennis.


Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

too long, but damn good. never thought about nadal being more tiger-like than federer. you better call gilette so they can switch their ad campaign

Sam said...

This is the kind of stuff that makes me wonder how Bob Smizik has a job.

Great article.

Pat said...

Except for maaaaaybe Jon Wertheim, Peter Bodo is the best tennis writer in the land. A great piece about yesterday's match if my post piqued your interest.

Anonymous said...

why dont you write about tennis more? I mean, I dont really care for it, but you clearly know what you are talking about

Unknown said...

damn. he's ripped

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

i'm a huge federer fan...but that win was so great to watch. both guys are so classy. good call by your many of us make such a bold statement when he rolled onto the scene in his capri's?