With 14 days left before New Year’s Eve, I reminisce on one of the most electrifying seasons in tennis…..
Remember Wimbledon 2008? When the world’s top two stared at each other’s eyes from across the net? I wrote a column on this space last July entitled, “The Heavyweight Championship of the World.” It was true. The rivalry of Roger and Rafa is one of the sporting world’s most watched—and one of tennis history’s best, right alongside Borg-McEnroe and Sampras-Agassi. In that All-England Club final, when Nadal won the first two sets, 6-4, 6-4, we all thought it was over. But, the 2003 to 2007 Wimbledon champion that he is (and one who carried a 65-match winning streak on grass), Federer wouldn’t surrender. He won the next two sets, 7-6, 7-6. In the end, when the 4-hour, 48-minute match could have swayed either way like a see-saw, Nadal won the fifth set, 9-7. Michelle So, this paper’s Executive Editor and one who flew all the way to Kuala Lumpur in November 2007 to watch Federer play in person, wept. Plenty shed tears. Finishing at 4 a.m. (RP time) because of the stop-and-go rain delays, good thing I missed the match or else I, too, might have felt that “lump in the throat”—it was that emotionally-charged a finale. Remember the Beijing Olympics? And how both Roger and Rafa won gold? With the Swiss winning the men’s doubles title and the Spaniard the singles crown? My wife Jasmin and I were fortunate to have experienced that dream-come-true moment when we spent 10 days in Beijing—four of those at their National Tennis Center. We watched Roger from 30 feet away and, towards the weekend and after he was upset by James Blake, we saw him resurrect his goal of an Olympic gold by teaming up with compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka for the doubles victory. Nadal? He was tireless and dogged, lying on the hard-court surface for a few seconds after he won the final point of the championship.
Remember the French Open? Ah, that was painful. After two weeks of red clay dirt, two protagonists faced each other again. And while the tennis world believed—or, shall I reword that and say, “hoped”—that Mr. Federer would finally win the only major title that has eluded him and snap the three-year-long reign of Mr. Nadal, it wasn’t to be. In one of the most lopsided Grand Slam singles finals, RF won a total of four games, losing 6-1, 6-3, 6-0, to undeniably one of the most formidable clay-court champions of all time: RN. Remember the US Open? It was played during the month of August and, by then, many critics had lost faith in Roger. He wasn’t the world’s top-ranked player and, having lost the previous two majors to Rafa, there was a stadium-load of pressure on him. But, point after game after match, the placid, unruffled and tranquil Swiss—much like the serene Swiss Alps—won and scored and turned champion, beating Andy Murray in the final. Remember Jo-Wilfred Tsonga? Doesn’t he look like Muhammad Ali? And what a glamorous and flamboyant game. He leaps with both legs to hit that two-handed backhand. He pulls back his right arm and slings it to fire a bullet of a forehand. He smiles. Oh, what a beaming grin.
Muhammad Ali and the “Muhammad Ali of Tennis”
Remember Andy Murray? The lone hope of the English people, Murray was long tagged as “talented” but deemed a “physical weakling.” Not this ‘08. Training off-court like Andre Agassi—with lots of gym weights and off-court conditioning—his legs muscled-up, his stamina increased like a marathoner’s. At the US Open semi-finals and facing the almost-unbeatable Nadal, he beat him. Today, at season’s end, he’s world no. 4. Remember Novak Djokovic? The Serb won the year’s first major—the Australian Open—when he upset Federer in the semis and beat Tsonga in the finals. After the reigns of R and R come to an end, the heir apparent is obvious: He’s a vigorous and unflinching competitor who also doubles as a Sharapova impersonator.