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Let It Be Love

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On Sports

Rafael Nadal is the warrior to Roger Federer’s priest. Photograph by Nicolas Genin.

There’s a T-shirt favored by a certain kind of tennis player that says, “Love means nothing to a tennis player.” It’s a pun that no one, it seems, can resist. The 2010 U.S. Open’s slogan is “It must be love.” Please.

But watching Rafael Nadal beat Teymurez Gabashvili last night, I couldn’t help but think about tennis-love. It’s has been on my mind since I read Andre Agassi’s excellent memoir, Open. Every five pages, Agassi declares that he hates tennis. Predictably, he comes to embrace the sport. (Open is a bestselling memoir, after all.)  More interestingly, that it’s clear that, on a deep (and sometimes inaccessible) level, Agassi has always loved tennis. He calls the court a prison.  But he also talks about the game the way one might talk about love.  It is a long rally between loneliness and intense intimacy. And if nothing else, in Agassi’s book tennis has the subtext of sex, or something like it. He wins the French Open going commando. He falls for Steffi Graf not only for her perfect legs but for her backhand slice.

Tennis players are professional athletes: they play to win. But the U.S. Open is a tournament, and a tournament is courtship as well as war. Take the inescapable rivalry:  Federer v. Nadal. Roger Federer:  intelligent, elegant, and powerful. He moves like liquid, anticipates the angle, monograms his clothes, and has great hands. The blogs went bonkers over his between-the-legs winner against a shrugging Brian Dabul in the first round, but I’d trade all the trick shots in the world for the sight of one forehand. It is grace made real. At his best, Federer plays just beyond the possible. He captures something out of reach.

Rafael Nadal is the warrior to Federer’s priest. He’s quick, plays low, swings his racket like a lash, grunts like a moron, explodes into shots, wears neon, and hits blistering winners off his back foot. His ground strokes plummet toward the baseline, weighted with spin. His style is physical, his manner humble, his serve en fuego and oh, those arms! Last night, Gabashvili played the tennis of his dreams, of anyone’s dreams (except—poor Gabashvili!—Nadal’s)—and still, it didn’t matter. Nadal is another kind of player, another beast. Every time his racket whips skyward, creating that incredible topspin, my heart leaps. There is strength and joy in every shot, and desire.

Some people will tell you that you have to choose, that it’s one or the other, Federer or Nadal. Do not listen to these people. Others will favor Andy Murray or, say, Mardy Fish. These people are contrarian, or Scottish, or confused. Who doesn’t want Federer and Nadal play for as long as possible? Pull for the underdog if you must, but choose wisely. Let it be love!