An Honor to Watch
September 14, 2010 | by Louisa Thomas
Sunday mornings can be such a bummer, time for reflection and for regret. So it was the morning after Roger Federer’s loss to Novak Djokovic in the men’s semifinal. New York was chilly and soaking—weather for brooding, not for tennis. Who was in the mood for tennis, anyway? There would be no Federer-Nadal final. The match so much desired, so long expected, would not happen.
Djokovic had outplayed Federer. And it was thrilling. I couldn’t help it, at times I was thrilled. Facing two match points in the fifth set, Djokovic saved the first with a gutsy swinging volley. He saved the second with a forehand walloped into the corner—an astonishing shot. Reader, I gasped with joy. I didn’t mean to cheer for Djokovic, a man who smashes his racket against his head to pump himself up. I didn’t want to cheer against Federer. Federer is the player I enjoy watching more than any other, the most beautiful player of the most beautiful game. After the match, I felt empty and a little guilty. On Sunday, I felt even worse. (That the women’s final was so lame didn’t help—hadn’t I, on some level, asked for Vera Zvonareva’s mental collapse? Forgive! And congrats to Kim Clijsters!)
On Monday, though, things looked up. The sun was out and Nadal still playing. Rafa, always reason for cheer! Against Djokovic, Nadal easily won the first set. But during the second, Djokovic came to life, zooming around the court, skinny limbs flying. He went for the lines and hit the corners. Djokovic is not a man who immediately inspires. His haircut is bad, his temper idiotic, his style slightly spasmodic. But he’s daring and quick, gentle at net and fierce in the backcourt, and his defensive play is unreal. When he broke Nadal’s serve twice in the second set, I felt, again, spontaneous pleasure. It would have been impossible to suppress it. Not just impossible: I think it would have been wrong to try.
But he couldn't keep it up, and Nadal ... Nadal is something else. Even when he stumbles, as he did a few times last night. He sprinted to every ungettable shot and moved the ball in unbelievable ways, knifing his volleys and spinning those forehands. Until the last set, when Djokovic simply faded, the Serb gave Nadal a good match. But I wanted Nadal to beat him. I wanted to see him yank Djokovic like a yoyo with his magnificent groundstrokes; I wanted to see him rip up the ball. I wanted him to win so badly that I felt slightly sick. And Nadal did. When he won the 2010 U.S. Open, he became the seventh man to win the career grand slam. He’s 24 years old. He is as great as can be imagined. Greater, maybe.
It's tempting to call tennis an art, and a lot of people do. It’s graceful and intuitive, and one responds to it as one responds to something beautiful, with the desire to describe it and remember it, and to applaud those who made it. But its value is not symbolic, though it lends itself to metaphor. It works in other ways. A single shot is so fast, the physics so complex, that it’s hard to picture, even when you’re watching it live. It can't be aestheticized or really captured. Instead it captures you, the watcher, in wonder. At least, it captures me.
There's something incredible about all those straight lines and arcs and angles, the speed and the spins, the strength, and the drama of two people, alone, facing each other. I don't know what it all adds up to, exactly, or why I care so much. It should be silly, a game with a bouncy, fuzzy yellow ball. But it isn't. It's awesome, and sometimes it's an honor to watch. It was an honor to watch Nadal last night.