It is an exciting time in professional tennis — perhaps the most riveting era in the sport's history — and no one seems to care.
Last year, Roger Federer captured his first French Open title. In one fell swoop, he completed his career grand slam (meaning at least one win at each of the four major tournaments), tied Sampras's record of 14 grand slam victories (Fed now owns 16), and secured his place as the greatest player of all time.
And then there's Rafael Nadal, who, with his win over Novak Djokovic last night at the U.S. Open, just completed his own career grand slam at the age of 24 — three years younger than Federer was when he did it. (He also now has nine major titles to his name, three more than Roger at that age, and owns a 14-7 edge in head-to-head matches.) Nadal is well on track to challenge Federer's numerous records, and surpass them. In other words, the two best players who ever lived are playing right now, and no one is watching... Are you still reading?
Of course, we didn't get the Federer-Nadal final that fans were hoping for — Federer actually had two match points in Saturday's semifinal to make that happen, but Novak Djokovic stole them away with two of the ballsiest shots I've ever seen (as Novak said later, only half-joking, I was just closing my eyes and hitting forehands as fast as I can) — and it probably didn't help the ratings either that the rains moved in to push the scheduled Sunday prime-time final back to Monday TV no-man's land (the third year in a row that's happened now). But even if it had all come together just right, would anyone have watched?
According to a recent article in the New York Observer, no one's been watching for a while now.
As the piece mentions, not since the golden age of McEnroe and Connors have the Nielsen ratings for tennis been truly impressive... Part of the recent lapse in viewers is that, excepting perhaps Andy Roddick (who pushed Federer to a classic five-set marathon final at Wimbledon last year, and almost took it), we haven't really had an American to rally behind, at least not one who can match up to Rafa and Roger. (Not that anyone else can match up to them, either: of the last 26 grand slam finals, Nadal and Federer have captured 23.)
Another part of the apparent malaise with the sport is the collective illusion — perhaps left over from the days of one-two serve-and-volley/ serve-and-forehand tennis — that the points are over too quick; that there's nothing to see; that bigger, stronger players with better equipment hitting the ball harder than ever has ruined the sport, reduced it to drama-less action. But what these naysayers haven't noticed (I'm not sure they've tried watching) is that as the offense improved, so did the defense. People crack the hell out of the ball, yes, but they're also fast as demons, hustling and scrambling around the court and hunting down balls that would have been clear winners in another age. Points are back to being mini-dramas in their own right — in yesterday's final, there were numerous 20-plus-stroke rallies, long, hard-fought battles of the will packed with every shot imaginable, crushed forehands followed by the finesse of a drop-shot, or the graceful arc of a lob, offense switching to defense and back again, a screaming passing shot from Rafa, ridiculous, impossible, to end it all — points as intricate as a chess match, as grueling as a war. Yes, a good point now is a thing of beauty, and yesterday the crowd at the US Open recognized that with numerous standing ovations...
David Foster Wallace wrote a wonderful profile in 2006 entitled "Federer as Religious Experience," which I definitely recommend you read.
But it seems to me that, unlike back then, it's no longer just Federer bending space and time and doing the impossible — now it's the whole sport. It's Rafa and his relentless focus, it's Djokovic and his heart, it's the gloomy Scot, Murray, and his crafty consistency. It's the unbelievable power of Del Potro, the gentle Argentinian giant cracking his 100 mph forehands, and of Soderling, and of Berdych... But it is, of course, still Roger and Rafa who are inspiring most of the awe these days, which is why everyone loves to see them battle it out against each other. (If you've never seen them play, track down their 2008 Wimbledon final, which is widely thought to be the best match ever.)
They are an interesting pair, these two greats. After all, when taken together, they perfectly define the modern game: a thrilling combination of power and finesse, offense and defense, speed and skill. Consider Roger — slender, graceful on his feet, his tennis a thing of elegance, his miracles performed spontaneously, effortlessly, as if he weren't even really trying. With Rafa — built like a bull, a bundle of muscles and fast-twitch nerves — you can see the effort, his every motion filled with will and determination, sweat and grit. While Roger floats silently above the court, always somehow where he needs to be before he needs to be there, you can hear Rafa pound across the concrete as he chases down shots at full sprint. You can see the intensity on his face, too — a constant scowl of concentration, the forehead creased, the eyes laser-focused — and it is a thing of wonder, when the match is done, to witness this big, boyish grin replace the hard, determined lines, to realize that this beast of an athlete is just a shy, humble 24-year-old kid who speaks English with a sweet, uncertain accent, and prefaces almost everything he says with, "Thank you very much." It is always amazing to see the human beneath the machine.
Which is what we've seen with Federer as of late. Not that watching him play has become any less of a religious experience — magic still emerges from his racket regularly — it's simply become a human experience, too. What kind of profile would David Foster Wallace have penned now, now that Federer has shown himself to be not just a genius, but a man? Now that we've seen this gentle-mannered soul smash his racket into the court, shocking the crowd into silence; now that we've seen his stoic Greek-god demeanor crack into an unforgettably fragile torrent of tears, as it did twice, in front of millions, after five-set defeats at the hands of Nadal. Now that we know how much the sport means to him. Now that he's no longer breezing through three grand-slam finals a year; now that he has to fight for every victory, and demonstrate not just his skill, but his heart...
It is an exciting time in tennis. Will Rafa's body, already battered by his physical style of play, hold up long enough for him to break Roger's records? Will another great soon emerge to truly challenge the dominant two? And is Roger's time nearly up?
Every time Federer loses a match, someone asks that last question. But I have a feeling he'll stick around a while longer — doing what he loves, adding to his tally, reluctant to leave that discussion of who's the greatest up to the fate of Rafa's knees. And it's a good thing, too. It means there's a chance that the best tennis ever has yet to be seen.
It'll be a shame if no one's watching...