Sport As It Should Be
I have a confession to make.
A confession, which to many may border on the heretical, especially when spoken at this time of the year.
I’m not really a great fan of tennis, it bores me, it annoys me.
The women’s game in particular, with the screams and groans, which seem to be better suited to other, indoor, pursuits. The sort of pursuits best carried out behind closed doors, lest they frighten the horses. Their moans and screams certainly frighten me.
The men’s game fares little better. With serves being so fast there in no chance of a return, or if the ball is returned it is invariably out. Where, at tournaments like Monte Carlo, you have more chance seeing a rally outside than in the tennis arena.
Then each year Wimbledon arrives, the tournament that seems to punch above its weight.
Looked at bluntly it is a freak tournament in the year round circus that is professional tennis. It is played on grass for goodness sake. No serious player plays on grass, it is too slow a surface. You have to play so differently than on other surfaces it is meaningless in the context of the season as a whole.
Yet for all its apparent absurdity, it is THE tournament all the players want to win.
With the blanket coverage given to the tournament by the BBC many in the UK could be forgive in thinking Wibmledon is the only big tennis tournament in the world.
It is the same BBC coverage that makes the tournament virtually impossible to avoid.
Every June I vow I will ignore Wimbledon, every June I eventually end up watching or, more usually, listening to the coverage. I stress the listening because I have to say I find Five Live’s coverage of the tournament spellbinding. You only have to listen for a short while and you are captivated.
Not necessarily the commentary, but the discussion and the banter between the experts and commentators. It is like Test Match Special at its very best, but with some edge.
Wimbledon brings with it some tradition and I am not just referring to the strawberry’s and cream.
The most dominant, and often most short lived, of these traditions is how long with the plucky Brit last in the men’s singles. Will he make the second week?
As each round progresses and our Braveheart (or nice Englishman) wins another game some even dream of ultimate glory. It is like the dream that one day you will pick the six numbers in the Lottery and the chances are almost the same.
Each year there is a tantalising false dawn.
This year it came on the second Monday of the tournament.
In a clash that played to all our prejudices. A plucky young Brit, or Scot if you roots are of a Celtic inclination. Playing a player rated higher and, to add extra spice, the opponent was French.
Not only was the opponent French he had a name you could make fun of with many calling Richard Gasquet, Richard Gasket.
When Gasquet went two sets and 5-4 up, with a break it looked to be all over for the plucky Scot.
Then the unthinkable happened, the Frenchman did what the Brits are meant to do – he bottled it. Actually he didn’t bottle it, he downed a whole case of it – whatever it is.
In one of the most remarkable comebacks Andy Murray rose Phoenix like from the ashes of defeat to win an epic five setter.
People began to dream the impossible dream. Could Braveheart possibly do the impossible? Dare we dream of him reaching the final?
Of course just 48 short hours later the dream was shattered for another year. Murray’s next match was against the unstoppable force known as Rafael Nadal.
The result, if we are honest, was a foregone conclusion, even before the first ball was served.
The only question was, would Murray come out of the mis-match with any dignity remaining. To his credit he did, although going down in straight sets he did, at times make Nadal work for his win.
It was time, once again, for our Braveheart to exit stage left for another year, in the knowledge he had progressed a round further than last time.
Nadal, on the other hand had a date with destiny.
As soon as the draw was made it was on the cards there would be a Roger Federer / Rafael Nadal final and so it came to pass.
Battle lines were drawn. The two best players in the world by a country mile were to meet in the gladiatorial arena that is centre court.
In the red and white corner, representing Switzerland, Federer, winner of the title for a record equalling five consecutive times, victor over Nadal at the last two Wimbledon finals.
In the red and yellow corner, representing Spain, Nadal, Federer’s nemesis in 2008, especially in the French open. The young pretender.
I have to confess that being a sentimentalist I wanted Federer to win, to make history. I have nothing against Nadal but he is young and his time will still come, even if he lost again this year.
Although closely matched the young Spaniard took the first two sets, each one with a single break, so close were these two competitors.
So the third and possibly decisive set began. This time there were no breaks of serve. Each player matching the other. Until the dreaded 6-6 scoreline appeared. It was all down to this one tie break.
Like penalties in football, the tiebreak seems to be a terrible way for a match to potentially finish. On this occasion Federer had read the script and he had seemingly little difficulty in taking the breaker.
At the very least the champion was not going to be defeated in straight sets. A scoreline that would have been a travesty and would not have been a true reflection of just how close the game had been.
So we were into a fourth set. Again whatever one player did, the other matched or exceeded.
It was a true gladiatorial contest, with no quarter being asked or given.
Inevitably there was another tie break. This time it was closer with both players breaking and Nadal seemingly having the title in his grasp. Yet each time he looked to be down and out, Federer seemed to find that little bit extra. In a gripping tiebreaker he again prevailed, two sets all and down to a deciding final set.
This time no tie breaker. It was to be a fight to the finish, the first man to blink would lose.
At this point I was reaching the stage where I actually did not want either man to lose. In all honesty neither deserved to lose.
However this was sport at its rawest, there had to be a winner, but who would it be?
The games went with serve. When it seemed a player was about to be broken he fought back.
The game had the potential to go on for an eternity and most watching wanted more.
BBC1 had cleared their schedules to show what was destined to become the longest Wimbledon men’s singles final ever. Even Songs of Praise was consigned to BBC2.
Then at two all and deuce, perfectly poised, the heavens opened for the second time.
Would there be an anti-climax and no more play?
The BBC had a resident weatherman who assured us the break would be brief.
They returned, battle was rejoined. Federer had to pick up his serve and play out the game, whichhe did with ease.
The set progressed, each game going with serve.
However the longer they played the more worried you became about Federer. He was a fighter, no doubt about that. However Nadal was beginning to win his service games with consummate ease, whereas Federer was having to fight hard to win his.
Nadal had break points but Federer somehow fought back. Would Nadal’s temperament hold up at these fightbacks. Lesser men would crumple.
How much longer could Federer keep fighting off the young challenger?
The answer came in the fifteenth game when Nadal finally managed to break Federer. There was a feeling of this is it.
8-7 and Nadal was serving for the Championship. He loses the first point, comes back. Gets match point but Federer still will not give up. Fed fights back.
Can he fight back yet again. The answer is no – Federer bangs a forehand into the net – Nadal lies prostrate on the ground.
The King is dead, long live the new King.
The players must have been exhausted, those who had the privilege of watching the game must be exhausted too, I know I was.
Even my wife, to whom all sport is an anathema, was gripped by the contest.
Even after that epic contest there was icing to be added to the cake. There were no histrionics from either player afterwards.
Federer was gracious in defeat and Nadal was magnanimous in victory. Both clearly respecting the others talent, both knowing the result could have gone wither way.
This was pure sport, as it should be. The two best competitors giving everything, playing to the best of their ability, then giving even more.
Why can’t all sport be like this?