When I first wrote about the 2008 Wimbledon final in my blog, I found myself wishing that Homer was alive to see this. (Of course, Homer never could have seen this, since legend tells us he was blind. :)) The 2008 final was so massive, truly epic, that I felt that only Homer could truly do justice to what happened in that final. “Sing goddess, of the wrath of Achilles…”
I thought about that again yesterday, after the final, and after a blogger posted his comments about Rafa and the other members of the Big Three. I’ll post the link to his post so you can read it in its entirity, but here is the meat of the post that brings us back to Hector, Achilles, and Rafa.
One of the great things about this era of the game, though — it goes along with the cruelty we were just talking about — is that it feels almost epic. That’s a word that gets thrown around a lot in sports, but I mean it literally here. Think about, say, The Iliad. It’s a book about combat, about wild golden armies tearing each other to shreds, but here and there in every battle there are heroes whom no one can touch. Hector and Achilles and Ajax and the other superheroes of the B.C.E. basically wade through the enemy, mowing down everything in their path. They’re not even in danger. There’s absolutely no chance that some minor Trojan is going to bring down Achilles; it’s not happening. And after hundreds of pages of this, when they finally start facing each other, you can’t freaking believe how intense the moment is, because you’ve been primed to think they’re invincible.
Isn’t that basically the state of tennis today? Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have won every major tournament but onein the last seven years. The occasional Jo-Willie Tsonga crack-up aside, those three and Andy Murray are practically guaranteed to meet in every semifinal. They spend the early rounds of the tournament scything down ranks of lesser players, and when they finally play each other, you can’t freaking believe how intense it is. They’re all larger than life. They all seem essentially invincible.
What I realized during this Australian Open is that Nadal sets the tone for this state of affairs more than anyone else, certainly more than Federer. Roger is so cool and frictionless that, most of the time, he seems less like a prism of epic intensity than a dispassionate analyst of it. Djokovic, since his ascent, has been so much better than everyone else that he’s largely been able to act like a careful clinician, the administrator of his own talent. And Murray has lost to the other guys so often that his anger and frustration seem basically inconsequential. In other words, the game may be epic for the fans, but you won’t always catch that ground note of holy-shit intensity if you only watch the other three players. Left to themselves, they don’t exactly project deep contact with the secret fires of time.
Nadal, though? He plays like he’s fighting giants. It’s not just the sneer, or the muscles, or the hair, or that forehand — you know, the one where he swoops the racket all the way around his head like he’s whipping the team pulling his chariot. It’s also that frantic tenacity that used to drive me so nuts. Federer seems devastated when he loses but he also seems to sense losses coming and accept them before they arrive. When Nadal falls behind, he turns the match into life and death. He gets mad. He hesitates less. He hits the ball harder. He doesn’t look sad or scared. He looks defiant, and he plays like he’s possessed.
As a result, he carries matches to a higher plane than they have any business reaching. Djokovic could and should have won the Australian final in four sets, but Nadal refused to surrender, played lethal tennis, and took Djokovic to a place he’d never been. Instead of notching a routine victory, Djokovic had to tap into the same well of inspiration that Nadal was already drawing from. You could say that all these guys have learned what it means to fight on the plains of Troy because Nadal does it in every match. And we see him do it, so we know what it means, too.
In 2008, Rafa was Achilles, defeating the noble Hector. In the final on Sunday, Rafa was Hector, defeated by Achilles. (Actually, Nole’s personality probably fits Achilles’ personality a bit better than Rafa does.) I refuse to say that Nole is Paris, killing Rafa’s Achilles. Paris was a wimp, who shot an arrow at Achilles’ heal, rather than try to defeat him in one on one combat. That’s not what happened yesterday.
But I also like this post because it gets to the heart of one of the reasons I love Rafa. When I first started watching tennis, it was the drama, and the potential for drama, that captivated me. I was impressed by Venus’ match against Lindsey Davenport, and it was Agassi’s match against James Blake that cemented my love for tennis. But I realized at that time, since Roger was so far above everyone else, I would never get to see those kinds of exciting matches. After all, I had seen his match against Andy Roddick at Wimbledon, and it was not that impressive, or exciting.
Then Rafa came along.
As crushing as yesterday’s defeat was, I didn’t find myself incredibly bummed out the way I was in 2011 after Wimbledon. At the time I thought, “He didn’t even make Nole EARN it.” More than winning, I wanted it to be a great match. I wanted him to push Nole. That match seemed more like the battle between Paris and Achilles, which was not a battle at all, just a man, an arrow (the coward’s weapon), and a heel.
So, at the end of the match at the Australian Open, I was not bummed out. I was sad that it didn’t work out in Rafa’s favor, but I enjoyed seeing Nole being pushed to the limit, to the point of utter and complete physical and mental exhaustion. I enjoyed, in a somewhat sick way, seeing Nole and Rafa bent over during the trophy ceremony, about to collapse in cramps and fatigue. In the end, Nole still won, but it was a battle worthy of Achilles and Hector.
That’s what Rafa does, he gives us these battles. They are terrifying to watch, in fact, towrds the end of the fifth set, I wondered if we should simply shoot them both and be done with it. They are not for the faint hearted or weak stomached. But as terrifying as they are, they are exhilerating, reminding us of what the human body and human will can do, filling us with a terrible awe.
At the same time, I felt very thankful. Homer never saw the Trojan War, and not simply because he was blind. The events that inspired the legends of the Trojan war took place centuries before they were composed into the great epic poems. Homer and the other Greeks of his day are looking back, fondly remembering the fabled age of heroes. But in tennis, as one person wrote on Twitter, these are the “good old days.” The time of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic is one of the great times in tennis history, and every time we see a Wimbledon 2008 or a Australian Open 2012, it reminds us that this is the Age of the Heroes.
“Sing goddess, of the wrath of Achilles…”