Monday, February 2, 2009

New Men

Competition always deems Nadal v. Federer, but epic men allow for Nadal & Federer.
Yes, yes, five sets, Australian Open final, massive, somewhat mind-blowing tennis--2008 Wimbledon was more m-b cuz Federer was not psyched out, not as pressured to be a legend and so he could more consistently deliver the shots, and even the 5 hour plus Verdasco semi-final just two days before was more m-b since it came out of nowhere, and Verdasco had nothing to lose against Nadal, so the shots and stamina were astounding. 

As man sports go, the big deal was that Federer could tie Pete Sampras' record of 14 slam titles and he had an extra day's rest, whereas Nadal had never won a hard court final, had less rest after playing the 5 hour 14 minute grueler, and had never met Federer in a hard court final. (Context: Nad is King of Clay Courts, a slower surface, having won the last 3 French Open titles and Fed is/was the King of Hardcourt and Grass, previously better on the faster surfaces until Nadal took Wimbledon and now the Australian Open away).

I think the extra day off was good for physical rest but scribbled Nadal even further into Federer's psyche, particularly if he watched the astonishing semi-final match, which he probably did in the luxury of repose.  Multi psyche out: that guy has to be superhuman to be able to continue playing at that level; he has never won a hard court Slam final (Context: Grand Slams are the Aussie, French, U.S. Opens plus Wimbledon); I have rested; I can more easily tire him out; Rest = physical strength = mental domination. I have won 13 grand slam titles. I have been indomitable on the hard court for the past 5 years. But then grass. Grass is different from hardcourt. Hard court is faster. I'll play him side to side. He won't keep up. I have my serve.

But it is what happened after Nadal became the first Spaniard to win the Australian Open that was the most epic. As the fans cheered Federer and his shiny metal plate, unendingly adoring him with hoots and hollers, even a distinct exclamation of  'I love you Federer' from the nose-bleed seats, Fed tried his best to keep it together, until he succinctly stated: God, it's killing me. And he wept. He wept as a man of passion does when his soul is so deeply invested into his endeavor; he wept despite all of the macho atmosphere and posture; he wept because his heart could no longer be reigned by body and mind; he wept because he is human.

I am a Nadal fan, but I loved Federer a little more. It is breathtaking, in our super electronic and mediated world when a human act as raw as crying happens in the highest of echelons, witnessed by the world. This will be more memorable than hitting 14 slam titles.  It ain't a slam, but it is surely an ascent.

And then there is Nadal. With his superhuman, godlike talent, he shows that the new man will match such physical gifts with equal grace and humanity.
For the Verdasco v. Nadal semi-final, I went back to Lan Kwai Fong, to Dublin Jack, where I'd watched the Obama Inauguration at 1am with my cousin Paul. I wasn't able to locate the sports channel on Paul's TV, so I was listening to Australian Open radio for the first 2 sets, something like '...service to the outside, Nadal forehand cross court, Verdasco backhand returns it down the line, Nadal cross court, Verdasco cross court, Nadal with a sliced backhand, Verdasco forehand down the line, oo nicks the tape and it falls in. Good!  Unbelievable!' When it tied 1 set a piece, I had to see it to believe it.

Over 2 pints of Kilkenny, I was glued to my seat for 3 hours, front row of a huge screen TV. Chinese new year was still in gear, so I'd hear drums coming down the street and would saunter up to the open window for a quick look at the dragon dancing, but then quickly back to watch. (It looked like a thrift store dragon with faded orange scale, rented by a church group). An American in a blazer with his office mates sat behind me, non-stop running his mouth, calling each shot, expounding on Verdasco's 'iron testicles' and how Nadal was 'not bad looking.' On and on. 3 hours, 2 tracks.

For the final, the Jack was empty. I even sat at the same booth and watched the same screen as the Inauguration. Of the blokes in the booth next to me, the main talker was an Irishman (surprise!) with a stoner's cadence--slow, lingering, with a rasp at the end of a phrase, also on and on, but more obsessed with the Korean bird that his mate was frolicking, or getting a game of hold 'em goin' on at his apartment, or catching up with a mate for a few beers after the match, and the chicks coming over with some new chicks, and that other bird he used to see, who keeps calling. Had they stayed for the final ceremonies, I was tempted to walk by and say 'tweet.'

Had they stayed for the final ceremonies, they would have not only seen Federer take a few steps back to compose himself, and him patting Rafa's heart as he went to receive his trophy from Rod Laver, they would have also seen Rafa raise his trophy, and then go and wrap his winning left arm around Roger, whispering in his ear so that Roger grinned, giving him the chance to speak first. Utterly natural and generous, light but sincere, in the best spirit of men and competition. A gesture that immediately released all the tense old men on stage from wringing their hands, who just didn't know what to do. 

After Roger congratulated and thanked, Rafa, in his Spanish-inflected English, said 'Rog...sorry about today. I know exactly how you feel.' O shoot!  How often do you get to see men act like angels? 'I'm sure you will improve on the 14 of Pete Sampras...' I love foreigners to English. The fact that he used the word 'improve' which is not quite, but actually, exactly. Sometimes, in a moment that requires comfort, you don't want it said spot on--in fact you might want an awkward word that opens a new door to bear new meaning.

Maybe it is just youth, that Nadal is 22 and basically a boy, a kind boy with manners and stellar tennis talent, and Federer is 27, on the brink of marriage. It's the reason why there was such a fuss about the '14 year old' Chinese gymnasts during the Olympics--youth is not as mentally encumbered and so has a competitive advantage. The way Nadal was watching Federer as he was breaking down showed a confounded look, at once emanating 'o shit, what do I say,' and also recognizing that that day will come for Nadal, when he is in the more complex stages of his life and a whippersnapper comes to snatch his trophies away. Either way, it was compassion in action, down the line, cross court, for a winner.

I know Tennis Australia has blocked the YouTube vid of Federer's weeping. It is weeping, because it is a mourning, a melancholy, a release, as opposed to crying from injury or for mommy. How manly would it have been to be stoic, seemingly indifferent, blank on the outside and crushed on the inside? Shoot, that kind of civility causes cancer. Even so, the old men, or rather, the old boys see crying as sissy, as girly, as demeaning, as weak. The new man sees it.

(The new man can also share intimate face space after having defeated/been defeated by the other. Is that just the warmth of camaraderie, of compatriots, unencumbered by puritanism?)

In the end, Nadal & Federer, the Latin and the Germanic (though the Swiss have that romance language in them, as seen by Federer conversing with and cursing the umpire in French). Though what is thoroughly modern and truly epic about this 21st century rivalry (and boy am I thrilled, even honored, to be alive for it--can you tell?) is the Latin showing steely discipline along with his agility, the Germanic showing vulnerability within his perfection. Call it Yin/Yang, where the black dot is within the white teardrop, and the white dot within the black. Call it the fusing of contradiction unto a new synthesis. Call it championship. I call it AWESOME!

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