clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Endless Sunday

New, 18 comments

I felt like writing it, you don't want to read it, so it's getting posted after midnight on a Friday

My tennis career began in the summer of 1995 and ended in the spring of the next year.

Inspired by some ambitious family friends and the swelling Sampras/Agassi phenomenon, I began to take some shoddy weekly lessons, and was subsequently deemed a perfectly pedestrian ball striker. I played in actual matches for my school that winter and was again showered with unanimously tepid reviews. An 0-for-3 performance in a Little League game that spring, followed by an accusation that an adulterous athletic swing was at the heart of my one-game slump, and my dream of becoming the next Jeff Tarango instantly flatlined.

While my active relationships with several other sports lasted much longer, it's still probably tennis that speaks to my soul more than any game this side of fly swatting (it is the way I play it). I'm competitive to a fault and have never been praised for my ability to work with others, so a sport where your personal performance against one other individual is the sole determinant of the winner and the loser is a gig I want in on.

All this is a big lead-in to a statement that still makes several of my friends cringe and hope no one they know sees us socializing: I love Wimbledon.

Outside of the Louisville baseball team making a run to Omaha (or the Least Cool Person Tournament), there is no summer event I look forward to more than the dual two-week tournaments at the All England Club in London.

Though I generally don't have much tolerance (or need) for "high society," there's something about the white garb, the strawberries and cream and the multitude of potted plants that I find very agreeable. Maybe it's my inner-being searching for some semblance of balance with the beautiful brutality of football peering around the corner. I don't know.

I do know that when I saw that DirecTV and ESPN had teamed up to bring viewers a free Wimbledon All-Access package that would show up to seven live matches at the same time a few years back, I nearly strawberry and creamed my pants (I simply cannot help it. And it was going so well, too). If your schedule allows it, you can spend the last week of June and the final week of July doing little else but following the drama on the grass courts in London. And if your schedule doesn't allow it but you're slowly begininning to wonder whether or not your schedule has been crushing the remaining semblance of your soul, well, it's a solid option in that situation as well.

It's more or less what I did - with zero regrets - in 2008, right up until the Sunday of the men's final.

Fresh off a solid four hours of sleep I rolled out of bed that morning at 8:45, dedicated to taking in each shot of a match between the man who had dominated the sport for the better part of the last decade and the only other on the tour who had shown similar potential. I was greeted by no Cheerios, a rain delay, and word that I could have snoozed for at least an extra hour.

Caffeine-enhanced wide eyes looked on as perennial Centre Court maid of honor Rafael Nadal dipped, bent and angled his way to three breaks and a two set lead over a man who last lost on grass when nobody had any idea what the hell an iPod was. But Federer not going down in straight sets was the biggest lock in the history of sports, even if he couldn't figure out a way to pull out a game off serve.

A second rain delay and an increasingly healthy blood stream had me quickly fading. I spent much of the fourth set rocking the "it's too early and I'm sitting in the front row head bob" for the first time since the fall of '04. But the fourth set tie-break was enough to make Charlie Rose jump out of his chair and let loose a "holy shit." Put simply, it was the best and most exciting stretch of tennis I've ever seen.

And that was it. It was over. Nadal had made his point and next year's tournament was almost certainly going to serve as his coronation, but the day was going to belong to the five-time defending champ, the guy who was 24 points away from catching Borg, the man whose serve seemingly jumped 30 mph on key points, and the legend who had just ripped a backhand passing shot down the line on Championship Point like getting everyone invested in the match was a joke he'd been carefully crafting for the last three hours.

Nadal breaking Federer in the 15th game of the fifth set and then closing things out on serve ranks just behind George Mason/Connecticut on my "OK that was fun, but you had your chance and now here comes the inevitably expected finish" miscalculations list (I still think Denim Brown's shot is going to go in).

Not only was this the best match of my lifetime, but I think it will eventually prove to be the most significant. Federer would go on to win more Grand Slams, break Sampras' record, and still has the chance to go down as the greatest to ever play the game, but the era of "good lord, how can a single person be so much better than everyone else in the world at this one thing" died in London on that Sunday night.

As tremendous as the competition was, the spectacle of the whole thing may have had it beat.

Rafa climbing up to the player's box and then over to the Royal Box: awesome. It being so dark that flashbulbs were literally lighting up the players' faces during the awards ceremony: awesome. Both guys seeming genuinely humble and likable: awesome. Federer trying to come to grips with the loss and looking like he'd just found out 1 + 1 = 3: not awesome, but undeniably compelling.

I've said this before, but one of the most important traits a person can have, I think, is the ability to accurately recognize those times when he or she is especially happy, lucky or fortunate, and, in turn, be appropriately grateful. I'll be forever grateful for that Sunday, and for any future event which rivals it.