What defines an epic contest? Pure sport lovers crave it. We don’t see it often. The planets have to align. When we set it, we grab it tightly and never want to let go. In today’s sporting landscape the epic contest is becoming as rare as a Halley’s Comet sighting. Last night was an epic contest.
For me last night willbe remembered for what it didn’t have, as much for what it did have. There was no racquet throwing, no churlish abuse or self-pity directed at the players’ box, no finger pointing at the umpire, no belittling ball kids. No crap. The contest was all that remained.
‘Just’ two great players, of relative equal ability, going at it hammer and tongs for 4 hours, with all the marbles on the line. This was pure.
I was done with tennis. I put a full stop to it about 6 months ago. I just stopped watching. Any element of care was gone. Beaten down by the mediocrity and the self-indulgence of our two Australian ‘flagbearers’ Kyrgios and Tomic. Watching the Australian Open was a slow burn. No interest, turned into passing interest, which become genuine interest as the Federer and Nadal narrative took shape.
In previous weeks, my sporting interest was with the white ball. I am a cricket man at the core. I watched the white ball fare, but knew it wasn’t a real contest. There is no balance. Batsman with bats bigger than Fred Flinstone’s trusty whacking club, hit through the line with arrogance on concrete pitches. The Bowler just tries to hang on. The umpire wears a helmet. This is not real cricket, yet I can watch it in small doses, to admire the skill on show. I don’t care about the result.
I was struggling to stay upright come Sunday night. The scallywags (aged 2 and 4) had run poor old dad off his feet. Two days of endless sporting pursuits, which in no particular order took in cricket, volleyball, quoits, bocce, cycling, basketball, wrestling, athletics, darts (just throwing the flights – I’m not that irresponsible!), all ending with an epic game of AFL at Arden Street, in the brilliant Sunday arvo sun. When Harry stuck a fork in Jack’s ear at dinner time and I had to step in and adjudicate for the 387th time in 48 hours, I was spent. As I turned the last page of ‘Grug at the playground’ I headed for the sanctuary of the couch and the tennis.
Mrs D peddled away on the bike in the garage, as I settled in. The springs are gone in the old girl and any sudden movements can result in mild discomfort at best, or at worst complete structural collapse. Two kids and a mortgage means a new couch is not on the shopping list.
The match promised a lot. Two champions of the game, yet fading stars, desperate for one last sip from the holy-grail. True champions don’t surrender meekly. They keep fighting the good fight for as long as there is tread left on their Dunlop Volleys. The draw opened up and they headed towards the light. Poor preparations and injury layoffs were put in the corner. No excuses.
Contrasting styles. Federer the magician with the measured backhand and the ability to make the incredibly difficult look like child’s play. Nadal is the Gladiator who would fight for every point as if his life depended on it. Would brilliance or brutality win?
I was slightly in the Nadal corner in terms of support. His mannerisms got me in. He seems like a bit of a tortured soul on the court. The placing of the drink bottles and the 48 little movements before each serve. The man looks like he is waging a war against the little bloke on his shoulders. I was familiar with this feeling from my sporting days.
The match was intense for the outset. It was the quality of the points. The moments within the moments. 95% of shots were going exactly where they were intended. You had to win the point. The Federer backhand is quite possibly the eighth wonder of the world – delivered with the grace of a ballerina, yet the force of a jackhammer. As the first two sets were traded, there was no clear winner emerging. You sensed this was going to go to 5.
Federer was taking balls early from the baseline, while Nadal was putting more spin on the ball than Bob ‘Dutchie’ Holland. All the while there was ‘nothing’. Sweet ‘nothing’. The contest was all that mattered. No controversies. No player losing the plot. No aggro. No ego. I craved it. Two players with respect for their sport and for the contest. The purity of sport.
Mrs D was fading mid-way through the 4th and headed for bed. I know the scallywags will have me up at 5.30am but I don’t care. I have to commit to the end. I owe Nadal and Federer.
I feel the urge to talk to a mate about what is happening. To share the experience with someone. I start texting my mate Brad back in Wagga. We swap texts marvelling at the display and embellishing on our own ‘epic’ contests at the Charles Sturt University Courts in the late 90s.
We get to the 5th. Nadal takes the early lead. I’m about to make the call. As my fingers start to type the text, the ‘Fed Express’ delivers 15 minutes of brilliance, that only he can do. When he gets in this mood there is little that can be done. Nadal makes a final charge. He even sends match point up to the third umpire. The man refuses to be beaten. He is the Terminator. The call goes the way of Federer and the contest is over. Exhaustion. Devastation. Jubilation. The contest is over.
Over the years sporting contests tend to blend into one another. Some rise above this and live in the memory. I won’t soon forget the 2017 Australian Open. This was one for the purists. At its best sport can take our breath away and make time stand still. The purity of the contest is why we love sport. Mr Federer and Mr Nadal, thanks for reminding us.