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Every so often, something happens that reminds me why I love sports so much, why I've always wanted to be a sportswriter -- even if the pay is dismal.
That happened for me Monday afternoon.
I had been backpacking in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains all weekend, which forced me to have my aunt DVR the Wimbledon championship matches. And after returning home Sunday night, I had to block myself out from the sports world to hold the suspense in the air.
But Monday afternoon, after waking up and speeding over to my aunt's, I witnessed greatness. Rafael Nadal's five-set, 4-hour, 48-minute victory over Roger Federer felt live to me even 24 hours later. It was one of those matches where you don't want either player to lose because of how good they both are.
There was Nadal, the clay-court master seeking his first Wimbledon title, taking the first two sets with an array of ground strokes that always seemed to paint the lines.
Federer, the five-time champ, the man with 12 grand slams, seemed done. The younger Nadal was wearing him out, right? Nonsense. Rather, there was Federer playing the most clutch tennis I've ever witnessed, winning tiebreaks in the third and fourth sets to even the match. He came back from a 5-2 hole, facing two Nadal serves, in the fourth-set tiebreak.
You know how there are plays that stick with you for a lifetime? If Federer had gone on to win the match, his backhand up the line to save a match point in the fourth set would have gone down, at least in my mind, as on of those. Federer saved three match points on his way to evening the match.
After that fourth set, and an emotional outburst from the world's No. 1 player, Nadal was seen resting, his legs shaking as he prepared for the do-or-die fifth set. From that image, I didn't know if he'd have the courage to win that elusive third set.
I shouldn't have doubted him. As darkness settled in on Centre Court, and I started to wonder if I could have tuned in Monday to watch the end live, the best players in the world continued to play remarkably, showing no signs of fatigue or failure to see the ball. Every time one threatened to break the other's serve, the server responded with a huge ace or a ferocious ground stroke.
The scoring was simple: 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, 6-6, 7-7. I could have left the TV running, gotten some popcorn and returned to the same pattern. Nadal was only broken once -- one freakin' time! -- the entire match.
But the tennis, despite its predictability, was way too enthralling to step away from. Nearly every point was earned. Unforced errors were at a minimum. And, most appealing, was how clutch the players continued to be.
Finally -- and luckily for the fans in attendance -- Nadal was able to break Federer, and then the five-time champ gave him the match with a weak forehand into the net. But that's not what should be remembered. There were way too many other special moments in the match.
John McEnroe did the color commentary for NBC, and even the three-time Wimbledon winner remarked at one point, "How lucky are we (to be here)?" Afterward, McEnroe called it the greatest match he's ever seen. That, in itself, is impressive -- he's been around for quite awhile.
For me, the match was one of the best sports events I've ever watched. Even though I didn't have a rooting interest, I found myself sitting up intently, first cheering for Federer to come back, then simply hoping for a dramatic final set. My wishes were granted.
If I could rate my top five sports-watching moments, Sunday's match would be included -- and I didn't even see it live! It was one of those events that non-tennis fans could enjoy, could get caught up in.
And the players should be appreciated for their greatness. In this country, men's tennis -- unfortunately -- is often an afterthought. Without a male American star, the sport is often close to ignored. I can't even remember the last time a player was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Not even Federer, who could -- and probably still will -- end up with the most majors of all time. And sports radio would rather talk about the NFL in June than the French Open.
Anyone who isn't paying attention is missing out.
This is a special time for the sport because of the two guys who attacked each other all over the court Sunday. Federer and Nadal have met six times in grand slam finals, with Nadal now holding a 4-2 edge. While the Spaniard is dominant at Roland Garros, the two have to be considered dead even on grass.
We'll see how Nadal progresses on the hard courts used at the U.S. and Australian opens. He's never played in a final at either tournament, but he's young and getting better. And the determination he showed on Centre Court, I'm sure, will help him become a hard-court champion.
As for Federer, those who thought he was over the hill at the age of 26 are nuts. He might have narrowly lost at Wimbledon, but he was still clearly the second-best player in the field. And he's still ranked the No. 1 player in the world.
But, yes, he's not getting any better like Nadal.
Which is why the Federer-Nadal matchup should be appreciated for as long as it lasts. Taking either player for granted would be foolish -- these kind of athletes don't come around every year. And when they're playing on the same court, they push each other to levels of play they didn't even know possible.
Federer seemed far from a tiring veteran player against Nadal, passionately chasing down balls all over the court and pumping his fist in adulation after big points. Nadal continues to amaze with shots that your TV screen doesn't do justice. He's far from the one-dimensional clay player he was once seen as.
Both players elicited shouts from me, sitting on the couch, of "What??" and "Are you surrious?" as the match progressed. Signs of legendary play, I call them.
And then they showed why tennis is truly a gentleman's sport. After the last point, after Nadal hugged his family members and became the first Wimbledon champion to climb into the Royal box, the awards presentation featured both men holding trophies. Then both said how much they admired the other. Federer was clearly in pain, having come up just short of his most memorable grand-slam win yet, but that didn't stop him from applauding the new champion and the first player since Bjorn Borj to win the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back.
Finally, Nadal was the most humble title winner I've ever seen. As excited as he was, he didn't say anything to take away from the man standing nearby. Both players clearly respect each other, and that's a positive for the sport. They're as competitive as can be, but once the final point's been played, there's no bashfulness.
It's just another reason to love men's tennis right now.
History is being made, superb tennis is being played, and I'm just thankful that I'm witnessing it one tournament after another.