A Nadal vs. Federer final. It’s been a year since we’ve had one, but from the minute the two entered the Caja Magica on Sunday, the plot was immediately familiar: the excitement rippling through the crowd, the sidelong glances across the umpire’s chair, the mind games, the Twitter trash talk. And that was all before the coin toss!
The greatest rivalry in sports doesn’t always supply the most beautiful tennis. It almost always serves up multiple break points, however – 22 combined break chances today – representative of the nervy play exhibited by both guys. I think that’s what makes this rivalry so special: It over-excites Roger and Rafa as much as the rest of us. Every stroke tells a story, every point is ripe with meaning. Roger hits a backhand winner, it’s a triumph over Rafa’s tried and true strategy. Rafa rushes the net – he’s thinking ahead to the Wimbledon final!
The Cliffs Notes plot summary of today: break, break back, almost break, shank, overhit, crazy good point, Rafa hits thirty balls in a row to Roger’s backhand, Roger drop shots off Rafa’s serve but fails to convert a pile of break points. Second set tie breaker. Rafa overcomes a late-match freak out. Roger doesn’t. (Really, was that a whiff?) Game, set, match Nadal.
Yes, it’s the same old story. You know, like star crossed lovers, wicked step mothers and ill-advised trips to deserted vacation cabins. Predictable? Maybe. Boring? Never. And with the French Open beginning in a week, today’s match was just the first act.
Rafa’s dominated the plot this Spring. The title in Madrid makes a record three-straight Masters titles and an astonishing 18 total Masters shields. Most people are expecting him to snatch the Coupe des Mousquetaires from Roger’s lovely hands in a few weeks time. But the way tennis has treated us lately, an “unexpected” plot twist is almost as predictable as a Federer vs. Nadal final once was. Or is unexpected becoming so expected that now the expected is unexpected? Or should I say that the expected is expected? (Excuse me while I flip ahead a few chapters and skim for “Ernie Gulbis.”)
But back to today’s match. Federer had 9 aces and 0 double faults. Rafa had 2 and 2. Roger had a +1 winners to errors differential with 34 winners to 33 errors. Rafa was a wash again at 27/27. Both won about half their net approaches, with Roger coming in twice as often as Rafa (and way too often on questionable approaches). Most important were those break point chances: both had 11 opportunities to break. Roger converted 3 of his 11. Rafa nabbed 4. To take it back to the origin of all well-worn plots: “A breakpoint! A breakpoint! My kingdom for a breakpoint!” That flubbed drop shot attempt in the second set tiebreak didn’t help, either, King Rog.
It seems that the overall feeling is that Roger employed some good strategy and had his chances, but a nervy Rafa was still better on the big points. True, but I’d argue Roger didn’t play his best, either. So. . .let’s just sit tight and see who’s still around in three Sundays’ time. It’s no fun unless there’s some suspense, right?
The fortune in my fortune cookie really did say today: “Nothing in life is certain but uncertainty.” Ooooh. . .deep.
What’s certain to you?