SPORTSDOC- Sickening: Nadal pulls off the unthinkable
I am nauseated. It's the second tiebreaker of the Wimbledon final, and I'm so sick to my stomach I can't breathe. For the first time in their Wimbledon history, Rafael Nadal is dominating Roger Federer, and my stomach is rolling as if I'd eaten tainted salmon.
Few sporting events affect me this way. Cubs' games often make me nauseated, but rarely to this extent. The Cubs live to lose another game. This is another story. Championship point. Eight– all in the tiebreaker. By the skin of his teeth, Federer pulls it out of the fire, tying the match at two sets all. I can't remember the last time I felt so sick.
It's not because I love Roger Federer, though I do. It's not because Rafael Nadal irritates me, though he does. They've lost and won against other players in other venues, and I've borne it. But
together they are the greatest rivalry in sports. (Why else would ESPN Classic rerun the match an hour after it finished?)
There are people who say the Cowboys and Redskins are sports' greatest rivals. Others cite the Yankees and the Red Sox. I can't agree. No team can produce sports' greatest rivals. Long-standing and intense rivalries perhaps, but nothing compared to one athlete versus another.
Teams live on long after players retire. The Yankees were still the Yankees after Ruth, and T. O. is but a blip in Cowboy history. In team sports, many shoulders bear a single burden. As quickly as one player disappoints, another provides redemption.
In tennis there's no closer to clean up the mess, no draft pick to provide relief. A tennis player wins or loses alone and when it's over, leaves no dynasty.
Sports' greatest rivals are battling on new ground. Somehow, after losing the first two sets to Nadal, Federer forced the match to five sets. On any other court, against any other player, my stomach may not be churning, but this is Wimbledon. This is grass. Against Nadal. This isn't supposed to be happening.
Nadal, the supercharged Spaniard, is imminently (and eminently) suitable for the slow clay of Roland Garros. It's no big deal if he defeats Federer there because Federer owns the grass. It's so rare to dominate on both surfaces that no man has won the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back since Bjorn Borg in 1980.
Big deal, some might think. Tennis is snotty and boring. The only good thing about it is Maria Sharapova in a short skirt. Why else watch a ball get hit back and forth? Give me a sport with some action, like NASCAR (a friend told me).
It's senseless to argue with someone for whom racing around an oval for half a day is the pinnacle of excitement.
I have faith, however, that other sports fans will understand the poignancy.
Imagine Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in a game of one-on-one, a biannual event, played once on parquet and once on asphalt. Imagine that for years, Bird always won on parquet while Johnson won on asphalt.
Can you picture it?
Imagine that after years of losing, Magic is up 12 points in a 21-game on parquet. Would your heart not be in your throat? Point by point, as Bird tied and then lost the game, wouldn't your stomach churn?
It's just two men and a ball, but how sick would you be watching the unthinkable play out before your eyes?
Ali-Frazier, Navratilova-Evert, Federer-Nadal: it's rare for one athlete to be inextricably linked with another. It only happens when two people are their sport, when they rise so far above the fray they have only each other.
After five straight Wimbledon titles, Federer fell to Nadal on Sunday. I was nauseated with Federer's fear. I saw it in his face, felt it in his weak returns. Is this it?
I doubt it. Rivalries are built as much on defeat as on triumph. The mantle must pass back and forth for a rivalry to survive, even in NASCAR.
But the greatest rivalry in sports– well, it's enough to make you sick.