Monday, June 8, 2009

Monday: Promises Unkept

So, at some point in my excitement on Friday, I vowed to live-blog the entire French Open men's championship if Federer advanced. He did, but as you'll soon see, I am occasionally not as good as my word.

If I tell you that the final started at 9am on a Sunday morning, you can probably guess which factors hindered my success. However, I did set my alarm, and I did watch the match in its entirety. The blog, on the other hand, didn't pan out. After stumbling to my desk, reeling with my hand on my stomach, and staring for what may have been two minutes or three hours at the condo across the street, I untangled my computer and brought it to the couch. I turned on NBC just in time for the first serve, and here now, in all its glory, is the sum total of my live blogging efforts:

9:13: Sweet God I am hung over. Welcome to the live blog of the French Open Men’s tennis final. John McEnroe is on scene. Still trying to figure out who else.

9:13: Amazing first point. These guys aren’t out here to screw around.

And that's it.

Great effort, right? Anyway, my apologies for that, and for what will be a trifling post today. Sunday was actually a pretty spectacular day in sports, featuring three of our greatest athletes at peak performance.

Federer was so dominant in the final that really, the lack of a blog isn't a huge tragedy. With the full support of everyone in Paris, he took an easy three-set win, facing only a handful of break points along the way. Soderling, the last obstacle, was not up to the moment in a physical or mental sense, though he acquitted himself fairly well in the behavior department. It was nice to see Federer evince the class in a player who's been called 'eccentric,' at best, and 'asshole,' at worst.

Maybe the overwhelming emotions the Swede experienced on Sunday triggered something dormant in his brain, a sense of decency, or at least the realization that while arrogance and extreme self-belief can propel a talented person to certain heights, greatness requires a humility that transcends petty considerations. He showed some of that nascent humility on the red clay, and if it marks the first step on a journey that ends in a grand slam, all the better.

But the day belonged to Roger, and now he's the best of all time. To achieve that status- along with the career slam- in the tournament that became his white whale is especially meaningful. You could feel the catharsis made visible in his passion and tears near the end, and the day became another demonstration of why it's so easy to like and respect the man; his desire is more than we could possibly imagine. I don't know that I've ever seen an athlete care about his sport more than Federer, and that rarity is probably a good thing. I'm not sure it's totally healthy. But it is something special to see, and now he can enter the latter stages of his career encased in the serene knowledge of his own immortality.

Which brings me to Nadal, who was forced to withdraw from the Queens tournament, a warm-up for Wimbledon, due to knee trouble. He's been dealing with tendonitis for two years now, but this is something new. Sadly, his style of play is conducive to these kind of injuries. There's a real possibility that he won't be ready for Wimbledon, and a slight but persistent chance that we've already seen his best years. I really, really hope that's not the case, but it's not unprecedented in tennis.

He could still become the greatest of all time, the one man with an immediate shot to eclipse Federer, but he could also be in the first stage of a fading process. In the latter case, how would we define his legacy? As someone who got the best of his chief rival, wreaked havoc on the tour for a memorable two-year period, cemented his status as the best clay court player ever, but couldn't muster the longevity to join the Gods of the sport? As a pronounced, whirling caesura in Federer's epic poem? Here's hoping an answer of that variety is unnecessary.

It seemed very fitting that on the day Federer etched his name above all others, Tiger Woods recovered his pre-surgery form and served warning of his restoration to the greater golfing world. With a final-round 65, he surged from four shots back and won the Memorial Tournament over Jim Furyk and several others. I only saw the very end, when Tiger closed with birdie-birdie to win by a stroke. The contrast between he and Federer, at their best, is marked. While Roger seems to retreat within himself, rarely showing any outburst of emotion, seeking those abounding reserves of inner strength, Tiger is pure anger, eyes glinting, an aura of intimidation emanating in an ever-increasing halo.

Opponents challenging Federer experience frustration, the futility of facing a hidden force, gentle but no less inexorable, that will counteract even their best efforts. Tiger's opponents feel fear. The long history of his playing partner wilting in pressure situations is no coincidence; there's a pitiless voltage that aggressively seeks out human weakness. It's also no coincidence that his caddy, Steve Williams, is known as an abrasive, no-nonsense personality. In a gentleman's sport, Tiger cultivates a warlike persona, letting the combative elements amass and smolder on the perimeter of the game's decorum, vibrating and finally bursting in the climactic, fist-pump moment. Is there any doubt he'll win another major this summer?

And then Kobe, owning his different kind of limited greatness, led the Lakers to an almost-insurmountable 2-0 margin. Like Federer in the days leading up to the final, he's on the verge of a transformative victory. He won't become the undisputed greatest, but it will put him at least on the periphery of the discussion. And a title in a Shaq-less world tells us all we need to know about his growth, delayed but not deterred- another legend on the brink.

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