The thing about Breakfast at Wimbledon is that it's almost always over long before I'm even out of bed, let alone eating breakfast. On Sunday, though, thanks to some English rain, I was lucky enough to catch the last half of what many are already calling the greatest match in the history of tennis. Considering they've been playing tennis since Shakespearean times, that's a pretty hefty claim. Based on what I saw, though, I think I can go along with that.
When Rafael Nadal outlasted Roger Federer (and wasn't it just yesterday that Federer was the greatest player in the history of the game?), becoming the first player to win Wimbledon and the French Open in the same year since Bjorn Borg in 1980, he drew himself up alongside Federer.
The tennis experts I watched on Sunday night were all gushing about this rivalry, which, I gather, has been building for a few years. They told me that these two lions would likely fight it out in the Grand Slam events for years to come, energizing the game in the process. All of the experts agreed that this was what tennis needed. The fan base would build and somewhere the next Agassis, McEnroes, and Samprases were picking up rackets for the first time.
It sounds nice, but so do most fairy tales. This isn't to say that Sunday's match wasn't absolutely phenomenal. I would never describe myself as a tennis fan, but I couldn't get up from the couch. First, there was the sheer athleticism. It's been several years since we watched more than fifteen minutes or so of a tennis match, and I was stunned by quickness and strength of both competitors. Time after time one man would rifle a return to a remote area of the court, and I was certain the point was over. But time after time the other man would close the gap with ridiculous speed and retrieve a ball that appeared irretrievable.
And the drama! How could Nadal expect to compete with a man who hadn't lost in this arena since 2002? How could Federer expect to win after falling behind two sets to none? How could Nadal recover after letting that golden opportunity slip through his fingers in the fourth set tie-breaker? How could either man expect to continue competing after two separate rain delays? How could either man continue playing at such a high level as the sky darkened towards the end of the longest final match in Wimbledon history? There are no answers for any of these questions, save this: 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7.
All of which makes a pretty good case for the resurgence of tennis, except for one thing. Tennis is tennis. And tennis is soccer, and tennis is horse racing, and tennis is... well, you get the picture.
Dial your calendar back a few weeks and think back to all the hype surrounding Big Brown and the Belmont Stakes. Big Brown was just what the sport needed, they told us. A Triple Crown would save the sport. Big Brown had the charisma (the charisma!) to pull millions of fans back to the sport of kings. We know what happened, but just for a minute let's imagine that it had gone the way everyone expected. In fact, let's imagine the best case scenario. Not only does Big Brown win, but he annihilates the field, winning by, say, thirty lengths. And as he burns down the final stretch, racing towards immortality, a picture is taken. The picture captures jockey Kent Desormeaux peaking under his arm at the retreating field. The picture is an instant classic, drawing comparisons to Ron Turcotte aboard Secretariat thirty-five years earlier. In our imagination, the Belmont wasn't a race, it was a coronation. Got it?
Okay, if all that happened, would you be a horse racing fan? Of course not.
And what about soccer? For thirty years people have been telling us that soccer would one day be the biggest sport in America. The millions and millions of youngsters playing the sport in parks across the country would all grow up to be fans of the game they played as children, and they'd be rooting for the best players in the world. After all, how could this grassroots pipeline produce anything less than that? Sure, we know now that that was all just a fantasy, kind of like the metric system, flying cars, and jet packs (and by the way, where the hell is my jet pack, already?), but what if that weren't a fantasy?
This time let's push our time machine in the other direction. Imagine it's 2010 and a feisty U.S. squad has swept its way into the World Cup finals. Just to make it extra sexy, we'll say they beat Germany in the quarterfinals, Italy in the semis, and now they're facing Brazil for all the maracas. It's a tight game, tied at 0-0 as the two teams enter overtime. But we Americans don't care. It doesn't matter to us that there hasn't been a single goal because we've been raised on this game. We appreciate the defense, the passing, the nuance. It's not the boring game, after all, it's the beautiful game. Anyway, in the fourth minute of overtime, Landon Donovan leads a rush down the right side into Brazilian territory and rifles a crossing pass to a streaking Freddy Adu (these are the only two American soccer players I know, so they have to play the starring roles). Donovan's pass is much higher than is should be, and Adu is forced to use his athleticism -- thankfully, soccer players are the most athletic athletes on the planet -- to jump into the air and execute a perfect bicycle kick, kind of like Pelé in that soccer movie with Sylvester Stallone. Adu strikes the ball perfectly and rifles it into the back of the net for the Golden Goal. The United States has won the World Cup.
So if all that happened, would it change the course of history? Would Americans finally discover soccer? Doubtful.
And so it is with tennis. I loved Sunday's match, as much for the human drama as for the athletic competition, but I'm not itching for more tennis. If pressed, I don't think I could name more than five or six players on the men's side of the tour, and that's not a good sign. Right now there's Roger, Rafa, and refuse. If Nadal and Federer match up again in the U.S. Open finals, I can guarantee that I'll watch -- maybe even set the TiVo -- but I can also guarantee that I won't watch if someone else is involved.
So while the Wimbledon final might have seemed like a fairy tale, I still don't think the sport will live happily ever after.