Why Majors Matter… And Why Nadal Matters More

This distinction might not seem important to some, but it’s necessary for me to share it — not because it’s somehow right (it isn’t) or superior (no…) or enlightened (not at all), but simply because it frames my perspective and experience: I am a sports fan who loves tennis, not a tennis fan who might occasionally give a passing glance at another sport. I try to love and appreciate tennis for what it is, but I also love tennis because it offers so many of the best and richest moments that can be found as a sports fan.

Tennis, to use the familiar but apt phrase, is “boxing without the blood.” It is combat without concussions, ferocity without broken bones (or a competitive context that might encourage the smashing of another human body). Tennis is a supreme test of problem solving within the tumult of competition. It possesses golf’s feature of performing from a stationary position (in the act of serving), but it also requires shotmaking while on the move (every shot other than the serve). Tennis owns baseball’s quality in which a central performer (a pitcher) must initiate action, but it is also akin to baseball in that it requires a reactive dimension (the hitter trying to read the pitch and hit it back in the direction it came from). Tennis requires its practitioners to cultivate the basketball skill of moving quickly within a confined playing surface and making judgments within a short period of time. Tennis calls forth so many physical resources from the human person, yet within a context of nonviolent competition. The ability to resemble boxing yet draw no blood makes tennis one of the more complete and satisfying sports around. Appreciating other sports enhances what I see in (and enjoy about) tennis instead of detracting from it.

Tennis, like any other sport, calls forth greatness in so many ways from all sorts of personalities. Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl were great champions. So, too, were John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova were studies in contrasts. Margaret Court and Billie Jean King similarly took very different paths to the same lofty reaches of success. Saturday’s Roland Garros women’s finalists, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, have climbed mountaintops in the sport. Justine Henin and Victoria Azarenka have done so as well. You don’t have to possess one kind of mindset to reach the zenith of your tennis life, but any great champion has to find the combination of hunger and concentration that can withstand both the opponent without and the even more dangerous opponent within. There is a simple, distilled purity about competitive tennis that strips bare the participants and – by virtue of being untethered to any individuals other than the one standing on the other side of the net – creates the most satisfying resolutions to its seasonal dramas. Any tennis fan knows this.

What the 2013 Roland Garros tournament has affirmed for me, as a sports fan who loves tennis, is that the best-of-five-set format, coupled with the lack of a tiebreaker at 6-all in a fifth set, enables tennis to be all that it can be.

The very same format also enables Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic to be all that they can be. (Since this is a Roger Federer tennis blog as well as a general tennis blog, one can quietly add that it enabled Federer to be all that he could be as well.)

Sport in general becomes transformed — imbued with meaning, urgency and sweet, aching poignancy — precisely when something of great consequence is at stake. Championship events are so enjoyable to watch because they unmask pretenders. They expose the hopefuls who have little more than hope itself, a Roman appetite for victory but not the Spartan will needed to achieve it. Championship events — events that MATTER — call forth that combination of clarity and conviction, talent and hustle, passion and poise, which enables one athlete or team to rise above another, to forge a reptuation that is talked about and celebrated for weeks, months, years, lifetimes. This is the magic of sport as a generational unifier and a constant source of pleasure (and the pain attached to it) in a life that can be so dreary when other fields of endeavor are involved (politics, institutionalized religion, war, corporate scheming, etc.).

This notion of consequence in a sporting event — a competition which confers value, prestige, and stature upon its winner — is the reason why I watch. It might not be your reason, and it might not be the objectively correct reason, but it’s mine.

Consequence is, in short, the lifeblood of sports. It is the simplest way to explain why (again, this is personal opinion and not objective fact…) major-tournament tennis matters more than non-major-tournament tennis, even if the Masters 1000 events are organized and operated better than the Grand Slam quartet.

I can’t speak to the experience of a European or Australian (because I’m not a member of either group), but in the United States, team sports own a linear quality in which the months of a season march toward the playoffs and culminate in a final outcome decided by a championship playoff series (or a single game known as the Super Bowl). Most competition is dedicated to the purpose of making the playoffs, but the prized events are the playoff games themselves, the set-apart showdowns when reputations are changed and affirmed, when the publicly-acknowledged stakes make the winner’s survival of pressure that much more impressive, the loser’s shortcomings that much more acute. This might be an American view and not the view of one from another continent, but such is the tortured and stomach-churning glory of sport, the knowledge that a conquest was forged in the face of the knowledge that disaster was the ever-present and all-too-possible alternative. If the pain and (here’s that word again…) CONSEQUENCE of a loss were not that great to begin with, the spoils of victory must not amount to much.

Dear readers, as I cut to the chase, this is why best-of-five-set tennis is a true test of champions, a true revealer of the full measure of sporting excellence. This is why tennis, which is not really a team sport, needs these four major tournaments each year as the set-aside markers of elite performance and supreme achievement. This is why a 6-all tiebreaker in the final set (except for the U.S. Open; thank goodness U.S. Open finals haven’t needed fifth-set tiebreaks over the years…) is such an unworthy way to end a major-tournament match. The 2006 World Cup Final between Italy and France was decided by a roll of the dice, and the same thing applied to the 2012 European Championship semifinal between Spain and Portugal. The consequence of the moment was not matched by the random nature of the resolution to the competition itself.

In tennis, thank God, it’s different.

In tennis, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic fought so hard in the fifth set of Friday’s memorable semifinal precisely because they both knew that they had to score a clean victory — by two games, not seven points by two. It’s no idle coincidence that Nadal and Djokovic have now forged two five-set epics at majors (epic in their contentiousness and drama, not as much for the raw quality of play) precisely because both men knew that they would have to suffer in order to reach the finish line. It’s no idle coincidence that Nadal has now won two late-stage major-tournament matches with a 9-7 fifth-set scoreline; playing to his limits is what Toni Nadal (however much Federer fans might indeed hate him) has impressed upon the Mallorcan from the very start.

Djokovic, one of the most marvelous competitors tennis has ever seen, has asked more questions than anyone else who has ever played Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, a reality affirmed on Friday in Paris. (Robin Soderling didn’t ask MORE questions than Djokovic; he kept his interview of Nadal fairly short in 2009.) We would not have seen such a lengthy and dramatic interrogation if the stakes hadn’t been so high. We wouldn’t have seen Nadal patiently answer Djokovic’s questions if the Spaniard’s clay-court legacy didn’t matter all that much. We were able to see — in a way we hadn’t quite seen before on clay (in other venues, yes, but not on Court Philippe Chatrier) — the extent to which Djokovic and Nadal are the two most unkillable players in men’s tennis at the present moment. We were then able to see — at 4-all in the fifth set — the extent to which Nadal can protect his fortress, his citadel, his refuge at Roland Garros, the 58-and-1 castle that will likely become 59-and-1 on Sunday against first-time major finalist David Ferrer.

Even before the fifth set played out on Friday, it’s worth noting that Djokovic plainly faltered in sets one and three. Why was he so out of sorts? One can raise all sorts of reasons with varying levels of legitimacy. Your mileage may vary, of course, but the one unshakable constant is that at Roland Garros, one must win three sets from Nadal, not the two found in a Masters 1000 event, in order to walk off the court a winner. You can argue at the margins and pick at the periphery of today’s match, but in the end, the awareness of needing to win three sets against Nadal impressed upon Djokovic’s mind the daunting nature of the task at hand. The Serbian star, as valiantly as he indeed fought on Friday, still couldn’t close the sale, even with his two-handed backhand and all the matchup advantages he reaffirmed in his win in Monte Carlo this past April.

Djokovic can have Monte Carlo, just has he had Madrid and Rome in 2011.

Nadal, though, will still take Paris. Nole still hasn’t been able to wrest the City of Light from the Mallorcan’s hands.

Each of the past three years, a very different clay-court season has transpired, forming a distinct subtext to Roland Garros. In 2011, Djokovic entered Paris as an untouchable man, having knocked Nadal off the clay-court pedestal.

He couldn’t take Paris.

In 2012, Nadal won in Monte Carlo and Rome while Djokovic plainly struggled.

Nole couldn’t take Paris.

In 2013, Djokovic won a head-to-head matchup yet again, and even though Nadal won in Madrid and Rome, Serbia’s finest tennis player — in a way that was not quite as prominent in 2011 — made it plain that Roland Garros was his focus, his goal, his prize to win.

Djokovic still couldn’t take Paris.

Three years have given us three intrigue-rich buildups to Roland Garros, three crescendos to the clay-court season filled with whispers that “this might be the time Nadal finally goes down in Paris.” Plenty of people in the tennis community gave Djokovic a strong chance in each of these years.

Three times, Nadal has protected The Citadel, the enduring bastion of his greatness, the surface on which his tennis achievements rest.

If today’s semifinal had been a best-of-three-set match, if the tournament had been something less than the one clay-court major championship on Planet Earth, we wouldn’t have seen what we saw. We wouldn’t have been moved to the extent that we were (well, some of us, anyway; I know that many Fed fans were bored with it all — hey, mileage may vary). We wouldn’t have seen two men stripped naked, forced to perform in the face of physical limits and withering pressure.

Masters 1000 tournaments — God bless them — are necessary and significant revealers of skill and quality within the realm of tennis. What you saw on Friday in Paris, though, was the ultimate test of a champion, the kind of showcase that leaves an enduring imprint on mind, heart and soul. Masters tournaments create warm memories; what you saw on Friday steps into the pages of time as a reminder of what is possible when human beings play sports.

It is to Rafael Nadal’s unending credit that once again, he has prevailed on one of tennis’s biggest stages. Nadal has answered every last question in one of the events that confers added immortality upon its surviving gladiator, the last man standing in the arena.

The notion of a “major” championship implies that other tournaments are “minor” by comparison. The words are appropriately used, tennis fans. Somehow, everything that is consequential about the clay-court season — everything that matters with respect to the historical legacies of two legendary tennis players — rests on what happened Friday in Paris.

April in Monte Carlo? That’s a minor detail at this point, wouldn’t you say?


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About Matt Zemek

Sportswriter, political writer, tennis commentator... and more.

5 responses to “Why Majors Matter… And Why Nadal Matters More”

  1. Marco Iacoboni says :

    yeah, monte carlo definitely minor detail. nole almost had him though. but it’s that ‘almost’ that makes the difference with rafa. same for fed: he almost had him in rome 2006 (best of five), he almost had him in wimbly 2008. almost. somehow rafa manages to end on top in these epic struggles. only exception i can remember is AUSO final with djokovic. that’s it. he just refuses to lose, rafa boy

    i think they should go back to best of five for 1000 finals. i believe they switched to best of three because of the fedal rome final. both guys withdrew from another master the following week. their body couldn’t recover in time. rafa though, will be ready for ferru on sunday. what an anticlimactic final.

  2. athena1949 says :

    Excellent argument and appreciation of the nature of sport and its contribution to civilized life, as well as a thoughtful, perceptive exposition of the singular dynamo at the heart of tennis that is Rafael Nadal.

  3. shelley says :

    Excellent article and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Your analysis of the game of tennis itself was interesting but as a fan of Rafa, your thoughts about him were spot on. The emphasis that the Djokovic contingent put on his Monte Carlo win has bugged me all clay season – Rafa wasn’t at his best and they conveniently ignored Rafa’s three wins over Novak just a year ago because it didn’t fit their narrative of Djokovic being superior, and Rafa certainly proved he was the champ in all the other clay tournaments, so today’s win was especially sweet albeit very (very very very) nervewracking.

  4. RS says :

    WOW. Amazing article. Everyone against five setters and no final set tiebreaks needs to read this. Matt is better than most professional tennis writers I read.

  5. Katarina_YYZ says :

    Djokovic has beaten Nadal in 5 sets, in Australia in 2012, in a match that was longer and more grueling than this one, so unless you are saying that Roland Garros is a more important slam than AO, I don’t really see your point. He also beat him in 4 sets in Wimbledon and US Open; would he have been a greater player if he had lost one more set, so he could get those wins in 5?

    Nadal and Djokovic’s ability to make this sport into something resembling “bloodless boxing” is nothing to celebrate, by the way. Tennis would still be awesome — still be an amazing and unique one-to-one battle requiring athleticism, tactics, skill, independence and inner strength — without it being turned into a boring war of attrition.

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