Book Excerpts That Don't Suck: Strokes of Genius

Illustration for article titled Book Excerpts That Don't Suck: Strokes of Genius

Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim uses the 2008 Wimbledon final to reflect on Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and their rivalry, begetting "the greatest tennis match every played," the 2008 Wimbledon Final. Buy it here, if you're feeling frisky.

Illustration for article titled Book Excerpts That Don't Suck: Strokes of Genius

Swinging his arms wildly and taking practice strokes in the locker room just a few feet from Roger Federer's head, Rafael Nadal cut the classic figure of a warrior preparing for battle. He had just taken a cold shower and now, with his sympathetic nervous system kicking into high gear, Nadal was in fight-or-flight mode. His heart-rate jackhammering, stress hormones coursing through his body, his pupils enlarged, he stretched and paced and pissed, making sure his urine was clear and odorless, an indication that his body was properly hydrated. Even when he tried to conserve some energy, he fiddled with the tight bands of tape below his knees, worn to prevent the patellar tendonitis that has bothered him in the past. As if afflicted with low-grade OCD, he riffled through his swollen racket bag again and again. Another "ritual," he lowered and elevated his socks until they were precisely the same height. Sitting nearby, Nadal's Uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, offered motivation in intense staccato bursts. "There is no such word as ‘cannot.'"… "Do what you have to do."…. "Obligations are obligations."

At around 2:15 p.m., half an hour after their initial estimated departure time, Federer and Nadal were advised that the sky, though still inky, had stopped spitting raindrops and the "tarp tent" protecting Centre Court from the moisture, was being deflated and disassembled. Federer and Nadal walked out of the locker room, wended down a long, carpeted hallway and slowly descended a set of stairs leading to the court. With Nadal walking ten feet ahead, they both passed a photograph of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe's Wimbledon final in 1980, the match against which all other tennis clashes are judged.

Here again, the Federer-Nadal differences were italicized and in boldfaced. Having outgrown the cream, gild-trimmed Great Gatsby blazer he'd worn without irony (and, miraculously, pulled off without mockery) in past years, Federer was now clad in a cream, gold-trimmed cardigan straight out of Brideshead Revisited-conservative attire that represented a sense of respect and history. The sweater, made by Nike, retailed at the Wimbledon gift shop for the larcenous price of £260, and only 230 had been produced, an inventory made to correspond with the 230 consecutive weeks Federer had spent ranked No.1.

Nadal, who would sooner wear a grass skirt than a $500 cardigan sweater, donned a white warm-up. Federer wore classic tennis shorts cinched with a belt; Nadal wore his customary clamdiggers that sagged below his knees, no belt required. Federer's ration of hair was carefully styled, while Nadal's simply draped down his olive-skinned neck. They both wore Nike headbands and white Nike socks that poked out of white Nike shoes.

Just before walking on the court, they endured a pre-match interview, an excruciating drill that requires players to offer a sound-bite or two on a match yet to be played. The "host networks" have negotiated this access as a condition of their hefty t.v. rights fee, and the players, lacking as they are in a real union, are forced to abide it. Still in their mental spaces, the players clearly resent this intrusion and usually offer a banquet of clichés. It should be a good match. Winning the first set will be key. I need to serve well. I'm going to try my best and we'll see what happens.

Yet even these hollow phrases can be pregnant with meaning. When Federer stood before the interviewer, he remarked, "I feel good [but] it might be a tough day with the rain and everything and a tough opponent so it should be interesting," betraying what sports shrinks call "negative mental hygiene." When Nadal was asked a similar question about the rain delay and the inauspicious forecast, he rocked his head from side to side and shrugged, his default gesture. In his thick accent, he said softly, "The rain is for both [of us] so no problems. I just accept the weather conditions and I just play."
A veteran of the finals choreography, Federer went directly to the net for the ceremonial coin flip, where a local child, often one with a chronic illness, is summoned to play a small role in the match, helping to determine which player serves first. In this case, Blair Manns, a thirteen-year-old Macaulay Culkin look-alike from Gloucester, who suffers from pulmonary disease had the honors. He represented the British Lung Foundation. In addition to scoring an autographed poster of the finalists he and his folks also received choice tickets for the match. Now Blair and Federer stood at the net. "Are you going to enjoy the match today?" Federer asked amiably. The kid nodded, too nervous to keep the conversation going.

The two were joined by Pascal Maria, the chair umpire for the match, and by the tournament referee, Andrew Jarrett. The quartet waited…and waited…and waited. Nadal sat at his chair, sipping Evian, chewing on an energy bar, folding his sweats and then indulging his longtime ritual of sipping from each of two bottles of water, one colder than the other, and then fastidiously arranging the bottles just so with the labels pointed outward toward the side of the court he'll next assume. (And to think: Federer is usually cast as the anal one.) Impatience transparent on his face, Federer rocked back and forth and took a few practice swings near the net. Surely this affronted his sense of Swiss punctuality. The match had already been postponed by rain and the forecast was grim; why was Nadal taking his sweet time? Nadal seemed not to share the same sense of occasion; and clearly this was part of Federer's annoyance. According to a member of the Nadal entourage, in the players' box Federer's girlfriend, Mirka Vavrinec, watched the Spaniard's dallying and muttered, "Oh, come on."

After a full minute of self-indulgence, Nadal trotted to the net. Having shed his warm-ups, he wore a sleeveless white tank top. It was made of "wicking" microfibers that served the dual function of displacing his copious sweat and accentuating his propane tanks for biceps. Perhaps flustered by the delay, young Blair Manns tossed the coin without asking either player to call it in midair. Jarrett intercepted the coin. Nervous smiles all around, Blair flipped it again. This time Federer correctly predicted "heads," entitling him to serve first. But really it was beside the point. They had yet to strike the first ball and already, intentionally or not, Nadal had struck a psychological blow.

Federer and Nadal then stood together for a ceremonial photo and, like fighters touching gloves before a bout, tapped rackets. As Federer demurely walked away to begin the five-minute warm-up, Nadal turned and bolted from the net to the baseline in the manner of a giddy young bull. Running low to the ground, he performed a quick split step and then jogged along the baseline. Though Nadal dismisses this as still another ritual, it functions as still one more psychological salvo. Message: pack a lunch hombre, because I'm going to be coming for you all day.

Even in his warm-up, Federer is the picture of seamless efficiency. There's virtually no wasted movement. Like all great athletes, he has a natural mind-body connection. Whatever his brain imagines, his body executes. Clearly eager to start the match, Federer glanced several times at the courtside clock. He hit a few of his practice serves while standing inside the baseline. On the other end of the court, Nadal was all exertion. He thrust and pounded and unfurled his left-handed sidewinding strokes, punctuating his shots-his practice shots-with a fwwwwuuumph. Already his white tank top was irrigated with sweat.

It was 14:35 GMT when the warm-up ended and Pascal Maria, the high priest in the umpire's chair, intoned, "Ready. Play."

And did they ever.

Strokes Of Genius

TOP Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images