Setting the stage for the greatest tennis match ever played
For all the small, quaint rituals that make professional tennis at once so thoroughly endearing and so thoroughly easy to mock -- the church-like quiet of the crowd, the outmoded terminology, the players' insincere apologies after hitting winning shots off the frame of the racket -- here's a personal favorite: The players carry their own rackets and bags onto the court. Tennis' top stars rate among the most recognized athletes on the planet, wealthy to the point of abstraction, flush with entourages and Gulfstreams at the ready. But when they go to work, they lug their own crap, looking less like celebrities than itinerant backpackers in search of the Budapest youth hostel. The underlying symbolism is unmistakable: the minute your feet -- shod as they may be in Nikes you're paid millions to endorse -- hit the ground, you're on your own. In tennis, self-sufficiency is everything.
Yet in the final of Wimbledon, this rite is suspended. After six rounds of schlepping their own racket bags, the last two players in the Wimbledon draw are accorded a concierge service. Though he admitted to feeling "empty and awkward," Federer surrendered his possessions to a court attendant and walked out unencumbered. Nadal did not. Tradition be damned, it was going to make him feel bereft, as if he were going into a duel without his .38. He gave up his bag but insisted on keeping one of his rackets in his left hand. No disrespect, he would later contend. He was a creature of habit and didn't want to be displaced from "my ritual, my very important ritual."
Word had spread throughout the complex that the rain delay was over and the match would begin. The capacity crowd of 15,000 filed into Centre Court of Wimbledon, a venue inevitably, but accurately, described as a "tennis cathedral." Most of the crowd wore its Sunday Best. The women with their inventory of
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,
The two were joined by
After a full minute of self-indulgence, Nadal trotted to the net. Having molted 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 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 an onomatopoeic
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.