Setting the stage for the greatest tennis match ever played

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(Jon Wertheim uses the 2008 Wimbledon final to reflect on a seminal sporting event, two exceptional athletes and the state of the sport. The following excerpt takes the reader up to the start of the match.)


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 Lily Pulitzer dresses the color of jelly beans; the men with their Oxbridge good looks and Paul Smith shirts. (It was, by all appearances, a big year for vertical stripes.) But -- more proof that Wimbledon has evolved from a garden party of the British landed gentry to an international sporting event --walking the concourse, one also sees turbans and yarmulkes, and hears many tongues other than English. Inasmuch as crowd shots tend to look like pointillist paintings, Wimbledon's canvass is unmistakably multicolored.

John McEnroe settled into the small glassed NBC broadcast booth -- a terrarium directly behind the court, just a few feet up from the grass surface --where he'd spend the rest of the afternoon and, as it would turn out, evening. Wearing a magnificent gray suit to match his magnificent gray mane of hair, Bjorn Borg sat in the front row of the Royal Box behind the baseline, amid various dignitaries. Present, too, were other members of tennis' Mount Rushmore. Looking like a human trophy with his lacquered gold hair, Boris Becker represented both Eurosport network and German television, while Martina Navratilova worked for the American network, Tennis Channel. Billie Jean King strolled regally on the grounds, as did Manuel Santana, the last Spanish male to win Wimbledon, in 1966. (This was decidedly another era: on the day of the 1966 final against Dennis Ralston, Santana rode to the All England club on the London Underground.) Rumor had it, false, it turned out, that newlywed Chris Evert and her husband, the Australian golfer Greg Norman, would stop by on their honeymoon. Say this about Mother Tennis: she takes care of her own. Old tennis soldiers don't fade away; they come back with special access credentials.

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 13-year-old Macaulay Culkin look-alike from Gloucester who suffers from a 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 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 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.

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