If you were watching the Madrid final on Tennis Channel, you probably couldn't believe your eyes. At 5-6 in the second-set tiebreaker, Federer hit a first serve to the backhand of Nadal, who managed a slightly shanked return that took a high, apparently odd bounce. Federer, aggressively moving in to take the ball on the rise, unleashed a mighty swing and missed. Match over.
Nadal, delighted but somewhat baffled, grabbed his head as if to say, "That didn't really happen." Thousands of viewers felt the same way, but a full minute went by before the TC announcers, Robbie Koenig and Jason Goodall, even mentioned it -- and even then, they sort of shrugged it off. Bad luck, and all that. In keeping with the Utterly Clueless mode, the telecast director allowed a replay of Nadal's reaction, but nothing of Federer's gaffe. And the crucial, close-up replay never came, even though TC remained on the air for several minutes to air the postmatch ceremony.
The incompetence became contagious. In a long Associated Press account that appeared on SI.com and spread throughout the world, this incomprehensible episode was not addressed until the 16th paragraph -- and inaccurately, by the way. The story characterized Federer as "mis-hitting" the forehand, when in fact he swung right through it.
A bit of clarity surfaced on Monday, but only in terms of Federer's comments. Apparently unbothered by it all, he said Nadal "maybe got one break too many," and added, "I decided to take a chance and it didn't pay off this time. I've had more beautiful match points, that's for sure. The surface was better than last year, and the bad bounces ironed out between us."
A couple of Web sites brought forth the proper astonishment, but the accompanying YouTube clips show only the original, live shot that was seen by everyone; no closeup replays. So it remains something of a mystery. "I've watched that Federer whiff seven times," Inside Tennis ace Matt Cronin wrote on his Twitter account, "and I'm still not sure it was a bad bounce."
One of my tennis-mad friends called me shortly after the match and said, "I can't believe the gamblers got to Federer. The fix is in!" He was joking, of course. Being ridiculous. But no more ridiculous than media on the scene.
Coverage aside, the plain facts about Federer are not so flattering just now. He has a 7-14 lifetime record against Nadal, and although Rafa's clay-court wizardry is an overriding factor, that's still a .333 batting average. Equally disturbing to Federer, one would think, is that he simply isn't playing solid tennis in the clutch. He lost at Indian Wells (to Marcos Baghdatis) and Key Biscayne (Tomas Berdych) despite holding match points against both. He let a Rome match slip away against Ernests Gulbis, who admitted he was so nervous in blowing four match points of his own, "I was [expletive] my pants. Sorry for the language, but that's the only way I can describe how I felt. I was shaking." Then there was Sunday's tiebreaker, in which Federer turned a 4-2 lead into disaster with four consecutive unforced errors.
All of which lends a bit of intrigue to the upcoming French Open, where the sport could really use a Federer-Nadal rematch. Federer breezily points out that he's still No. 1 and the defending champion at Roland Garros, and in an interview last week with the Spanish newspaper El Pais, he said, "Look, no matter what people say, I never thought my problem was clay. My problem was Rafa. The guy is unbelievable. There are some people who don't want to believe it, but that's the truth, unfortunately for a whole great generation of clay courters."
Checking in on other fronts:
• I was in the stands at the Oakland Coliseum Arena in 1994, when a 14-year-old Venus Williams made her professional debut with a first-round victory over Shaun Stafford. I still remember her busting out a full-on chicken strut as she headed to her chair, after a thrilling point, and I especially recall talking to her dad, Richard, with Bud Collins and several other journalists from around the country.
Richard told us, in no uncertain terms, that Venus' younger sister, Serena, would be the one to watch. We sort of rolled our eyes -- Venus' compelling story was quite enough -- but behold the astounding truth in May of 2010: Venus, who turns 30 next month, is No. 2 in the world. The 28-year-old Serena is No. 1.
It's the first time since 2003 the sisters have gained that distinction, and it speaks mightily to their talent and perseverance. It hardly bodes well, though, for tennis. Unless you believe in the magic of 37th-ranked Melanie Oudin -- and few do, at this point -- there are no other American women with even a remote chance of winning a major title. (Vania King, at No. 75, and 92nd-ranked Jill Craybas are the only other U.S. players in the Top 100.)
It seems inconceivable that the Williams sisters, given their wide-ranging lifestyles and sporadic commitment, rank 1-2 in the world. Nothing says they can't combine to win the next four majors -- but that's not the point. Where's that traditional elite player, the Martina Navratilova or Steffi Graf, who shows up every week and presents a relentless, dominant challenge? The talent is there -- Serena, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, Maria Sharapova -- but somebody's always hurt, or inconsistent, or struggling to regain form.
It's a tour without a clear identity, and this has to be a reason why Europe shrugs in indifference. Crowds were shockingly thin for most women's matches in the recent clay-court events. Jelena Jankovic took the court in Rome for a quarterfinal against Venus, and the atmosphere resembled a match for seventh place in a Division III collegiate tournament. Venus and Aravene Rezai began their Madrid final in a near-empty arena, filling up (to a degree) only as the match approached the one-hour mark.
Tennis needs stars, people to count on, which is why a packed house was buzzing well before Federer and Nadal even took the court. If someone is going to step up on the women's tour, she has yet to identify herself.
• Good news on the television front: Ted Robinson and John McEnroe, the best two-man broadcasting combination in the business, have signed a long-term deal to work the French Open for Tennis Channel, along with their customary work on NBC. They no longer work together at the U.S. Open, where they crafted a sterling reputation on the USA Network before ESPN seized the rights, but Robinson has signed up with TC for Flushing Meadow, as well.
As for TC's setup in Madrid: The men's tour has an international network for the nine Masters events and year-end championships, complete with announcers on the scene. The WTA has no such deal, which explains why Katrina Adams and Brian Webber called all of the Madrid women's matches from a studio in Los Angeles. (Is it just me, or does Webber eternally sound like he's battling a head cold?)
• Parting shot: Perhaps it wasn't the coolest thing to do, and it must be noted that there's bad blood between the two, but I was glad to see Jankovic bitterly mimic Ana Ivanovic's fist-pump after their match in Madrid. The subtle fist-pump has become a pathetic, out-of-control gesture on both tours, with players congratulating themselves after every episode that goes their way. Maria Sharapova crafted it into an art form, but there are countless other violators -- even Andy Roddick, who really should know better.
What a shameless display of insecurity. What, you have to reassure yourself after every damn point? Celebratory gestures should be rare and well-chosen, like Nadal's crowd-pleasing leaps when he cracks an especially brilliant winner. Otherwise, you're just a joke out there, especially when you're celebrating someone else's misfortune.
"Did you see how her routine forehand sailed six feet long? Wow, am I good."